When Pastors Walk Through a Dark Night of the Soul

When Pastors Walk Through a Dark Night of the Soul August 28, 2018

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Yesterday, many of us were struck by the news of a young pastor’s suicide. It is heartbreaking to think about what might have led him to make this tragic decision. In my younger years, I would have looked upon this man’s pain with immense condescension, but I have been doing this for over 15 years now, so while I would never say that I know what he was going through, I know what it is like to walk through dark and hopeless days.

Pastors often engage in hyperbole about how difficult the ministry can be. On its best days, the ministry is demanding, but you see many great things happening around you that the aggravations fade into the background. The bad days in ministry can be downright terrible. Whether it’s another person in your church walking through sickness and death, a leader leaving for another church, dealing with someone who is walking through a season of outright rebellion against God, or facing fierce opposition from within the church, the bad days bring trouble that can make you forget the good days ever existed.

The Apostle Paul made a statement in 2 Corinthians that I have always found fascinating. In chapter 11, after he spoke of beatings, lashings, nights spent in the cold, imprisonments, and days spent in hunger and thirst, he says, “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” The authorities gave Paul the thirty-nine lashings five times, three times they beat him with rods, and once he was stoned; and in the same paragraph in which he reported these sufferings he mentioned his anxiety for the churches. This tells us something about the pressures of ministry.

Every pastor walks through dark nights of the soul. The pain of betrayal, the sting of failure, and despair over people walking away from the faith are often more than the pastor is able to bear. Some days, being beaten with rods sounds preferable to the tense meeting, the painful confrontation, and the smile you force while one more person tells you they are going somewhere else.

In addition, pastors often don’t get to shut down when times of trouble strike. While there are times when a pastor needs to get away, for the most part when times are tough we have to keep plodding for the glory of God. We continue to pray, preach, evangelize, disciple, and counsel even when we are in great need of help ourselves.

When we walk through difficult times in the ministry, how can we fight to stay spiritually, mentally, and emotionally healthy?

Ground Your Identity in the Gospel

Please don’t skip this point for the more “practical” stuff I say below. One thing I find to be hard about the ministry is how intertwined my spiritual life and my vocation are. While all work that contributes to the flourishing of mankind is a sacred calling, there is something about the ministry that makes you question your standing before the Lord when things are not going well. You can wrongly assume that if you were praying more, sharing the Gospel more, reading the Bible more, and being a more faithful Christian your church would be doing better than it is right now. Do not fall into this trap. Many godly men have faced difficult, uphill battles in the ministry. Many faithful brothers have known seemingly fruitless seasons.

Pastor, remember that you are a Christian first. Before God called you to be a pastor, he called you to himself. You are a child of God through faith alone in Jesus Christ. You have been promised a hope that no one can take away, not because of your effectiveness in ministry, but through the grace of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. By his life, death, resurrection, and continuing ministry at the right hand of God you are an adopted son of God with access to the throne of God. And this is all true, not by any great work you have done in the name of Jesus, but because of Jesus and what he has done. Remind yourself of this every single day.

Talk to Your Wife

There is disagreement among pastors about telling your wife about the ministry pressures you face. Some men believe you should not weigh down your wife with your troubles. I cannot presume to speak for every marriage because every man and wife are different, but I think I would shrivel up inside if I did not talk with Beth about the pressures I faced in ministry and the effect they were having on my soul.

I have found over the years that I do greater damage to our relationship by trying to hide the struggles I am facing than by being honest about them. Men, our wives know us well and have great insight, so we cannot hide when we walk into the house with a two-ton weight on our shoulders. They know it, and shutting them out hurts our marriages more than it helps them.

Our wives follow Jesus too, and know us better than anyone else does, so why wouldn’t we want to invite them into our struggles? We need their wisdom, their help, their understanding, and their prayers. If you can tell your struggles are weighing your wife down as well, don’t assume not talking is the right response. Ask her the best way to talk through these things with her without overburdening her. Don’t assume you will make the right call without hearing her insight.

Trust Your Church’s Leaders

Begin your church’s leadership meetings with prayer. I am not talking about a quick, obligatory prayer before we deal with, “church business.” Instead, the church’s leaders need to have honest conversations about how they can pray for each other and begin the meeting with every church leader praying over one of the other church leaders. Doing this builds an incredible sense of brotherhood and reminds us that we are partners in a great cause, not belligerents in a battle.

If you are walking through a time of pain and difficulty, trust your church’s leaders enough to let them know. Explain the source of the trouble and what is happening to you as you walk through it. Listen to them as they counsel you and receive the encouragement God gives as they pray for you. Then, as they may want to come along and offer practical help, let them. The church is a body, and you rob yourself of one of God’s sweetest means of grace when you try to forge ahead alone.

Pray

I once had a friend ask me an incredibly important question about prayer and you need to hear what he said too. “Scott, have you prayed about this?” “Yeah, I’ve prayed about it.” “No, Scott, have you really stopped and prayed about this?” The answer was, “no.”

We often throw up one quick prayer and say we have prayed about it, but this will not suffice. We must pour out our hearts and requests before the Lord in the same way that we encourage everyone else to. After all, the promises that God makes concerning prayer apply to you as well. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Bring your burdens before the Lord, and receive the peace that he gives to his people.

Read Your Bible

Fellow pastor, I don’t mean to insult you by insinuating that you don’t read the Bible. I know you do, but like with prayer, we must ask, “Do you read the Bible?”. Do you read the Bible for the sake of your own soul and not just so you can teach it at the next appointed hour?

In the Bible, you will find consistent encouragement. As God speaks in the pages of Scripture, we hear the truths we need to persevere in the face of trials and difficulty. We remember why we do ministry and how we properly carry it out. You get to see how the people of God throughout history kept going forward when adversity came and how the Lord helped them overcome it. We need this constant nourishment. We need the truths of the Gospel and a reminder about the gracious character of God. We find these truths in the Bible alone.

