Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

What Church Leaders Should Know about Depression

  • Mike Vlach
  • Published Mar 08, 2005
What Church Leaders Should Know about Depression

How did you become interested in helping people with depression?

Clinical depression was a problem I knew little about until I found myself sitting at the bottom of a deep, dark pit, with no idea how I had gotten there and no hope of escape. I had always been strong and driven to excel, with little sympathy for those who battled depression or "the blues" as I arrogantly referred to this illness. My two favorite encouragements for these "weak" people were "Get over it!" and "Just deal with it and go on, for crying out loud!"

But in the spring of 1995, I - the strong one - could not get out of bed.  If I managed to be dressed by the time my two children got home from school, it was a good day. The simplest decision sent me into a panic. The great wisdom-giver could not compile a grocery list.  The woman who taught hundreds and even thousands of women couldn't bring herself to face crowds of any size. The large tasks of life were out of the question and even the simplest tasks seemed like huge mountains.  I was paralyzed. 

My journey from the darkness into the light was a long, lonely struggle.  We were created for the light.  We do not have to stay in the pit or remain prisoners of the darkness.  We are not alone.  But it certainly felt that way to me. With every step I promised God that when I reached the light, I would tell my story.  God did not give me an interest in helping those who battle depression.  He gave me a passion and a message of hope that I must share.

How big of a problem is depression in our society?

The world today knows depression as a health problem.  As a matter of fact, depression is America's number one health problem.  Studies indicate that as many as half of all women and one out of three men struggle with depression on a regular basis. I think we can safely say that almost everyone either experiences depression or knows someone who will at some point in life.

Do church leaders need to be concerned about depression in their churches?

Absolutely!  Jesus was!  As a matter of fact, the Bible is filled with accounts of those who battled the darkness of depression. Job longed for death and even questioned why he was ever born.  Elijah sat under a juniper tree begging God to let him die. The great apostle Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians:  "We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life."  On the night before He was crucified, Jesus felt abandoned and totally alone.  It must have seemed like He had fallen into a deep, dark pit from which there was no escape. These accounts are included in God's love letter to us for a very important reason; we need to be concerned about the things that concern Jesus.  He is Light and stands against darkness of any kind.  We are called to do the same.

What should church leaders know about depression?

This question is especially important to me because when the bottom fell out of life my husband - Dan - was the pastor of Flamingo Road Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  I was the pastor's wife, director of the women's ministry and a highly visible leader in the church and community.  Neither Dan nor I knew how to navigate the unfamiliar waters of depression.  It was foreign land and we had never been there before.  There were many lessons to learn and share. 

Church leaders should know that depression is a very real issue that they must address.  Some people say that depression is solely a spiritual problem while others believe it to be a physical or mental disorder.  I believe it is both.  As followers of Christ, everything we are, everything we do and everything we experience is wrapped up in and affected by the personal relationship we have or do not have with God through Jesus Christ.  Nothing touches our life that doesn't pass through His hands, with His permission.  Every problem we face, whether it is a physical illness or an unconfessed sin is a "spiritual problem".  If it is a concern to us it is a concern to Him.

Church leaders should know that depression may require medical attention.  Chemical imbalances induced by stress can trigger depression.  It is important to know that a tendency toward depression is many times hereditary, resulting in a disorder that responds well to the right medication.  Depression is not eliminated by medication.  Medicine simply levels the playing field so that the issues and problems that lead to depression can be effectively dealt with.

Church leaders should know that depression may require professional counseling.  I am amazed that so many Christians are so afraid to see a Christian counselor.  Shame and guilt often prevent those who battle depression from getting the help they need.  God gave counselors their gifts and abilities.  He must have known we would need them.  Church leaders should be quick to encourage those struggling with depression to seek out Christian counseling. 

Church leaders should be aware of the shame and stigma felt by those who struggle with depression.  These people are not "crazy" but often feel as if everyone thinks they are.  Many times a pastor or church leader can make it easier for those who battle depression by simply acknowledging depression as a reality that anyone can face.

Church leaders should know that depression is not necessarily sin.  The causes of depression are incalculable. While it is true that depression can be triggered by the consequences of sin it is just as true that depression can simply be the result of a chemical imbalance present from birth. Depression can even be a side affect of medication or induced by health problems as well as physical and mental exhaustion. For example, those who must take medicine to control high blood pressure, thyroid conditions, diabetes and a host of other illnesses are very likely to struggle with depression.  Many of the most creative and powerful leaders battle depression because they constantly teeter on the brink of burnout.

