Let’s Talk about Anxiety and Depression in the Pastorate

The news of a California pastor’s suicide sent shockwaves through the internet this week and rightly so. That news should stop each of us engaged in pastoral responsibilities in our tracks and drive us to our knees on behalf of his family and his church. Every day this week my Facebook feed has been filled with articles about his story and other posts about depression and learning to pastor through it. All this means that the rampant struggles of depression and anxiety are not restricted to any one person, but have become more and more of a common experience.

In that case, it seems right to stop for a moment and offer a few suggestions for any among us who may be attempting to pastor through anxiety and depression.

Get Honest

You’ve felt it. I know you have. You’ve experienced shame even asking the questions. “Am I depressed?” “Could I have anxiety?” The answer may very-well be in the affirmative and that’s okay. Too often, those of us who break open the Bread of Life on Sunday believe ourselves to be in less need of its nourishment somehow. We believe ourselves to be above the struggle and pain that every person in this fallen world experiences. Or, at the very least, we believe that we should be.

The first step to dealing with anxiety and depression is simply an acknowledgment of its presence in your life. We have to be honest with ourselves and we have to be honest with God. And every single one of us, if asked by a member of our church, would offer her hope in the knowledge that God is not surprised or offended by her struggles. God is not ashamed of his children mired in depression or anxiety. He is good and loving and gracious and offers us hope and healing. But we must first be honest with our need and we must be honest with our struggles. We must be willing to acknowledge our pain and take it to him in prayer.

Get Outside and Offline

Now this point is more anecdotal, but indulge me if you will. The present generation is wrestling with a lack of contentment and a lack of happiness despite innumerable advances in medicine and technology. No generation has ever been as connected or medicated as our own. And yet, the statistics reveal an increasing unhappiness. We are depressed. We lack contentment with our lives.

And I wonder how much of this can be attributed to our use of Instagram and Facebook. Now, before you write me off as a simple Luddite, I have profiles on both of these platforms. But, in doing so, I can absolutely see and recognize the temptation to compare my day with their day. Their day is picture-perfect, framed in just the right light, and presented in all its glory on my feed. My day is messy, hectic, and scrambled. And I have to force everything into just the right package to snap a quick selfie to look like I have it all pulled together.

I think the official word for most of what we see online is hooey.

Perhaps, then, one of the most important things we can do when things begin to turn sour is to reject the temptation to seek escape by scrolling through the perfect pictures in our feeds and to go outside and look at the horizon. Take a walk through the woods or in the park. Just let the sun do its thing and rain down that Vitamin D. If you feel extra-motivated, step the walk up to a run. Release some endorphins. Getting outside and offline prevents you from withdrawing from your life by escaping into the feeds of various social media, but instead places you in a specific moment in time and position in space. Be present and not distant.

Get in Community

Remember the last time your small group got real and the entire group began to open up about the very deep struggles everyone is facing? All it took was one person breaking through the niceties that keep everyone at a safe distance. One family’s children seemed to abandoning everything that they’ve been taught now that they’re grown. Another family was wrestling with the failing health of a child or a parent. One marriage that looked downright ideal on the outside was close to calling it quits. And that one family—maybe even the host family—with the nice house in the nice neighborhood is drowning in debt and doesn’t see any way out. And in that moment, when all pretense was stripped away, your small group began caring for one another, praying for one another, and helping one another.

That’s what real community can do.

But it takes gut-wrenching and terrifying honesty.

Get Help

When you begin wrestling with anxiety and depression, the first impulse is to withdraw—withdraw from your relationships, from your schedule, from your life. And everything in you resists getting help. You become ashamed that you, O Man of God, need help from someone else. You feel the guilt of not being able to pray yourself through it. You feel the weight of knowing that you’ve been tasked with the care of souls and yet you cannot even care for your own.

Get help anyway.

Reach out to someone. I know how difficult it is to even consider. Get help anyway. Find a fellow-pastor and share your struggles. Find a solid, biblical counselor and schedule a time to sit down and get help. Recently, it struck me that even my family-members who are medical doctors go to a doctor when they become ill. They recognize their limited ability to self-diagnose—and as anyone who has ever visited WebMD should know, self-diagnoses are never good.

