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Mental ill-health and ministry

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Posted by Mark Meynell, 20 May 2020

Mark Meynell asks the provocative question of whether mental ill-health is a qualification for Christian ministry and comes up with some unexpected answers, in this article from the summer 2018 edition of Crossway.

Is mental ill-health a qualification for ministry?

The short answer is, naturally, “of course not!” That would be absurd. I daresay you can rattle off many of the pastoral epistles’ job requirements for ministers and even the haziest of memories is unlikely to interpolate psychological problems.

Mental ill-health as a consequence of ministry
What if we rephrase the question slightly? Substitute ‘qualification for’ with ‘consequence of’ and the short answer is equally obvious. “Quite possibly!” There is little doubt that ministry takes its toll.

As I come up to the 21st anniversary of my own ordination, I can look back on pastoral situations and ministry challenges (not to mention my own frailties, failures and sins) that would have shaken even the most psychologically robust. And I have witnessed the mental suffering of good friends in ministry that comes as the direct result of faithfulness to their calling. We can (and should) endeavour to grow habits of God-given wisdom, for the sake of godly flourishing and sustenance. For the truth is, if we ministers are unwell, we are unlikely to be the only ones who come out unscathed, as any member of a community whose leader has crashed and burned can testify.

However careful and wise we might be, it is guaranteed that we will retire even from a supposedly ‘successful’ ministry (whatever that might be) with emotional wounds and scars. Just remember the apostle in Corinth: “For I wrote to you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you” (2 Cor 2:4).

As poet and critic Clive James has reminded us, nobody gets out of this world alive; to which we might add, and that includes ministry.

Mental ill-health is not a disqualification for ministry

But I am not being flippant when I pose the headline question. On a few occasions, friends have sought my input on the appointment to a ministry team of someone who has battled depression. Should mental ill-health be a deal-breaker? It depends!

One needs to gauge, and offset, the relative severity of the illness, the demands of the job description, the size and maturity of the staff team (if there is one) as well as a range of other elements. But the one thing about which I am very clear is that mental ill-health should never automatically be a disqualification. It is simply one factor of many adjustments and accommodations that any employer must accept when taking on a new recruit.

Suppose the best candidate for a church job depended on a wheelchair for mobility. There would certainly be costs to taking that person on: stairs made more manageable or avoidable, accessible parking, and so on. This should not be motivated by the requirements of diversity legislation as much as a desire to do the very best for the people we respect and work alongside. The fact that the physical accessibility of our workspaces might not have previously been pressing (thus unwittingly excluding a swathe of the population) is not the point. It is pressing now. And so any responsible church would want to do something about it.

So couldn’t the same be argued for those with mental health concerns? Surely it is a matter of making accommodations?

Yes and no. One of the hardest things about the affliction is its invisibility. If it could be treated with a plaster cast, life would be so much easier. It would be obvious to all and sundry that adjustments were necessary.

But there is a sliding scale here. It goes without saying that some extreme manifestations, for example, those which might constitute a threat to others, cannot be compatible with pastoral care (whether of the vulnerable or not). Trust is the crucial ingredient.

That should not mean that all individuals with depression or anxiety, say, should be ruled inappropriate because of them being less than reliable, more high-maintenance, or lacking in faith. Let’s take each of those concerns in turn.

Reliable? Assessing a potential recruit’s reliability is obviously a judgment any employer must make. Depending on the role in question, and with the right management, there is no intrinsic reason why they will be more unreliable.

High-maintenance? It was a simple lesson I learned early in ministry - taking on a new staff member (in any role) does not necessarily reduce your work, still less save you time. It merely extends it because you need to spend time investing in that person. With someone battling mental ill-health, this will be demanding and that needs to be factored in, but so what? It’s not an intrinsic barrier, necessarily.

Lacking Faith? There is an evangelical form of the prosperity gospel that seems to hint that being faithful to God will lead to relatively stress-free or successful lives. Oh I know we don’t ever say that, but we unthinkingly assume it. This might manifest in being shocked when stress is high or success less forthcoming - as if we feel short-changed. But God never promises us an easy life. And that includes mental health. Even people who trust the Lord a great deal still suffer - even when they have been trusting him for years.

If depression was a bar to ministry, then by rights the following luminaries should probably have been fired: King David, Job, Elijah, Jeremiah, the apostle Paul perhaps; and a good case can perhaps be made for the Lord Jesus himself. Countless leaders in history have been similarly afflicted: William Cowper, Charles Spurgeon, C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Florence Nightingale, and many, many, more. Anyone willing to fill in their P45 forms?

Mental ill-health might be a help in ministry
But here’s where it might actually be a help. Paul was at his most subversive when writing to the Corinthians, especially in what we know as his second letter. They were self-aggrandising, self-assured, and self-sufficient. God will have none of that. Not just because it excludes dependence upon him, but because its built on sand. It’s just not possible with the way that human beings are made and wired. We will crash and burn eventually. For we are finite, flawed and broken. But it is in that very brokenness that God’s strength and power are displayed. It is so clear that he alone can and should take the credit. Which is why everyone in ministry needs a right sense of themselves before God.

“That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).

There’s no hiding from brokenness and frailty when you have depression! It humbles us - but that’s necessary because there’s no humility without humiliation. It means it is no longer difficult to connect with others who are broken. If anything has ever given my own depression battles any meaning at all, it is surely the simple fact that it helps me relate to others.

So let me close with an anecdote that has haunted and encouraged me in equal measure, for it surely gets to the heart of a ministry that is founded and shaped by divine grace:

John, the senior pastor of a small church in Ireland, was joined by a new assistant. We’ll call him Charlie. Early on in Charlie’s time, John would take him on pastoral visits, for funerals and weddings and all the rest – just so he could learn the ropes. It was all pretty normal.

One day they were going to visit Fred, a church member who had seriously messed up his life. Just about everything that could go wrong had gone wrong: his business had collapsed, his family was breaking up, and now the police were involved. Worst of all, it had all been the consequence of his own folly.

As they walked along, the senior man asked his assistant, ‘Could you see yourself ever getting into the sort of mess Fred is in?’
Charlie was quiet for a moment. Eventually he replied, ‘It’s just terrible, isn’t it? My heart goes out to him – and to the family. I just can’t imagine it and really wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. But I guess the terrible truth in the end is that he only has himself to blame . . . So, no, I don’t think so.’
‘Well, in that case,’ said John gently but emphatically, ‘I think it’s best if you go home and I’ll go on alone.’
(This anecdote is taken from “When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend”, Mark Meynell, IVP 2018, p176)

Mark Meynellworks as a freelance writer, a chaplain in Whitehall, and Director (Europe & Caribbean) for Langham Preaching (part of Langham Partnership).

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