Authenticity and transparency bring healing.  As pastors and leaders we must be willing to practice emotional integrity, freeing those we love and lead to do the same. 

What specific experiences or circumstances do church leaders need to closely monitor since they can produce depression?

I have already mentioned several "triggers" of depression - physical illness, chemical imbalances, etc.  However, depression can also be caused by the ordinary pain of everyday life:

Significant loss (death, divorce, being fired from a job)
Major life change
Learned patterns of behavior
How we were raised (taught negative thought patterns)
Mid-life crisis (fear of never attaining goals)
Growing older (lonely, loss of mate, no purpose)
Suppressed anger
Manipulation (way in which deal with others)
Failure to deal with painful experiences from the past

Spiritual disobedience
Aftermath of great victory
Wrong perspectives
Wrong priorities
Unbalanced life
Teaching and/or refining time

Church leaders need to be aware that a life crisis often produces a stronghold in which darkness takes root.  That same crisis is also a great opportunity for the healing comfort and power of God to be shared by church members and leaders.  

What signs can church leaders look for indicating that someone is depressed?

The following is a checklist to help you determine if you or someone you love is these feelings persist more than two weeks it is wise to check with your doctor or a Christian counselor.  A simple change in diet, medication or lifestyle may be all that is needed.  For many, more extensive help is required.

Fatigue or decreased energy
Irritability and/or anger
Prevailing sadness
Sense of hopelessness
Lack of interest in normal activities
Withdrawal from friends and family
Insomnia or oversleeping
Weight gain or loss
Excessive crying
Thoughts of death or suicide
Inability to participate in normal relationships
Inability to work or carry out normal activities
Difficulty in making decisions

Help the church leader understand how a depressed person thinks and feels.

If you asked someone who is truly depressed how they feel, they might say:


Florida is famous for its sinkholes.  Being born and raised in Texas, I find sinkholes fascinating.  The ground suddenly collapses with no warning and seemingly for no reason!  Actually, it is the culmination of a long process.  Scientists say that sinkholes occur when the underground resources dry up, causing the soil at the surface to lose its underlying support.  Then...everything simply caves in and an ugly pit is formed. 

Depression and sinkholes have a lot in common!  Depression seems to overwhelm with a vicious suddenness when, in reality, it is a subtle and gradual process. Inner resources are slowly depleted until one day, there is no energy...of any maintain normal life activities. The world caves in and our existence seems to be swallowed up in the darkness of a black hole.  Depression is an isolating and lonely experience.  While it is true that much of the emotional "work" of dealing with this disorder must be done in solitude, it is also just as true that anyone dealing with depression needs constant encouragement.  I often felt like a total failure that had disappointed my family, friends and every woman who had ever sat under my teaching or asked for my counsel.  The greatest pain came from the belief that I had disappointed my God.  It almost seemed easier at times to simply stay in the familiar darkness of the pit instead of struggling toward the light.  Depression destroys all motivation, physical energy and paralyzes even the strongest person. 

What specific steps can churches and church leaders take to help someone who is depressed?

Many times we want to help but because we don't know what to do - we do nothing at all! There are specific things anyone can do to help those battling depression.

Be a listener!

James 1:19 "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak."  Put away your sermon - save your advice and just listen.  People in the grip of      depression know that you cannot fix them and it makes them angry when you try. Listening sends the most important message, "I'm here for you.  I want to understand and share your pain."  When we listen to people we validate their feelings.  We invite them into our lives giving them the most precious gift that we have - time.  Listening is encouragement.  And that is exactly what someone in the darkness needs - encouragement.
Be a stabilizer!

1 Thessalonians 5:11 "Therefore encourage one another and build each other up!" To encourage literally means to "put courage in".  In order to help someone who is struggling with depression you must stay emotionally centered.  Don't join them in the pit. They need your stability.

Get involved in their life!

Proverbs 17:17 "A true friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need."  Paul defines involvement as being a "loyal yoke-fellow" or someone who will get under the load with you.  If you sense a need just meet that need, small or large, expecting nothing in return because they can't give it.  Don't wait for them to ask. Many times people in pain can't or won't ask for help.  Getting involved may be as simple as asking their small group to provide weekly meals, drop off or pick up children from school, shop for groceries or vacuum their house.  These simple tasks seem like huge mountains to the person battling depression.  Sadly, the church is sometimes famous for shooting our wounded and discarding them like broken toys.  We are all wounded but can choose to become wounded healers through the power of God.

