Some may be surprised to learn that spiritual leaders experience spiritual depression, or what we call “burnout.” After a period of faithful leadership, for example, these pastors and other leaders report they “hit a brick wall.” What causes such a failure in persistence, not to mention exhibiting a poor example for the people they lead? Bill Gaultiere of The Soul Shepherding Institute recently published some statistics to help answer these and other questions: “Why aren’t these pastors overflowing with the love, joy and peace of the Lord in their lives, families and ministries? What is the cause of their emotional problems and moral failures?” A major factor, he finds, is overwhelming ministry stress:
- 75% of pastors surveyed report feeling “extremely stressed” or “highly stressed.”
- 90% work between 55 to 75 hours per week
- 90% report feeling fatigued and worn out every week
- 91% report having experienced some form of burnout in ministry
- 18% report they feel “fried to a crisp right now”
What is Spiritual Depression?
Spiritual depression refers to depression related to a person’s relationship with God. Although any believer may experience spiritual depression, as we see in the above statistics, spiritual leaders are also susceptible. Spiritual leaders need a spiritual way to recover. How the Lord helps Elijah recover from his depression (I Kings 19) shows how God treated His servant in depression. The account also serves as a model for how we also might help someone in spiritual depression or in any depression.
Immediately after he faces down Jezebel’s pagan priests, calls down fire on a water-soaked altar in a miracle display of the Lord’s power, Elijah executes Queen Jezebel’s false priests (I Kings 18). Jezebel’s oath of revenge, however, is swift; Elijah immediately must flee for his life. Jezebel’s oath to hunt him down and execute him in retaliation forces his flight 50 miles from Mt. Carmel to Jezreel. Talk about stress!
On the Lam
Elijah then spends the night on the lam from Jezebel’s oath– his death sentence. From Jezreel he flees to Beersheba, another 80 miles south– as the crow flies. “No better that my dead ancestors,” Elijah says: he also wants to die. Now we can understand from Dr. Donald Hall why Elijah wants to die (See my previous blog at https://www.gordongrose.com/brain-depression/). The price on his head, in addition to physical exhaustion from his escape, elevates his stress to the max. Cortisol overload! Though understandable, Elijah’s ability to think straight suffers. So does his relationship with God.
The Lord as Model Counselor
Fortunately for Elijah and for all of us, our God demonstrates the utmost compassion. How the Lord helps Elijah recover from his depression (I Kings 19), serves as a model for healing depression, including spiritual depression.
The Lord urges Elijah to eat. After running the 130-mile length of Palestine, from Mt. Carmel to Beersheba, Elijah is not only exhausted, but hungry. A skilled pastor, loving family member, or caring friend will also help a depressed person take steps similar to those the Lord helped Elijah take. Our first lesson: Ensure the depressed person is eating and sleeping normally. After he sees to Elijah’s physical needs, the Lord takes some specific steps to help him address his plight.
After The Lord attends to Elijah’s physical needs, he twice asks the gentle question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (vv. 9, 13) Beyond the obvious prompting of Elijah to talk, the Lord’s focus is on how Elijah came to be in this present place. Elijah’s response reveals how he also came to be in his present state. He feels desperate, full of self-pity. Elijah talks, the Lord listens. A depressed person needs someone to listen. A good friend listens a lot, especially at the beginning. A good friend also helps the depressed person reveal how the immediate problem developed.
Elijah goes over and over the same story of how bad he has it (vv. 10, 14). Before he will heed the Lord’s (or anyone else’s) advice, Elijah has to hear how he sounds–to himself. Our depressed friend may need to hear themselves talk as well. Notice the lack of guilt and shame in the Lord’s questions. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (vv. 9, 13) the Lord asks. Each response provides the Lord an opportunity to reassure his servant.
Too often we rush to reassure someone in depression too quickly, without making realistic connection with their lives. As he counsels Elijah, however, the Lord demonstrates extreme patience. Only after hearing Elijah out, does the Lord provide reassurance that is believable for Elijah. Those qualities might well also guide us as we listen to our friend or family member discuss their depression.
- After the first “pity me!” (v. 10) the Lord reassures Elijah of his presence. God exists not in the wind, earthquake, or fire, but in the “still small voice.” Even in depression, loneliness, and self-pity, God is still with us.
- After the second “Pity me!” (v. 14), the Lord reassures Elijah of others’ support: Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha. Oh, and did I mention “7000 in Israel–all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal?” (v. 18) People under extreme stress need our support.
- Then, He reassures Elijah that he has important work to do: anoint those three others to carry on the work he began. Depression clouds our perspective: we are still important to God and to other people.
What We Learn From Elijah
Through Elijah’s encounter with the Lord at his greatest moment of despair, we learn that God’s spiritual leaders are also subject to depression. We also learn that God cares about his servants, enough to ask good questions, to listen, and to provide for our physical as well as spiritual needs. We also learn that we have more support than we realize. Just take the time to find it. Finally, we learn that our lives are important to the Lord. He has important work for us to do.
How have you experienced the despair of spiritual depression? Where was God in your experience? How did you resolve your dilemma?
[Resources: https://www.soulshepherding.org/pastors-under-stress/ Photo: deviant art.com No copyright infringement intended]