Pastors might encourage confession for their congregants, but few are honest publicly about their own struggles with depression or other mental illnesses. That confession can hamper or even end a ministry career, experts say, so pastors usually suffer silently.
That seems to be changing, with a handful of ministers in secure positions deciding to take the risk. In books and other public forums, they’re opening up about the torment that’s besieged them or their close family members, hoping others who struggle will be inspired to get professional help.
A few years ago, “I felt people who used anti-anxiety [medications] or anti-depressants probably didn’t love Jesus as much as I loved him,” says Perry Noble, a South Carolina megachurch pastor who recounts his battles with mental illness in Overwhelmed: Winning the War Against Worry (Tyndale, April). “Then I went through it, and I realized there are some problems you cannot pray your way out of.”
That mental illness afflicts even the most admired of ministry families is a truth underscored by high-profile tragedies last year. Two well-known megachurch pastors, Rick Warren and Joel Hunter, lost adult sons to suicide. Hunter’s son, Isaac, was also a pastor. Though neither has written about their devastating losses, Warren discussed what happened to his son, Matthew, last fall on CNN.
Other faith leaders have been defying taboos. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas raised eyebrows when he recounted the toll taken by his ex-wife’s manic depression in Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010). John Mark Comer, pastor of Bridgetown Church in Portland, Ore., wrote of his own menacing depression in My Name is Hope: Anxiety, Depression and Life after Melancholy (Graphe, 2012).
In Melissa: A Father’s Lessons from a Daughter’s Suicide (B&H Publishing, 2013) Frank Page, a pastor for 35 years and now president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, penned a postscript to pastors, prodding them take mental illness in congregants seriously. “Are there spiritual aspects to mental illness? ... Yes, of course. But that’s not the only thing involved,” Page writes. “You need a working knowledge of what causes mental illness and depression and how to assist its sufferers with the best kind of loving assistance.”
Page hits a nerve, especially for evangelicals and other theological conservatives. Nearly half of born-again evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians believe serious mental illness can be healed through prayer and Bible study alone, versus just 35 percent of the U.S. population, according to a fall 2013 survey from LifeWay Research, the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Pastors will tell you flat out that they feel have to have a different image, that it’s not appropriate for their families or for them to have these kind of problems,” says Matt Stanford, a Baylor University professor of psychology who researches how congregations handle mental illness.
As more pastors see the toll taken by mental illness, attitudes are beginning to shift toward greater acceptance of psychiatric treatment, according to LifeWay Research President Ed Stetzer. But he notes personal accounts are coming almost exclusively from elite leaders who know they won’t get fired or blacklisted for opening up. “What if you have a church of 200 [members], or if someone is asking you to be leader or minister of a church?” Stetzer says. “If you say on your resume, ‘I have been diagnosed as bipolar’, I think the likelihood is significantly less that that church will continue the conversation with you.”
Pastors who tell their stories of mental illness, however, say church members benefit. After Noble spoke of it to his NewSpring Church, which draws 32,000 to nine campuses on an average weekend, he says congregants were much more forthcoming about mental health matters and became open to receiving professional help. “Today’s generation sees through the façade pretty quickly,” says Lisa Jackson, associate publisher at Tyndale. “They want pastors who are willing to come out from behind the pulpit and be vulnerable about their struggles.”