How to Overcome Pastoral Depression

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”-Psalm 42:11

Being a pastor is no joke.

It’s a high and holy calling but it’s also a really hard one. Studies by Lifeway Christian Research have discovered that over one half (55%) of pastors are presently discouraged. Around the same amount (55%) also say they feel lonely.

Lonliness and Discouragement can cripple us. I’ve been there and if I’m honest, I continually battle against discouragement.

This past week I was meditating on Psalm 42:11 and as I was mulling it over in my mind some patterns began to emerge for how to deal with spiritual depression in ministry.

1) Question
The Psalmist questions himself and his feelings of discouragement. Many times, we take our feelings at face value and just accept them when we really should question them. We should ask ourselves questions. Why am I discouraged? Why am I feeling this way? Instead of trying to get rid of the feelings of discouragement, face it head on and try to find its source.

2) Proclaim
Preachers preach. However, much of the time we can forget to preach to ourselves. This is essentially what the Psalmist is doing. After questioning himself, he begins to proclaim truth to his own soul. He begins to exhort himself. Jerry Bridges has written that most of our angst in life comes from listening to ourselves instead of talking to ourselves. Don’t just preach to your congregation but preach to your own soul.

3) Focus
The focus seems to shift dramatically in this one little verse. It moves in this direction: Discouragement > Introspection > God > God’s Faithfulness
The Psalmist feels discouraged and then questions why he is feeling this way. Then he proclaims and exhorts himself to hope in God. We have to be careful not to fall into the trap of introspection for the sake of introspection. If thinking about the turmoil in our own soul never leads us to God, then it is man-centered introspection. What we need is a Godward introspection that points us to God and his faithfulness.

4) Trust
In one verse, the Psalmist moves from depression to trusting in God’s faithfulness. Brothers, we must remember and mediate on his past faithfulness to carry us through the present turmoils of ministry. He has been faithful in the past and he will continue to be faithful in the present.

Here are some recommended resources on battling the pastoral depression that can so easily beset us:

***When the Darkness Will Not Lift: Doing What We Can While We Wait for God–and Joy

***Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure

 

What has helped you overcome pastoral depression and discouragement?

Christ-Centered, Kingdom-Focused, Text-Driven Preaching

I spent last week at Southeastern Seminary in a D.Min. seminar on Christ-Centered Expository preaching.  Tony Merida was our prof and if you are a preacher, then you should buy his book, Faithful Preaching: Declaring Scripture with Responsibility, Passion, and Authenticity . 

Let me just sum up the week with one word:  Phenomenal!

For me this class was life-changing.  Here are a few of the takeaways for me and maybe you’ll find a few of them helpful.

1) Christ is the hero of the Bible.  Therefore, he should always be the hero of your sermon.

True Christian preaching is centered upon Jesus and not in a “tagged on at the end” sort of way.  He should be woven throughout the sermon.  If all of Scripture is fulfilled in him, then every passage ultimately points to him.  You may not find him in every text but every text stands in relation to him.  

2) If you want to change lives through your preaching, keep the Life-Changer at the heart of every sermon.

Part of our assignments for class was to critique a sermon we had preached recently.  Sadly, as I went through my sermons over past months,  I realized I was not preaching Christ explicitly.  I preach hard for life change and application but many times I had forgotten the Life-Changer.

3) Be yourself

As we watched and critique one another’s preaching, I realized how differently God has wired all of us.  Each person in the class seemed to be uniquely gifted in an area of preaching.  Some were more passionate, others pastoral, other were masterful in their application.  It was interesting to see how different each one was.  While preachers should strive to improve, they should also get comfortable in their own skin.  I learned this week that I don’t need to preach like someone else.  I need to just be myself, preach the text, and point to Jesus.

 

There are a million more takeaways but those are the top three.  May the tribe of Christ-Centered, Kingdom-Focused, Text-Driven preachers increase.

"Nailed It!"

“I’m going to nail it!”

Beware Preacher!  Beware of that little phrase when preparing to preach.  