Establish a support team

We were created to need each other.  A shared load is a lighter load. Seek out someone who has struggled with depression and found victory over the darkness.  Challenge them to share their story and provide a safe place where others can come to share theirs. An encouragement team can pray, offer much needed support, take care of specific daily needs, etc.  More people come to God in times of crisis than at any other time in life.  And they are brought there by a friend, a support team member.  The importance of being involved in a small group is demonstrated when small group members reach out to those struggling with depression.

Be transparent.

We must be real in order to be right.  Healing begins at the point of emotional integrity.  When church leaders openly share their own personal struggles and problems it frees others to do the same and the course for restoration is set.
Be patient.

No one gets depressed overnight and no one conquers depression overnight.  Life is a marathon, not a fifty-yard dash and we must be patient, willing to help those who run the race slowly or cannot run at all. 

What mistakes do church leaders need to avoid when trying to help depressed people?

I love the story of the little boy who found a caterpillar in his driveway.  As he carefully examined his new discovery an amazing scene unfolded before him.  The moth was frantically struggling to escape its outer covering.  Anxious to help, the little boy ran inside, grabbed some scissors and returned to his mission, gently setting the moth free from its prison of darkness.  The little boy sat down beside the butterfly to watch its first flight.  But the butterfly stumbled, vainly trying to lift its wings - only to wobble, falling over and over again. You see, it is in the struggle from the prison of darkness into the light that wings gain enough strength to fly. 

I believe that one of the greatest mistakes we as church leaders make is to miss the purpose of the pit in our zeal to set the pit dwellers free.  It is a shallow love that rescues easily and quickly.  There is a purpose in every pit.  Many times we inadvertently encourage those who struggle with depression to focus only on escaping the pit instead of embracing the purpose of the pit. Pits have an amazing way of bringing balance to life as they demand a change in perspective, offering new growth and strength for the journey. 

It is also easy to feed our own self-worth and ego as church leaders by becoming an emotional crutch for those in crisis.  Some people do not want to give up their pit.  It has become their identity and way of gaining attention. We must be careful investors of our time and energy.  Helping someone in darkness is a great opportunity for the body of Christ to function in a powerful way.

Do you know of any examples where a church, church leader or lay person effectively helped a depressed person(s)?

Oh yes I do!  If it were not for the people of Flamingo Road Church my story would be a very different one.  They brought meals, cleaned my house, took care of my kids, ran my errands and even bought groceries for me.  Deacons were assigned to me at every service. They constantly watched over me, rescuing me from conversations and situations that were draining and destructive to my recovery. These precious men escorted me to and from my car, sending me home with a hug and a prayer.  Friends in the church stepped in and took over my roles of leadership. Others called, wrote notes of encouragement and prayed endlessly for me.  I am where I am today because of a church that was willing to love me and stand by me, even in the darkness.  The world is desperately longing for a safe place where they can come to see a living God at work.  As a result of my struggle with clinical depression and the way in which the people of Flamingo Road responded, many others have come to find that same love, acceptance and support. 

A few final thoughts from the other side of the pit:

If there is one central message of my story, it is hope.  I made it out of the pit and so can you.  The path may seem endless and even cruel at times.  But remember that you did not slip into that pit overnight and you will not climb out overnight.  The journey out of the pit begins and ends with one small step of faith.  Walk straight ahead through your fear.  And with each step, moment by moment, the darkness will slowly begin to lift. 

Psalm 40: 1-3 "I waited patiently for the Lord; He turned to me and heard my cry.  He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.  He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to God.  Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord."

About Mary Southerland: Mary is married to Dan Southerland, is a pastor's wife, mother of two, speaker and author.  Mary has a deep burden for the Pastor's Wife and is a frequent speaker for Pastor's Wives retreats and conferences. Mary has spoken to thousands of women all over the United States as well as Latin America, South Africa, Costa Rica, England and New Zealand. She is also the author of Coming Out of the Dark, the story of her personal struggle with clinical depression, as well as Sandpaper People due to be released July 1, 2005, by Harvest House Publishers.  Mary writes a weekly column for Rick Warren's Tool Box on and has an extensive tape ministry that speaks to the heart of women in every season of life. Mary and her family live in Waxhaw, NC.

To book Mary for a speaking event:

Phone: 704-843-2934