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Search Process Can Trigger Depression for Some Ministers

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I fear my story is uncommon. That’s the depression – that I’m alone.

I fear my story is all too common. That’s the cynicism and the experience – hurting churches hurt pastors.

This story begins where my last ministry employment ended.

I still don’t know why it ended. I thought my time at the church had been successful. I thought I was engaging, efficient and helpful.

I was enjoying my time with the students and had built relationships that were resulting in students growing in their Christianity.

My theology was changing, for sure, and I was searching for a chance to embrace my convictions in a pastoral role, but nobody at the church was aware of this, and I knew the pastor search process was long and tedious.

I made a point to keep my head down. But then that day came.

I was called into the pastor’s office. Sitting there was the entire personnel committee, which wasn’t abnormal because this was annual review time. But this was anything other than a normal annual review.

The first thing that was said to me was, “We believe it’s time our relationship came to an end.”

I was shocked. Overwhelmed. I asked, “Why?” only to be answered with “We’re not going to tell you.”

And just like that, my time in paid ministry came to an end.

I have struggled with depression since middle school. The reasons why are varied but ultimately irrelevant to this article.

Being employed by a staunchly fundamentalist Southern Baptist church was a challenge by itself; however, having a vibrant growing understanding of Scripture meant that I was constantly on guard against my tendency to lose control of my emotions and thoughts.

I lost control when I lost my position. I spiraled into a deep depression.

Depression is never the exact same for anyone who struggles with it, but it does color everything.

My depression completely controlled my emotions, which tainted all of my life decisions.

However, my depression did not cloud my judgment on intellectual or academic exercises.

Many people couldn’t understand that I was still growing and in control of my ability to reason theologically and philosophically, but I was not in control of the way I felt about my faith and life prospects.

I took a little time off from church and continued my soul searching and theological journey.

I helped form a Bible study with some friends who also had been hurt by churches and started the work of building community outside of the ecclesial setting.

Ultimately, my family found a home in a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship church that was much more progressive and welcoming to theological discourse than our previous church experiences.

As we became more comfortable with our new faith community, I began to explore the possibility of ministry employment. And thus, I entered the rough waters of the Baptist pastor search process.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the process, it looks something like this:

  1. A church loses its pastor, which is a form of trauma that starts the whole process of finding someone else to be the primary faith caregiver of this community.
  2. The church elects a committee of representative members, which begins meeting and setting out the parameters of the ideal candidate for whom they will search.
  3. After drawing up a job description, the committee begins publicizing their search for a pastor and collecting and sorting resumes.
  4. The committee begins interviewing a select few candidates, observes them preaching (either in person or video) and ultimately selecting one person to preach “in view of a call.”
  5. If approved by the congregation, the person becomes the new pastor and begins the work of dealing with and healing the trauma that started the whole process.

From the pastoral candidate’s perspective, the whole process is ripe with triggers for depression.

Most resumes end up in the trash, and the pastoral candidate is never even contacted regarding the position.

If the candidate is contacted, many times that initial contact is the only interaction. Odds are that even a candidate who is interviewed is not going to be selected for the position.

Even to the end of the process, there are opportunities for the pastoral candidate to experience rejection, and the fear of rejection alone is enough to trigger depression for some.

As someone who finds himself in the unenviable position of suffering from depression and searching for a job with a Baptist church, I can attest that the triggers are real, and the depression all too common.

What does this depression look like?

For me, depression manifests in many ways: excessive lethargy, bouts of deep sadness, a general feeling of hopelessness and despair, constant snacking and an attempt to pull away from important relationships.

However, depression could manifest itself in almost the exact opposite ways: overworking, manic episodes, avoiding food and so on.

The best way to know if a friend or family member is struggling through depression is by having a deep, open relationship with that person.

Pastors and pastoral candidates who struggle with depression are like most other people who struggle with depression.

We need to know that we are loved anyway, that we are important anyway and that our fears are valid. We need to know we have value but that sometimes our understanding of our lack of value is also reasonable.

According to a study by Duke Divinity School in 2013, more than twice as many pastors struggle with depression compared to the national rate – 11.1% to 5.5%.

I am not sure how to solve this problem; I am only trying to raise awareness.

The pastor search process exacerbates and triggers those who are already more prone to depression.

We need to be aware that those who serve as pastors have this heightened propensity to be depressed and also be aware of the different processes by which that depression might be triggered.

What this awareness leads to will probably be as varied as the churches that call themselves Baptist; however, hopefully these varied changes will better engage pastors, especially in the pastor search process.

Drew Patton

Drew Patton is an ordained Baptist pastor with a Master’s in Historical Theology.