Just this past week, I felt really good about my sermon prep.  The Lord had seemed to bless my efforts to prepare and I was able to get from text to sermon quicker than usual.  I had what I thought were some decent illustrations that powerfully communicated the truth I wanted to get across.  The thought passed through my mind, “This is going to be a good sermon.”  Well, let’s just say that Sunday morning message didn’t spark a intercontinental revival like I was hoping for.  The illustrations sort of fell flat.  The sermon was shorter than I had anticipated.  Things just didn’t go well as I thought they would.  So I started my Monday morning ritual of examining my preaching from the day before.  I wanted to discover why this sermon fell flat.  Here is what I concluded:  My confidence was in my cleverness and preparation and not in God’s power.

I entered the pulpit Sunday morning with confidence in my illustrations and not confidence in the power of God to radically transform lives.

I entered the pulpit Sunday morning with confidence in my preparation and not in the truth that His Word will not return void.

Preachers and Teachers, if we ever put confidence in ourselves when it comes to teaching, then be prepared for a lesson in humility.  On Sunday, I didn’t feel like I had been served a slice of humble pie.  I felt like I just received a humble pie factory that was full of them.  But that’s okay and here’s why.  A preacher friend of mine says it best, “I’m nothing.  As long as I stay nothing, then God can use me.”  God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.  I don’t know about you but I need the Lord’s grace upon me as I step into the pulpit to proclaim His message.  So here are some steps to seek to cultivate humility before you step up to preach.  I’ve used the acrostic A.C.T. to help me remember.

1)  Acknowledge – When you finish your sermon prep, take a moment and acknowledge before the Lord that you can’t do anything apart from him.  You can’t take your next breath unless he sustains you so you especially can’t preach a sermon without him.

2)  Confess – Confess your pride and other sin that comes to mind.  Remember that you are a sinner in desperate need of the same message you are about to preach to others.  

3)  Thank – Thank God that he has called you, equipped  you, and given you the opportunity to proclaim His Kingdom.  It is a privilege, not an inalienable right, to preach the Word.  Anytime you are given the opportunity to proclaim God’s Word, then thank Him for it.

There you have it.  Hopefully, these will help us all cultivate humility as we stand to proclaim the Word week after week.

What ideas do you have about cultivating humility before preaching?  Have you ever had a sermon fall flat because you got the “big head” before you preached it?

Looking for Fat People

Pastors are responsible for making disciples as much as anyone else in the church yet because of busyness in other avenues of ministry, many do not engage in the practice of discipleship.  Sometimes it is because there may not be anyone who is interested in being discipled.  Or maybe part of your problem is like mine.  You're held back by fear of rejection in asking someone to engage in discipleship.  You are a pastor at an older congregation and feel like if you initiated a discipling relationship with someone older than you they might reply, “What can you teach me, young whippersnapper?”  The truth is discipleship is a crucial element in leading change in your church.  

When I served as a missionary/church planter in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the city in which we lived.  It was around 10 million in population.  Part of my  job title was “Team Strategy Leader” which meant I was responsible for formulating a Team Strategy to engage a city of 10 million people with the gospel.  That took my breath away.  I lost some sleep over it.  I felt like all 10 million of those souls were on my shoulders.  Thankfully, a long-time faithful missionary and mentor, Rusty Pugh (yes, that is his real name), taught me the power of focusing on a few.  He told me to look for a few that I could disciple and then let them disciples others.  After I found my few to disciple,  then the disciples of those disciples would then disciple others.  Now, through the power of multiplication, the task didn’t seem as crushing.  So I started looking for five men to  pour my life into.  Guess what?  God gave me five.  He is faithful.

So as you try to lead change in your church, begin discipling a few in your congregation.  

I recommend you look for F.A.T. people:

1) Faithful – Faithfulness is important when it comes to a discipling relationship.  If the person isn’t faithful enough to return phone calls or show up when they are supposed to show up and read the stuff you’ve asked them to read and this is a perpetual problem, then don’t waste your time.  Look for those who are faithful to be there and exert the energy necessary to grow in their walk with Christ.  

2) Available – This one is kind of obvious I guess.  There are some people who will meet the Faithful and Teachable criteria but are so busy that they never have time to meet and discuss anything.  If they aren’t available to meet at least once a month, then I wouldn’t attempt it.

3) Teachable – You want someone who isn’t a know-it-all.  Someone who realizes the need for continued growth.  I don’t know if I am just sort of a weirdo but I always recognize the need for growth in my life.  There is always a gap between who I currently am and who I want to become.  I think this is healthy.  However, many people don’t feel that way and they settle for their current reality.  If they don’t want to grow and they don’t feel like they’ve got anything to learn, then you’d be better off to look for someone else.  

