I have been in pastoral ministry for nearly ten years. This ministry has its highs and lows. In the highs, we are tempted toward anxiety. In the lows, we are lured toward depression.
About two years ago, I found myself in a hospital bed in the ER because I was having continual panic attacks over some spiritual challenges in my life and ministry. Like many pastors, I know what it means to be both anxious and depressed in ministry. As pastors, we must avoid these two extremes and find the biblical balance of stable peace and joy that comes from our Lord.
In terms of anxiety, if you are a pastor, you know what Paul meant when he said, “There is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28b). Yes, the Scriptures call us to be anxious for nothing (Philippians 4:6), but even the great Apostle Paul admitted he struggled with this.
Earlier in Philippians, Paul told the church he would send Epaphroditus to them for this reason: “that I may be less anxious” (Phil. 2:28). How strange that Paul would say this given his instruction later in Philippians 4:6 to not be anxious. However, the reality is that even the greatest leaders struggle with anxiety in the ministry.
Anxiety and Depression in Ministry
Not only have I, like Paul, experienced anxiety in ministry, but also depression. Depression is like anxiety, yet distinct. Tim Keller describes anxiety as being too far “up” emotionally and depression as being too far “down” emotionally.
Anxiety is usually the state of being overwhelmed by what is happening or what might happen. Depression is usually the state of being downcast about what is happening or has already happened. Anxiety often looks toward the future with dread and fear. Depression often looks at the past with sad hopelessness.
Depression, however, does not always have a core reason. Depression is what King David displayed when he said, “My tears have been my food day and night … Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Psalm 42:3a, 5a). Depression is what Charles Spurgeon described when he said as a young pastor, “My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for.”
Paul. David. Spurgeon. These men all struggled with the sharp thorns of ministerial anxiety and depression. I’m no Paul, David, or Spurgeon, but my name can be added to that list when it comes to the struggle against anxiety and depression—which actually gives me great comfort because I know that I am not alone. The highs (anxiety) and lows (depression) of ministry are real. But so is God’s Word.
Keys to Victory Over Anxiety and Depression
While some ministry leaders need to seek professional help with their anxiety and depression, I have found Philippians 4:4-9 to be helpful in my battle. Paul gives seven keys to unlocking the experience of victory over anxiety and depression.
The following are the first three of those seven. If we will use these keys, I believe they will prove immensely helpful in our fight against the highs and lows of ministry.
1. Praise (Phil. 4:4) Paul emphatically commands, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” The church Paul was addressing had struggles inside and outside the church. Their apostle was in prison (Phil. 1:7; 13-14; 17), they were persecuted for the Gospel (Phil. 1:28-30), experiencing disunity (Phil. 2:2; 4:1-2), being lured by false teachers (Phil. 3:2), and under financial pressure (Phil. 4:10-20).
Certainly, these people knew the realities of anxiety and depression. Paul’s remedy? Rejoice! Rejoice? Yes, and again Paul will say, rejoice! How? Why? The church was under incredible distress—what reason did they have to rejoice? Yes, they had burdensome challenges, but they also had the Lord.
As pastors, we too go through seasons of what may feel like unbearable burdens. We, too, have immense difficulties in ministry. Yet, like the Philippians, we also have the Lord. And the Lord is to be the ultimate object of our rejoicing and our praise. He is to be this ultimate object always. This means that our circumstances do not have to define our joy. No conflict in ministry, no season of apparent fruitlessness, no criticism, and no attack from our enemy the Devil will ultimately define our joy.
“You make known to me the path of life. In your presence, there is fullness of joy and at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). In his presence. At his right hand. That’s where our joy is. When we see him as the ultimate object of our praise, we can say with Paul that though we may be sorrowful, yet we always rejoice (2 Corinthians 6:10). To be brought up from the depths of depression and despair, rejoice in the Lord always. Praise him from the heart for who he is and the infinite ways he has displayed his unfailing love for you.
2. Presence (Phil. 4:5) Paul further instructs, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand.” Staying gentle in the face of opposition is a powerful tool to avoid anxiety and depression. Yet, how can we remain gentle under the intense pressures of ministry?
By knowing that “the Lord is at hand.” That is, knowing that his presence is with us. Knowing the ever-abiding presence of Jesus is with us can calm our fearful hearts and help us avoid anxiety over what may or may not happen in the future, or depression over what has happened in the past.
When Jesus commissioned us to make disciples of all nations, he told us he would be with us always (Matthew 28:18-20). For every challenge, every uncertainty, every high and every low, his presence quiets us and makes us gentle. Indeed, by His Spirit, He is at hand. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 16:16). Pastor, do you know Jesus is near? He is as close to us as our hand is far from us. He is at hand. Welcome his presence.
3. Preparation (Phil. 4:6a) When Paul states, “Do not be anxious about anything,” he implies that we tend to become anxious about everything. Why? Because we live in a fallen world where things are not as they ought to be. We live on a cursed, sin-stained earth (Genesis 3:17-19), we still have a battle against our flesh (Galatians 5:17), and we have an adversary, the Devil and his demonic regime, who are vehemently opposed to us (Ephesians 6:10-13). This means we should have proper expectations about the world in which we live and the contexts in which we minister. We should prepare ourselves for the opposition that is coming our way.
If we do not prepare ourselves for the battle we are facing against the world, the flesh, and the devil, then we will be blindsided when they attack, and we will almost always fall into either anxiety or depression.
Jesus said, “In the world, you will have tribulation” (John 16:33b). That’s a promise. As long as we are in this world, we should expect trying times. Jesus called us to minister not in a petting zoo, but in a den in which a roaring lion is on the prowl (1 Peter 5:8). Having the proper expectations about the context in which we minister helps us avoid reacting to opposition by sinking into depression or being overwhelmed with anxiety.
Here’s how this works practically. Let’s suppose we are the witnesses to a car accident in the small town in which I pastor, Tarboro, NC. If we were standing outside the coffee shop downtown and heard a car bump into another car, how would the people in little Tarboro react? We would immediately rush into adrenaline mode with our anxiety meters shattering! We would run around trying to figure out if everyone is okay while frantically dialing 911. Why? Because that kind of accident isn’t expected in small-town Tarboro.
It just doesn’t happen that often. Now, let’s remove ourselves from small-town Tarboro and place ourselves in the middle of Chicago. When a car bumps into another car in crowded Chicago, what’s the reaction of people who witness it? Nothing. They just go about their business. The two cars may or may not pull over to file a police report. They’ll likely just blow their horns at each other and continue driving. The witnesses will not be affected too much. Why? Because that kind of accident is expected in a larger city—it’s something that happens all the time. See what I’m getting at here? The same accident can occur in two different places, and the context of the accident will determine our response to it.
In the same way, once we understand that the world in which we live and minister is filled with the deathly effects of sin, we will not be caught off guard when we are hit with tribulation. Peter said, “Beloved, do not be surprise by the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something stranger were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).
One way we can guard ourselves against being surprised by the tribulation Jesus promised is to form proper expectations. We are ministering in a world filled with opportunities to become anxious and depressed. Be prepared for these kinds of challenges so you are not blindsided by them when they come. Being prepared positions us to experience the peace and joy God has for us in Christ. So be prepared.
Pastors, Take Heart
David, Paul, and Spurgeon fought these battles of ministerial anxiety and depression. Let’s follow in their footsteps by praising the Lord, welcoming Christ’s presence, and preparing for opposition from the world, the flesh, and the devil.
By so doing, we will unlock a treasure chest of peace and joy that comes from our Savior, the Savior who declared, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world, you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series on anxiety and depression in pastoral ministry. Come back for part two next week.