Part One introduced writings on the subject by Charles Jefferson, pastor of the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City from 1898–1937. The first header was “The Character of Ministerial Depression: Complaint”, excerpted from a book called Quiet Hints to Growing Preachers. Part Two continues the theme under the header: “A Common Cause of Ministerial Depression: Criticism”. Though written to pastors, Jefferson’s words can benefit anybody.
Ministerial Depression: Its Creation and Cure
But what about the overcast of depression that so frequently shuts the sunlight out of a minister’s soul? Its prime causes are often three: nerve exhaustion, protracted delays, unfounded expectations.
(1) A minister is subjected to an incessant nervous strain. As executive officer he is harassed by the details and friction of church administration. As pastor he is in constant contact with the sorrowing and the sick. The poor also are always with him. He knows as few men do how the other half lives. Numberless needy men and women slip up to him in the crowd and by their touch draw virtue from him. It is often with a dizzy head and a sick heart that he goes into the pulpit Sunday morning to make a still heavier draft upon his vital forces.
The world does not know how great a tax upon a sensitive man an earnest sermon is. No man can vitalize other men without devitalizing himself. Sermons that heal and lift have in them the red blood of the preacher’s heart. He may save others, himself he cannot save. It is cruel, says London’s greatest preacher, to ask a man to preach twice in one day. Only men to whom preaching is the shedding of blood can understand so bold a saying. It was physical exhaustion which cast Elijah under a juniper tree and drew from his heroic lips the unmanly cry “It is enough!” The tree has a crowd still under it suffering from a like exhaustion.
But a man who lives under a juniper tree cannot preach Gospel sermons. The tree will affect the quality of his voice. A juniper tree voice is an abomination to God and man. It will also control his choice of subjects. He will select themes which give large room for lamentations. Even jubilant texts he will drag through the mire of his gloom. No matter what tune he attempts he will play it with the tremolo stop. Whatever sermonic gold is cast into the fire will come out a calf and a sick calf at that. A disheartened man takes the heart out of everybody else. Unless he is resisted he will drag the whole parish under his juniper tree.
Such a man needs food for the nerves. Let him get out into God’s out-of-doors. Men like trees live largely on air. Red corpuscles in the blood save one from the malady of seeing all things blue. A preacher must get away from his work one day in seven. Who is he that he thinks he can tread presumptuously upon the fourth commandment without paying the penalty? He should rest one month out of every twelve. If his church will not grant him this he should take it. No man can wear in the pulpit for forty years without periodic seasons for recuperation and repairs. There are men now fishing who catch no fish because they have never taken time to mend their nets. If a man makes a practice of preaching through his vacations, verily he has his explanations—and his reward.
(2) Sometimes the despondency is the result of accumulated disappointments. The very finest spirits are often broken by the experiences through which a minister is called upon to pass. Every true workman wants to see results of his labor, but in the spiritual world tangible results are not always immediately forthcoming. If a man can see of the travail of his soul he will be satisfied, but it is hard to work by faith. The preacher does his best but the world does not budge. He preaches truth but hearts are locked and barred against it. Some men grow worse under his preaching, and even from the best of soil there come forth but puny and tardy harvests. For awhile he bears up under these cutting disappointments but at last his spirit flags and he falls headlong into a hopelessly dejected mood. By his voice and temper the world can see that he is a defeated and disheartened man.
Unless he gets out of this pit he is lost. Let him go to the New Testament and master the seed-law of the kingdom. Let him study the parable of the soils, a parable with worlds of consolation for preachers who are discouraged. Let him refresh himself with the thought that even when the seed is perfect and the sowing is faultless the harvest is often scanty or choked, and that from at least one variety of soil there can be no harvest at all. Let him ponder the parable of the harvest coming gradually, and rejoice in the assurance that the full corn is coming though his wistful eyes may see no more than tiny blades. The processes of spiritual development are slow but they are as orderly and certain as are the processes by which the universe has come to its present estate. It is a great thing to believe with one’s heart and mind and strength that every bit of work done for God with patient hands and faithful heart is certain to bring forth some day, somehow, abundant harvests to his glory. No minister of Christ should rest content until this faith is his.
(3) Many a man has been cast down by unreasonable expectations, and these expectations in numerous cases have been aroused by mistaken reading of the Scriptures. It is frequently asserted that if men will only preach the Gospel the crowds will flock to hear them, and as proof of this a sentence of St. Mark is quoted, “the common people heard him gladly.” People who quote the Scripture ought to find out first what the Scripture means.
On the day on which Jesus upset the Pharisees and discomfited the Scribes the common people, so Mark says, listened with delight. Of course they did. The Scribes and Pharisees were their hereditary foes. To see such snobs and pedants rolled headlong in the dust was to the common people an experience quite delicious. The words of Jesus were applauded with hilarity and glee. But outside of a few forlorn and forsaken sinners to whom Jesus’ kindness was overmastering, what classes of people listened to him gladly when he was pressing upon the conscience high conceptions or arduous duties.
The next time someone gravely quotes, “the common people heard him gladly,” ask him, when? Certainly not in Nazareth for they tried to kill him there. Not in Capernaum for they deserted him there. Not in Jerusalem for they cried, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Not on the cross for they wagged their heads and derided him. It is a monstrous perversion of the facts to say that the common people of Palestine accepted gladly the teaching of the Son of God. If they did why did he utter woes upon Bethsaida and Capernaum and Chorazin, cities filled with common people, and why did he sob, “O Jerusalem, how oft would I, but you would not!” And how did it happen that after three years of as hard work as a perfect man with perfect methods could do, assisted by twelve apostles and seventy heralds, he left at death a little company of only six hundred converts drawn from the millions of the common people in the midst of whom he had done his mighty works? The common people rejected both Jesus and his teachings nineteen hundred years ago and their temper has never changed.
Let no man then delude himself with the foolish expectation that the world is going to rush to hear him preach. The world has found Jesus out. It knows now that He is a teacher of high ideals and uncomfortable commandments, whose disciples must not expect to be above their master and whose servants must be as their Lord. The New Testament makes it clear as light that we preachers shall have tribulation. If we live godly in Christ Jesus we must suffer persecution. We are sent forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. Unless we take up our cross daily we cannot be his disciples. If we are wise, we will accept this as our lot, not despondingly but with exceeding joy, desiring always that we may know Christ and his resurrection, and the fellowship of his suffering, being made conformable unto his death, if by any means we may attain unto the resurrection of the dead.
Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.
(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)