Break the Cycle

The story repeats itself over and over. Someone begins to wrestle with anxiety and depression and, in his struggle, denies the scope of his pain and tries to white-knuckle through a solution, keeping his pain to himself. As it festers and grows, he becomes ashamed that he can’t shake it and rather than telling someone, he hides it behind a pastoral mask and refuses to let anyone see how much he hurts until it overwhelms him and he only sees one means of escape.

Get help.

Call someone.

You are not alone.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

How do you pray for your church members?

I fell under a deep conviction in 2008. And beginning a ministerial career under God’s judgment wouldn’t be the best start. I acquired a nasty habit during my college years. I found myself often saying, “I’ll pray for you,” only to then forget completely. My neglect of others wasn’t intentional; I said, “I’ll pray for you,” fully-believing I would fulfill that commitment eventually. At best, this was unintentional hypocrisy and at worst, deception.

Below, I offer the system that I’ve put in place to fulfill my commitment. It grew out of extended reflection and asking God for his help in overcoming my inadequacy as a minister.

“How do you pray for your church members?”

I began by asking other ministers how they prayed for their people. Admittedly, most said they prayed for their congregation generally. Others prayed as specific requests arose. But I would then ask these pastors one final question: “Have you prayed for everyone in your congregation by name?” From congregations of 50 members to those of 500, the answer was “no.” Their answer echoed in my soul and I could not align that reality with what I believed to be a critical responsibility of a pastor.

So, in 2013 I decided the answer to my question needed to be “yes.” At the time, I was the youth pastor to a group of about 60 students in a church of over 500. I knew that if I waited for my students to come to me and ask for prayer, only a small percentage of them would receive prayer. I knew that if I would only pray for them generally, I would never actually pray for them specifically. Either option was unacceptable.

Establishing a Prayer System

My solution was to create a new and simple system. I bought cheap composition notebooks and put the name and picture of each family associated with our youth group in each notebook. Then I committed to take three of those books each week and write a specific prayer for that family in them. After praying for them, I wrote a note to them saying, “I’m praying for you this week. If there is anything you’d like me to pray for specifically, please let me know.”

As our youth group grew and the number of books increased, I began handing out books to other staff members—three books each week. I set the expectation that everyone who worked for me would pray for three church families each week. Within a year, each family had been prayed for at least three times and they had received three cards letting them know that they were being prayed for.

I have continued this process in my new role as Pastor of Summerville First Baptist. We have about 90 members and I have about 35 books. As I write this post, I have just picked up the remaining three books without at least one prayer written in them. In six months of pastoral ministry, every single family has been prayed for by name.

Divine Coincidences?

Now you might think, “I’m too busy for that.” The whole process takes less than an hour a week. Pastors, you can do this.

You may ask, “What’s the point?” Allow me to give you a few anecdotes.

When I began this system, a family came and told me they were thinking about getting a divorce and had been struggling with the issue. Getting a card in the mail after a particularly horrible fight one night was enough to prompt them to come and ask for help.

Just this past month I had a church member thank me for praying for her. She received the card that I was praying for her just before going into surgery. The catch? She didn’t tell anyone she was getting surgery. But knowing that I was praying for her made a world of difference.

Just this week, I prayed for a family only to find out afterward that the husband had just been in the ER. You can call these three stories coincidences. That’s fine. But I can tell you that I don’t have any divine coincidences when I don’t pray. But, when I do pray, the comfort and peace of Christ seems to settle on each member of my flock at the exact moment they need it most.

Brothers, if you’re at a small church, put a system in place to pray for your people. If you happen to be a church of over a thousand, commit your entire staff to praying for specific people. Require them to write out a prayer. Have them fill out a card. Make sure that the sands of time do not form prayerless mounds.

Many mickles make a muckle

There is an old Scottish proverb that makes me chuckle: “Many mickles make a muckle.” Simply, it means that the small things add up. Three families a week is not an unreasonable commitment. But three families each week becomes 156 in a year. In a decade, that’s 1,560 prayers for church members by name. And when we look back and ask ourselves, “Have I prayed for each of my sheep by name?,” we will be able to answer, “yes.”

Pastor Summerville First Baptist Married to Danielle, father of three, PhD student at SWBTS, MDiv 2012 SWBTS, BA Theatre OSU.

Five Pastoral Reflections


I’ve only been a Senior Pastor for a total of six months. This means, of course, that I have no access to any grand wisdom. However, I wanted to offer up five reflections on my first six months as pastor.

