Ministry is hard work, beset by temptation, difficulty, and weariness. Clergy are not immune to depression or suicidal thoughts. What follows is advice for pastors, designed to help prevent the depression that can lead to suicide.
It is all too common for pastors to report feeling isolated and lonely. A providential friendship is a thing worthy of getting on your knees and asking the Lord for. The Bible and close friends should be like sandpaper: constantly challenging and always helping to make rough places planed. When that stops being the case, the pastor has stopped growing.
If a pastor is having trouble with alcohol or drugs, they should join a 12-step program. As clergy, they will know that their “higher power” isn’t a nameless entity, but a man of sorrows who is acquainted with their grief.
If pastors are having trouble with pornography, for example, they should get rid of their computers. Ministerial life went along just fine for a couple of thousand years without them, and Jesus said it would be better to enter heaven minus an eye, if necessary. At the very least, pastors should put accountability software in place.
Taking a Break When Needed
Ministry is challenging, and it will only become more so in the future. When pastors find themselves overwhelmed, depressed, or suicidal, they should step aside. God does not love anyone because of the work they do. He loves us because he loves us. The suicide of a pastor is not only a tragedy; it is a sermon—the worst kind that can be made. (Hint: Read about how the prince of preachers, Charles Spurgeon, dealt with his chronic depression.)
One of the most important lessons I have learned is to know when I am in over my head. It is a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help. If a pastor feels depressed or anxious, they should seek help from a Christian counselor. If they have thoughts of self-harm, they should call a suicide prevention hotline or 911. Any pastor who is suicidal and has a plan should tell someone and head immediately to the ER.
The Importance of Sabbath
Of the many, many pastors I have met, those who regularly keep a Sabbath (as opposed to just a day off) are healthier and more mentally fit. Ministry is a marathon, not a sprint. A church needs a pastor who needs God more than they need anything else—including work.
Setting one day a week aside for God and holy rest is not optional; it’s one of God’s top ten commandments. Blatantly rebelling against any of the other nine commandments would get a pastor fired. Pastors, perhaps more than anyone, need to remember that God’s rest is more powerful than our work. When we work, we work. When we pray, God works. Sabbath is not a condition of getting into heaven; rather, it is the condition of heaven when we get there.
Beloved pastor, never lose track of what your job is about. If I did my job right in the emergency department, someone might gain a few decades of life. If you get it right, someone gains eternity. Your family, church, community, and God need you to stay healthy, rested, and fully alive!
Matthew Sleeth, MD, is a pastor, former ER physician, and the author of Hope Always: How to Be a Force for Live in a Culture of Suicide. To request a Church Suicide Prevention Tool Kit, email firstname.lastname@example.org.