By Michael Cooper
In recent months, the conversation regarding the mental health of pastors has been brought to the forefront. Although I’m convinced we’ve kept this topic in the dark for far too long, it’s not a new struggle.
Indeed, in the mid 1800s, the “Prince of Preachers” himself, Charles Spurgeon, spoke about the mental health of pastors in a lecture titled, “The Minister’s Fainting Fits” which is captured in the book Lectures to My Students.
The Minister’s Struggle with Mental Health
“Our works, when earnestly undertaken, lay us open to attacks in the direction of depression,” Spurgeon wrote.
The “Lion of London,” assumed mental health struggles would be common for pastors. Due to the very nature of the minister’s work, a pastor is “open to attacks.”
Yet in our day, some consider it contradictory for a minister to experience mental health issues at all. It’s as if, because of our position, we’ve reached a level that should transcend such issues.
However, this isn’t the case by any means. Spurgeon prepared a group of young aspiring pastors for attacks that were sure to come. In his lecture, he provided three circumstances in which a minister can expect to experience mental struggles.
1. The Hour of Great Success
“Poor human nature cannot bear such strains as heavenly triumphs bring to it; there must come a reaction,” Spurgeon wrote. “Excess of joy or excitement must be paid for by subsequent depressions.”
Based on his own experiences, Spurgeon warned that the minister may fall prey to depression after “the hour of great success.” He uses the example of Elijah after the fire falls on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18-19.
His point is that after a ministry victory, ministers may experience mental defeat. Due to our weakness in the flesh, we can’t always handle the overwhelming joys that accompany our work for God’s kingdom.
It seems as if we can’t fully process that heaven touched earth. Spurgeon suggests this may be by God’s design to promote humility.
Practically speaking, we need to be aware that after a spiritually high moment in our ministry, we can also experience some of the lowest times of mental strain.
2. Before Any Great Achievement
Spurgeon also provided wisdom from his personal experience when he stated his depression often came before any great ministry achievement. As he looked out of the various difficulties around him, he could easily fall into despair.
Yet, he writes:
This depression comes over me whenever the Lord is preparing a larger blessing for my ministry; the cloud is black before it breaks, and overshadows before it yields its deluge of mercy. Depression has now become to me as a prophet in rough clothing, a John the Baptist, heralding the nearer coming of my Lord’s richer benison.”
For Spurgeon, “the darkest hour of the night precedes the day dawn.” The Lord prepared him during this time of depression to use him more effectively.
As we experience the struggles of ministry, we can know that God is on our side. He hasn’t forsaken us. The day is coming, and the light will shine into the darkness.
When we can’t see His hand, we trust His heart. While it may seem as if God has forgotten us, we know He may be preparing us to experience His power in a profound way.
3. Amid a Long Stretch of Unbroken Labor
As pastors, we can tend to work long hours without realizing it. There are many times we can’t just “leave the work at the office.” For many of us, the work comes home with us.
But Spurgeon encourages us to rest. If we don’t do this, we become susceptible to mental strain. Therefore, we must “pause from our labors.”
Spurgeon continues, “It is wisdom to take occasional furlough. In the long run, we shall do more by sometimes doing less.” But how often do we truly rest as pastors?
Honestly? Probably not as often as we should.
For the sake of our mental health, for the good of our families, churches, and the gospel, we must rest. We must be aware that our mental health is vital for ministry.
No Strange Thing
Spurgeon concludes his lecture with the following words,
The lesson of wisdom is, be not dismayed by soul trouble. Count it no strange thing, but a part of ordinary ministerial experience. Should the power of depression be more than ordinary, think not that all is over with your usefulness. Cast not away your confidence, for it has great recompense of reward. Even if the enemy’s foot be on your neck, expect to rise and overthrow him…Serve God with all your might while the candle is burning, and when it goes out for a season, you will have less to regret. Be content to be nothing, for that is what you are. When your emptiness is painfully forced upon your consciousness, chide yourself that you ever dreamed of being full, expect in the Lord.”
Pastors, during times of mental distress—which are sure to come—cast not away your confidence. Count your struggle no strange thing. Seek help, persevere in faith, and expect to rise in the Lord’s timing and in His grace.