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From depression to appreciation: Helping pastors thrive

September was National Suicide Awareness Month followed by National Pastor Appreciation Month in October. I wonder if there might be a divine plan behind the timing.

Certainly, many pastors are approached by congregants with personal, financial, marital and other struggles; many times, those struggles lead to depression and suicidal thoughts. According to SAMHSA, one in five Americans suffer from a mental illness. While people should always seek out a professional counselor, most pastors do their best to walk alongside those who are struggling, a role that can be emotionally and mentally draining.

But did you know that approximately 50% of pastors have struggled with depression themselves at some point? I was heartbroken by the news out of California about Pastor Jarrid Wilson taking his own life. I am concerned about the number of American pastors on the verge of following suit.

Fuller Institute of Church Growth found that 75% of pastors report high amounts of stress on a regular basis. Pastors are not above struggles, and people need to be reminded that pastors are humans too. We are not gods, but people. Pastors strive to be just one step ahead of everyone else in order to help others along. It’s important to remember that pastors are not typically professionally trained counselors and thus can’t always provide the best assistance to people in need.  However, because we care for our congregants and desire to help, we can easily overextend ourselves and, in the process, add to our stress level because we are only able to help a symptom, not the real problem. 

I will never forget when one of my congregants acted on his suicidal thoughts. His mother was devastated. I was shocked and ashamed. As his pastor, I felt like I should have been able to do more. Pastors often take on more responsibility than they should. They feel responsible if something is not fixed right. This often leads into self-doubt and criticism.

So perhaps National Pastor Appreciation month comes at a time when pastors need encouragement the most. The emphasis on suicide awareness has burdened them with concern for their flock, while reminding them of their own humanity and struggles. And pastors usually don’t realize that they have neglected to care for themselves.

During the month of October, I encourage pastors to do three things:

1.      Take time each morning to encourage yourself.

2.      Continue or revive your spiritual disciplines as consistency in this will help you thrive.

3.      Talk to other people and seek help if you need it.

For everyone else, remember your pastor during the month of October. Let him or her know that he or she is doing a great job and thank them. Ministry is often a thankless position that requires a lot of time and strength. Remember that pastors are not perfect. We ask our pastors to be excellent preachers, counselors, organizers, event planners, and so on. Each pastor has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. Even a pastor’s strength can be turned into something unhealthy: a leader who has the gift of mercy or empathy can easily fall into a trap of depression due to the amount of inexplicable suffering in the world. Or a pastor with a strong work ethic may find himself or herself driven to exhaustion, battling anxiety and other physical complications due to not enough rest.

So, if you see something that perhaps your pastor does not love to do or is not as great at, offer to help! Every church needs more volunteers, and you can use your own strengths to alleviate some stress on your pastor. Finally and most importantly, be in prayer for your pastor. Pastors need all the support and encouragement they can get to give them strength.

Gary Wilkerson has served more than 40 years in ministry and is currently the president of World Challenge, a global ministry that encourages people to live a better life and make a better world through Jesus Christ. He has written three books, travels to encourage pastors worldwide and has a podcast to address the tough questions that trip up many Christians.

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