So keep your eyes peeled for F.A.T. people around you and when you find them, begin pouring your life into them and watch how God begins to transform your congregation as you engage in the simple task of disciple making.  

I’ll pray for you to find your F.A.T. people and you pray for me to find mine.

What obstacles have you faced in discipling members of your congregation?  Are there any F.A.T. people in your congregation?  What will you do this week to begin fostering those discipling relationships? 

Dealing with Decline

According to research conducted by fine folks like Thom Rainer, it appears that very many churches are in a state of slow and arduous death.  Why is this the case?  What causes a church to experience this slow and gradual decline.  The reasons are numerous , but many of them flow from one problem.  Here is my opinion on why many churches are in decline.

A church will lose their way when they lose their why.

Here is a little exercise for you.  Speak to the people in your faith family and ask them why you do what you do.  Why do we meet week after week in this place? What is the purpose of this church?

In those churches that are decaying and dying, you’ll find that there is no compelling and clear vision for why the church exists.  People lose their excitement and enthusiasm when they lose their purpose.  People don’t get excited about meetings. They get excited about mission.

So if your church has lost its way because its lost its why, consider taking some of these steps to capture and communicate a fresh vision for the future:

1) Start a Vision team

I recently did this with some leaders in our church as a sort of experiment.  I’ve asked them to think about what the end-vision is for our church.  I asked them, “If you could pray for our church and be absolutely certain that God would give you your request, what would you ask him to do in our church?”  “After we’re all dead and gone, what kind of values and vision do we want this church to represent.”  

Don’t do this by yourself but invite others into the process.  Sure, you could sit in your office and come up with some grand vision for the church, but if the vision for the church doesn’t arise from the pew, it won’t stick.

2) Create alignment in your church

Once you have a vision established, then don’t just let it be a phrase on a sheet of paper.  That doesn’t do a bit of good.  Rather, create alignment in your church around the vision and values that you establish.  This could mean cutting some things out or adding some things but line up the ministries of the church around this central vision.

3) Repeat, Repeat, Repeat the Vision

This is something at which I fail miserably.  Treat this vision like the North Star of the church.  Let it guide you where you know the church should be headed.  It’s like a compass leading you North.  If you lose your vision and you fail to repeat the vision, then people will lose the “Why” and consequently lose the “Way”.

Recapture your church’s “why” and you’ll help them rediscover the way forward to impact and meaningful ministry in your community.

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What else would you mention? Why do you think so many churches are dying?

Practical Steps to Prepare for Seminary

In my previous post, I discussed some of the shortcomings of seminary education.  I recommend attending seminary if you feel God is calling you to become a pastor.  However, it will not be altogether sufficient in preparing you for ministry.  That’s not the seminary’s fault.  It is just the fact of the matter.  So whether you have finished seminary like me and have now realized your need for further growth, or you are in seminary currently, here are some steps to help you in your journey of ministry.

1) Immerse yourself in a local church

For Seminarians:  This seems so painfully obvious.  I know some of you may be thinking “Immerse yourself in a church.  Thanks, Captain Obvious.”  But I’ve heard of individuals who slack on their commitment to a local church because they are going to be busy in their own ministry after they graduate.  If you aren’t currently engaging in ministry in local church, then find one and engage.

For Pastors:  If you’re already a pastor, then you’ll be immersed in the church to the point of nearly drowning so this step doesn’t really apply to you.

As a side note for seminarians, pick a “normal” church and not a “seminary” church.  I’m not knocking those churches that hire seminary profs as staff.  However, if your Sunday School teacher holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology, then you are setting yourself up for some disappointment when it comes to serving your first church.  Aunt Flo whose been teaching Sunday School for 75 years will not be able to explain supralapsarianism. 

Training for ministry shouldn’t be divorced from actual ministry.  You need to learn theology in the trenches so get out of the ivory tower and get into a local church.

2) Seek a mentor

For Seminarians:  Find someone you respect and ask them to mentor you.  Don’t expect them to approach you.  You approach them.  Tell them you admire them and look to them as an example.  Eat lunch together occasionally and seek their advice.  Take the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of those who have walked the road before you.  Ask them what they wish they were taught while in seminary.