1. Set Your Routine

Everyone wants a piece of the pie. Most people are well-intentioned pie eaters. Some just want to spend some time getting to know the new pastor, others have spiritual needs which they want addressed immediately. Every single church member will have some expectation concerning the pastor’s time. Without a set schedule, pastors will find it difficult to salvage even a sliver of time for biblical study.

I have a set routine. Certain times are available for meetings. Other times for biblical study. Keeping track of my own schedule helps ensure that no duties are neglected. As for myself, Saturdays are protected. I’m with my family all day. Emails, prayer meetings, and events always seem to popup on Saturdays, but unless it’s an emergency, I’m not available to anyone except my wife and children. A set routine assures family time.

2. Nail Down Haphazard Habits

By “haphard habits,” I mean those habits which have some fluidity to them. Any spiritual discipline that isn’t nailed down and engrained can be forgotten easily. I find these habits the hardest to maintain.

Recently, I asked in a Church Revitalization Facebook group which spiritual discipline is most-commonly neglected. Many pastors responded that fasting was the most neglected spiritual discipline. Fasting is one of those haphazard habits. Few Christians have a set time every week for fasting. I don’t let spiritual disciplines waste away. If a year passes without memorizing a new verse of Scripture, I’m in trouble. My way of nailing down scripture memory is to record when and what I memorize. Therefore, a spiritual journal is key to nailing down haphazard habits.

3. Prioritize your Marriage

We all have a number of ministerial spinning plates to keep in the air. Our spouse shouldn’t feel like one of them. We do not consider the qualifications of 1 Timothy to be suggestions—they are foundations. Much like pastoral integrity, the marriage covenant qualifies to even perform pastoral duties. Peter says, “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” Since prayer is the power of pastoral ministry, let Peter’s warning concerning hindered prayer sink in deep.

4. Saying “No” is Easy

Since we moved to Georgia we’ve had the occasion for several long car trips to Texas and Michigan. Thank you Waze app! With a well planned route, staying on course is easy. The only issue is the still small voice in the back of the van, “Dad, can we stop at . . . ” Can you say, “recalculating?”

When the path is clear, saying “no” is easy. Have a clear, Christ-centered plan for leading the church. Set goals. Have a vision. There are hundreds of very good things the church could do; if any one of them doesn’t line up with the vision, say “no.” Saying “yes” to side attractions is a sure way to hear “recalculating”. Recalculating the vision every month is a sure way to never arrive at your destination.

5. Members are Just People

Even the best Christians are still sinners. Congregants will lift up and tear down in the same week. As such, church members cannot be the foundation of our ministries. The Church’s one foundation is not the church itself; only Christ is a solid enough foundation to rest our ministries on.

Numbers will go up and down. Sunday School will flourish and diminish. Sermons will be strong some weeks and weak on others. Christ alone is enough to stabilize the tumultuous nature of pastoral ministry.

Pastor Summerville First Baptist Married to Danielle, father of three, PhD student at SWBTS, MDiv 2012 SWBTS, BA Theatre OSU.

What I Wish I Would Have Known When Looking For My First Pastorate

I guess you could say that my calling has been a little like Amos’s. The prophet Amos was not like the others. He was an ordinary shepherd. He did not come from a family of priests or prophets. He just did what God called him to do, and found himself doing the Lord’s work as a prophet.

Then Amos answered and said to Amaziah, “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” (Amos 7:14–15, ESV)

When I look at Amos, I can see that my calling is a little like Amos’s. I am not a pastor’s kid nor did I come from a lineage of pastors. I did not have a pastor take me under his wing to mentor me once I received a call to ministry. I did not have my name passed around in ministry circles while I was in seminary. I did not have a seasoned pastor to call on when I took my first pastorate.

Honestly, I was like Amos in the sense that there were times that I just knew what the Lord called me to do and I was merely committed to doing that. Because of all of this, over time I learned a great deal through experience. Granted, a lot of that experience was gained by learning what not to do. But experience nonetheless.

Looking back I wish someone would have told me a few things while I was looking for my first pastorate. Therefore, here are a few things that I wish I would have known when I was looking for my first church.

