Should chronically depressed pastors step down? The answer to this question is probably “yes.”
The congregation may not want to admit this but those in pastoral leadership need a sober-mind to guide others. We need stable, self-controlled and watchful leaders who are fit for action. This truth doesn’t negate the horrific effects of depression or the longing to help and rescue our leaders. It does, however, challenge the congregation to look beyond the sufferer and into the heart of Christ for His people.
1 Peter 1:13 AMP says, “So prepare your minds for action, be completely sober [in spirit—steadfast, self-disciplined, spiritually and morally alert], fix your hope completely on the grace [of God] that is coming to you when Jesus Christ is revealed.”
Chronically depressed pastors are not “completely” sober-minded. Their uncontrollable mental state becomes an antithesis of Peter’s truth. The illness places them, along with their families, accountability systems and the congregation, in challenging positions.
A chronically depressed person is sick and the soul is in agony. The foundation of effective pastoral leadership comes with some tough requirements concerning the mind. (Ex 18:21, Phil 2:5-8, Psalm 37:30-31, 1 Tim 3:1-12, Titus 1:6-12, Eph 4:17-32) It is a struggle to live from a place of hope, faith and trust.
How does this affect a congregation?
The congregation faces a reality that the pastor or leader may not be capable of leading. The realization is that gifting, past or present success is not enough. As such, we must answer this tough question based on what’s best for the pastor and the congregation.
People who challenge this perspective may argue: We cannot sit the pastor down because this ministry is his or her life! This will cause the leader greater depression! How will the ministers live if this is their livelihood? Don’t you know their families will suffer?
These are very valid arguments. However, the alternative – death by suicide – could be worse. In nearly every case of pastoral death by suicide among prominent leaders we find that spouses and accountability teams were walking closely with that leader through ongoing battles of depression. These support teams were doing everything spiritually and naturally possible to help them overcome. This is right, commendable and necessary but we must also face some hard truths.
You see, a pastor or leader who suddenly falls ill with a terminal diagnosis would not find themselves in such a debate. We instinctively understand that they cannot serve the congregation due to the limitations of that illness. Unfortunately, we view chronic depression differently.
Taking this case-by-case
Any issue of pastoral depression should be confronted on a case-by-case basis. Strong strategies are necessary in certain situations. It may become necessary to send the pastor on extended leave, transfer leadership to another qualified leader indefinitely; or transition the people to new membership and close the doors of the church. We must be willing to do what is necessary for the pastor and congregation as a whole.
Whether people like it or not, this is necessary conversation. The alternative, as we are witnessing, is devastating.
While our hearts cry deeply for the chronically depressed, we need spiritual truth and corporate balance. There is still the burden, influence and impact – both spiritual and natural – on the flock the Lord loves. Pastors are shepherds first.