For Pastors:  We need mentors too.  Seek out men who have been in ministry for a long time and seek their advice.  Take them to lunch.  Ask them questions.  Bounce ideas off them.  You’ll save yourself some heartache by seeking a mentor.

3) Focus on your personal devotional life

For Seminarians:  Seek to set your devotional habits in concrete while you’re preparing.  If you don’t have some sort of regular habit of prayer and Bible study, it will not magically happen just because someone lays hands on you and they slap “Reverend” in front of your name.  Devote yourself to your prayer closet and Bible study.  After all, prayer and the ministry of the Word are the main components of pastoral ministry.  Start now!

For Pastors:  If you’re devotional life begins to slip, it’s only a matter of time.  Jesus said if you would bear fruit that last, then you must abide in him.  Abide in him.  I’m not talking just a daily quiet time but continued daily communion with the Savior through the Word and prayer.  

4) Start reading/listening/studying anything and everything on leadership

For Seminarians:  I’m not sure if I just wasn’t paying attention or what but I didn’t receive very much information about leadership while in seminary.  I had the amazing opportunity to observe a great leader close up but I didn’t understand how to lead a church.  Find podcast, books, blogs, etc. that talk about leadership and constantly read and study the topic of leadership.  I’m convinced it is the missing element in most pastors’ ministry, including my own.

For Pastors:  The above applies to you as well.  A real leader never feel like they have arrived.  Good leaders have a craving to learn.  Never stop studying leadership and always seek to sharpen your leadership schools.  I’ve committed for the remainder of this year to continually have my nose in a book on leadership.

For all you pastors, what would you recommend to current seminary students?  If you are a pastor, are you open to mentoring someone preparing for ministry?  Who is your “Timothy”?

Seminary: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Does Seminary make a minister?  Well, that’s a bit of a loaded question isn’t it?  It’s a question that will bring a diversity of answers.  Here are my two cents on seminary…

There are some things that seminary will and will not do:

1) Seminary WILL give you the tools but WILL NOT make you a minister

Seminary is really designed to give you the tools and the toolbox of ministry.  You’ll learn many things about the Bible and how to teach it in the context of a local church.  But Seminary will not give you a pastoral heart.  Many seminarians graduate as excellent preachers, but they just don’t love the people to whom they preach.

2) Seminary WILL prepare you for the discipline required for pastoral ministry

If you aren’t disciplined, then you won’t finish seminary.  Likewise, an undisciplined pastor usually won’t remain a pastor very long.

3) Seminary WILL give you an opportunity to observe Godly leaders

This was one of the highlights of my seminary experience.  I was fortunate to have intimate conversations with some great leaders.  I got to observe Al Jackson up close, one of the greatest pastor’s I know.  I had lunch with Dr. Albert Mohler.  I slept in Dr. Chuck Lawless’s basement and beat him in a game of ping pong.  These were experiences I will never forget.  Having opportunities to observe these men up close left an indelible mark on my life.

4) Seminary WILL NOT teach you many of the practical aspects of pastoral ministry

You’ll learn how to teach and understand the Bible (at least if you pick the right seminary), but you will not learn many of the practical parts of pastoring a church.

5) Seminary WILL NOT get you hired at a mega-church (or any church, for that matter) 

Churches will not be banging your door down to hire you as their pastor.  Churches look at experience more than they look at a degree.  I sent out one hundred resumés and only three churches contacted me (Yeah, I know. I’m a loser).  Don’t expect your M.Div. to open wide the flood gates of heaven when it comes to finding a church.

Should I go?

My answer is absolutely.  If you survey church history, you will find that most pastors who did a good job had some sort of formal training.  There are a few who did not but these were men who were extraordinarily gifted and rare exceptions.   If you have sensed God’s call to vocational ministry, then I would recommend you pursue a formal theological education.  It will help you but it isn’t the complete package.  Tune in on Friday for suggestions on how to close the gap between what pastoral ministry requires and what they teach you in seminary.  If you take some of the steps I give you while you attend seminary, then you’ll close the gap and get ahead of the curve before you graduate.

What about you?  If you are a pastor who attended seminary, how did it equip you for ministry?  What were the shortcomings of your seminary experience?  What do you wish they taught you in seminary? What advice would you give to seminarians?