Does depression disqualify a pastor? Man, that’s a serious and heavy question, and it comes to us from a podcast listener named Kyle. “Hello, Pastor John. At what point, if any, does depression and/or joylessness disqualify an elder? Or when might there be a reason for an elder to step down out of a desire to most wisely serve his congregation?”
Four Causes for Concern
Let me begin by affirming that Kyle is right to suggest that there is a point at which joylessness does disqualify an elder. A lot of people don’t think of that. So he’s right to point this out. But we have to be so careful here, because joy is subjective — it’s a subjective reality.
It’s no less real and no less important because it’s subjective. But it manifests itself in various ways. It manifests itself in degrees of presence, and so putting our finger on it is not easy. So I think we should be slow and careful before we declare anybody unqualified for their ministry because of it.
Let me just point to four things that Kyle and the rest of us should take into consideration as we ponder this.
1. Chronic Sadness
Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy” — so let your leaders, your pastor and elders, lead with joy — “and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
“A chronically joyless pastor is of no advantage to his people.”
In other words, a chronically joyless pastor is of no advantage, no benefit, to his people, which means there comes a point when, for the sake of the people, he should step down or step back.
This is just to say, Kyle, thank you for taking this seriously. Hebrews 13:17 says so.
2. For Their Joy
There are two places where Paul says that his whole ministry is devoted to the joy of his people.
- 2 Corinthians 1:24: “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy.”
- Philippians 1:25: “Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith.”
That was Paul’s apostolic mission — to seek the joy of other people. I think it’s the calling on every pastor and every elder to work for the joy of their people. If their own inability to rejoice in the Lord hinders that, there may come a time when they are not able to fulfill that calling.
3. Setting an Example
The pastor and elder who aims to help his people obey the Lord will need to help them rejoice in tribulation. That’s what it says in Romans 5:3–5:
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
So, elders are called to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3). If we can’t rejoice in our own sufferings, like Romans 5:3 says, how are we going to help our people obey the Scriptures? That is, how are we going to fulfill our calling to set an example for them and help them?
4. Love’s Overflow
Here is one last illustration of how this works:
“It’s the calling on every pastor and every elder to work for the joy of their people.”
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. (2 Corinthians 8:1–2)
Now, what that text says is that love — love that is overflowing in a wealth of generosity to those in need around us — is the overflow of abundance of joy in God. It is not joy in overcoming poverty, and not joy in escaping affliction, because both of those are mentioned right there alongside joy.
An elder who wants his people to love other people — that is, to overflow in joy for them in the midst of affliction, in the midst of poverty — has to be able to set the example for that himself.
When to Step Back
So, here are a few concluding observations that might help Kyle and others find some guidance of when to step down or when to step back.
1. Dullness or Bitterness?
Be sure to distinguish between a temporary dullness of spirit and a growing bitterness of spirit. Both dullness and bitterness can rob us of joy, but there is a world of difference between the two.
Dullness may mean we’re wrestling with nature, something in our bodies or in our circumstances. Bitterness means that we’re giving into sin. The people know the difference. They’ll taste the difference.
The brokenhearted pastor who is in a season of dullness will cry out to God affectionately for his mercy. Many of his people will deeply appreciate his cry. They’ll resonate with it. They’ll be thankful for an honest, heartfelt cry from their pastor’s soul to God.
But the pastor who is giving into joylessness out of anger and bitterness, that pastor does nobody any good.
2. Ask for Help
Seek to discern the roots of the loss of joy. If there is hidden sin, for example, it will definitely rob a pastor of his spiritual delights in God.
No pastor should tolerate that in his own soul. He should make war on his sin, and if he can’t get the victory, then he needs to draw his elders into it with him and confess his need for help. But there may be other hard things besides sin that his elders see, and they’re going to cut him a lot of slack here while they help him get through this season.
3. Tone of the Text
The key question is whether you can still preach the tone of the text in your loss of joy, or if your own emotional state is such that it controls all of your demeanor. Here’s what I mean.
“Are you able still to feel sweet affection for your people? Do they sense that?”
I found over the decades of preaching that even though my private life at times was filled with sorrow, real heartache, and I had to preach the next Sunday, I found that the text really did, in that moment, create its own emotions in me that were real and authentic.
Can you still do that? Can that happen for you?
This is not hypocrisy. This is not “fake it until you make it.” This is a real supernatural experience of emotion by the Holy Spirit wrought by that text in the hour of preaching.
4. Loving the Church
Two more suggestions. Another key question is, Are you able still to feel sweet affection for your people? Do they sense that?
If so, your season of darkness may be a balm to them because they will know that your affection is rooted in your confidence in the gospel.
5. Rest or Resign?
The last thing I would say is, How long has the struggle of seeming darkness — or dullness, or heaviness, or joylessness — gone on? That matters.
Out of all those five suggestions and out of all those questions, the answer might be that you would ask for a sabbatical. Or it might be that you seek help in some other way.
It might be that a resignation from the eldership would be a last resort. I think it should be a last resort, especially for the vocational elder whose resignation would be a huge upheaval for the people.
So, share your struggle with a trusted friend, and see whether what I’ve said here, or other things they might point out, gives you wisdom for this season.