Get Outside

When I was young I read a biography of Charles Spurgeon and found his bouts with depression to be a curious battle for so great a man. What I found particularly strange at the time was how much he felt likes walks on the beach and getting into nature restored his soul. He made statements like this one he made to his students titled, “The Minister’s Fainting Fits,” and it didn’t make sense to me until I had been in the ministry for about a decade.

Let a man be naturally as blithe as a bird, he will hardly be able to bear up year after year against such a suicidal process; he will make his study a prison and his books the warders of a goal, while nature lies outside his window calling him to health and beckoning him to joy.

He who forgets the humming of the bees among the heather, the cooing of the wood-pigeons in the forest, the song of birds in the woods, the rippling of rills among the rushes, and the sighing of the wind among the pines, needs not wonder if his heart forgets to sing and his soul grows heavy.

A day’s breathing of fresh air upon the hills, or a few hours, ramble in the beech woods’ umbrageous calm, would sweep the cobwebs out of the brain of scores of our toiling ministers who are now but half alive.

A mouthful of sea air, or a stiff walk in the wind’s face, would not give grace to the soul, but it would yield oxygen to the body, which is next best.

Heaviest the heart is in a heavy air,
Ev’ry wind that rises blows away despair.

The ferns and the rabbits, the streams and the trouts, the fir trees and the squirrels, the primroses and the violets, the farm-yard, the new-mown hay, and the fragrant hops—these are the best medicine for hypochondriacs, the surest tonics for the declining, the best refreshments for the weary.

For lack of opportunity, or inclination, these great remedies are neglected, and the student becomes a self-immolated victim.

Most of our work is inside work. We meet with people over meals or coffee. Then we head back to the study to sit in a chair while we read, study, pray, return emails, and meet with more people. Sitting down inside this much is not good for us, so we must look for every possible opportunity to get moving and get outside. Reading on my back porch and doing my morning workout outside have been good for my soul. Spurgeon was right about nature, and I only had to walk through some tough times to see how wise his counsel was.

Take a Day off, Take Your Vacations, and Take a Retreat

Unfortunately, pastors think we can abuse ourselves by working nonstop because “I’m doing this for Jesus.” We can never bring glory to God while pretending we are him. God alone never slumbers or sleeps, and we demonstrate great foolishness when we think we can keep plowing without rest like God does. This idiocy starts in seminary, where we use how little we’ve slept as some kind of badge of honor and if we are not careful it continues into our work in the ministry.

Pastor, you must take twenty-four consecutive hours off from work to rest, hang out with family, do yard work, or whatever you want to do. Your family needs your undivided attention and you need the break. I struggle with this from time to time. When I do, I can tell by how worn down I get. Then, I take a day off and find myself rested and ready for a new week.

One day off each week will only cut it for so long. Take your vacation time and get away. Tell people to only call you if there is a real emergency. Get everything in place for who will cover your responsibilities and go somewhere. Take naps, enjoy nature, eat good food, and have fun with your family. You need it more than you know, so pull out your calendar right now and make the time to get away. (Notice I said, “make the time.” We need to excise “find the time” from our vocabulary. You never magically “find” time for the things that matter. You have to “make” it.)

Also, work with your leaders to schedule time for a study and planning retreat. This is not a vacation, but a time or two a year for you to get away and work in a distraction-free environment. Work on sermons, plan outreach events, or develop training for your leaders, but make this time to get away and work without the ringing of the phone or the pinging of the email. (Many denominations have campgrounds or conference centers that would be great for this. Also, look for cabins in your state parks or find out if someone in your church has a place where you can go.)

Take Care of Your Mind and Body

Pastors can often forget that they are whole people. Sometimes we feel ornery, tired, and anxious for days or weeks in a row without doing anything to address it. Sometimes, our darkness can be lifted by getting in better shape. High blood pressure can make you feel horrible and a sedentary lifestyle can lead to perpetual lethargy. Find a friend to workout with or start walking in your neighborhood. The benefits will be worth the effort.

In Christian circles we often the wisdom we can glean from physicians and mental health professionals. While many have been too quick to prescribe medicine without addressing underlying spiritual issues, we must admit that some people need medication to treat the issues they are facing. If a person had cancer, you would not tell them to read Romans 8:28 and expect that to heal their cancer. No, you would tell them to go see and physician to treat their cancer and point them to God’s word to help them understand how to trust in the providence of God during this difficult season. You would focus on medical treatment and godly counsel.

In the same way, some brothers deal with chemical imbalances, extreme anxiety, and other issues for which they might need medicine. This is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of wisdom. We do this, not in isolation from godly counsel, but in addition to it. We tell brothers to pray, seek the Lord, and trust in the providence of God, but we remember that we are whole people. We have minds, bodies, and souls.

(Pastor, if you find yourself walking through prolonged periods of excessive darkness or you are thinking about taking your own life, stop reading this and find someone to talk to right now. There is absolutely no shame in doing this. It is okay to not be okay and hiding it will accomplish nothing.)

Fight the Good Fight

Pastor, fight the good fight in the encouragement God gives. Get in the word, get on your knees, get outside, talk to your wife, and talk to your leaders. Remember who you are because of Jesus and Jesus alone. None of these things will make the ministry easy, but they will help to keep you going when the ministry is discouraging and demanding.

Related Posts:
48 Scattered Thoughts about Pastoral Ministry and Being a Pastor

Six Foolish Things I Used to Believe about the Ministry

For Further Reading:
The Imperfect Pastor by Zach Eswine

Spurgeon’s Sorrows by Zach Eswine


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