Don’t Get In A Rush

Let’s face it, churches do not move quickly. Many pastoral search teams consist of lay volunteers, working full-time jobs, and giving up the evenings to work for their church. In some seasons of the year, the church calendar can be so busy that it is difficult to schedule meetings, causing the pastoral search process to take months.

Understand this, don’t get in a rush to make things happen quickly. Patience is what we need here. Be patient with the church, be patient with the search teams, be patient in the Lord’s calling.

Don’t Get Frustrated

The process of finding your first position can be frustrating. Finding the right church for you is hard. Then add the fact that some churches will not respond to your applications, and others will call you in for an interview and then never call you back. The whole thing is difficult when you’re anxious to get on the field. You can get frustrated with this.

But don’t get frustrated. I understand that this is hard, but Christians are called to have peace. When you feel tempted to get frustrated, call on God for his peace. Peace is what we need in this process.

Don’t Forget To Pray . . . A Lot.

I know how it is looking for your first pastorate. You cruise all the job boards constantly, and you call associations to find open positions. The search takes a ton of time, and it can be consuming. Some will just apply for any place that is open. They tell themselves that they’re like Gideon laying out their fleece. When in reality, they’re just not praying it through as they should.

Guys, don’t forget to pray. There is a lot at stake here. Not only is this a transition for you and your family but this also a big jump for the church. Prayer is what we need, and we need a lot of it.

Don’t Forget To Look For Divine Appointments

We serve a sovereign God who cares much for his church and his pastors. Remember this truth when you are searching for your first pastorate. One of the ways that God shows me that He is in control is through divine appointments. I cannot even tell you all of the times that God has brought a person into my life for his purposes and in many cases, this has happened while I was being called to a new pastorate.

Therefore, look for the ways that God is leading you. Maybe he is opening a door for you through a previous relationship that was rekindled or perhaps he is bringing a new person into your life who will help link you to your new ministry. Honestly, I do not understand all the ways that God works in these matters. But I have experienced Him do amazing things when calling someone to a church.

Don’t Limit Your Ministry Field

I know the blessing of being close to your family or ministering to a city that you love. But do not limit your ministry field based on relationships or familiarity to a town. Do not be that guy that says to God, “I will serve you with all that I am for all of my life as long as I serve here.” I know that this is hard. To be sent to a place far from home and where you know no one can be terrifying.

My first ministry assignment was like this for my wife and I. We both grew up in the city, and I assumed that we would always minister in that city, close to our families. But when I received the call to go to a small, country town several hours away from our home, I knew that I had to go and see if that was where God was calling us. Let me tell you, the town was nothing like our hometown. The people were different, the culture was different, the amenities were different, and we knew no one. This was a scary process for us. But over the course of my time there we grew to love that town and all the people. God did an amazing work in that church and in us that I would not trade my time there for the world.

Sometimes we think we know what is best for our ministry and we want to tell God how to do things. But what I have found is that God desires to show us something greater. Open your ministry field. Let God show you the best place for you to serve.

Don’t Give Up On The Work

One of the weirdest things I have seen guys do while looking for a pastorate is stop working in their current ministry positions. They may be a student pastor or small group leader, and when they begin to search for their first pastorate, they quit the ministry they are working in.

This makes no sense. One of the first questions a pastoral search committee is going to ask you about serving in their church is, “What are you doing in ministry now?” and if your answer is, “well, nothing” then that is not going to be a good thing. Furthermore, what is that telling the church? Are you saying that you only want to serve the church if you are in the lead position? That is not the heart of a pastor.

Guys, don’t give up on the work. God’s calling requires you to pastor in whatever context you are living in. Just because you do not have a title at the moment doesn’t mean you can give up on the ministry.

Conclusion

There were so many things that I learned about myself, the church, and God in those seasons that I wish that I could share it with all of you. But that would be one crazy long post, and I have gone on long enough.

In closing I will say this, If you are in the season of looking for your first assignment, I hope and pray that these words will guide you and encourage you.

Remember that we serve a great God, and He is in control of ALL things. Do not let the process overwhelm you, keep your hand to the plow, and your eyes on Jesus. He will place you where He wants you.

Are you in the process of interviewing for a pastorate? You may be interested in these 30 Questions Every Pastor Should As A Search Committee.

Christ Follower.
Husband.
Father.
Pastor @HarveyBaptist.
PhD Evangelism (ABD) @swbts.
Cyclist.