Leading from the Second Chair – A Perspective On Depression Inside The Church

Published in Insight - Fall 2015
By Derek Gillette

I was a young 20-something, eager to get ahead, and interviewing for a promotion to project manager.  My boss at the time gave me this little bit of wisdom as she described the role, “You’ll have all the responsibility but none of the authority.”

This sentiment does well to describe the roles of church administrator, treasurer, and executive pastor.  

Nearly 80% of churches in America have average weekly attendance of fewer than 400 people.  Oftentimes these smaller churches have limited staff resources, which means that one person ends up managing the finances, HR, payroll, contracts, and anything legal. As Sally, a church treasurer with whom I spoke, put it, “You feel like you have to carry the responsibility since no one else is taking it seriously.”  

A business administrator, Jim, expressed it this way, “How do I get my pastor to listen to me?”

Without a doubt, leading from the second chair can be a difficult and stressful task, and one, unfortunately, that causes many who sit in the chair to suffer from bouts of depression, worry, and burnout.

Depression and the Church?

At this point, it is widely understood that depression exists, both in America and in the church. In fact, two national studies estimate 50% of Americans will battle with mental illness at some point in their lifetime.  A number this high all but guarantees most people will come face to face with mental illness, either personally or with a loved one.  Unfortunately, most churches have not provided support for this epidemic publicly. According to a 2014 Lifeway study, 66% of pastors mostly avoid the topic from the pulpit, choosing to preach about mental health either once, rarely, or never each year.

Recent efforts by groups such as Lifeway Research and Rick and Kay Warren of Saddleback Church have been instrumental in raising awareness around mental illness in church; yet, even with this increase in exposure, the topic still remains largely taboo, especially for those who work in the church. 

As Ed Stetzer said it in his presentation at The Church and Mental Health Summit, it is one thing for a mega-church pastor to admit struggle with depression; it is another if you are the pastor of a church of 300.  You could be talking yourself out of a job.  That is a huge risk to take. 

A long and lonely road

The role of finances in the church can be a long, lonely, and heavy one.  Even though the burden is shared amongst all the leaders, the people handling the books are the ones who have to say “no” to ministry opportunities, have to cut the payroll checks, and have to give the financial reports.  In short, the burden rests most fully on their shoulders. 

In an attempt better to understand the connection between carrying church financial responsibility and the potential for worry, burnout, and depression, I jumped on the phone with five people who work in a financial capacity for their churches.

“Does it ever become personal?” I asked. 

Jim’s responded, “100% yes! My senior pastor and I have this conversation frequently. I get sick to my stomach, worrying about finances and if the offering going to work this week or not.”

While those who give know that they are giving to God, a person’s tithe can also be interpreted as an act of trust in the church leadership. If the giving levels are low, “maybe it’s because of something I’ve done,” confessed Randy, the long-time pastor of a small church.

At a higher level, for those churches who are part of a denomination or association, it is not even just what their church thinks of them, but also the district superintendent.  Many pastors share their annual reports with an audience of their peers.  Imagine the stress, to stand in front of fellow pastors, and confess that you are not hitting your numbers. 

In Stuart’s experience, as a stewardship officer for a denomination, pastors will confess to him, “It’s hard to want to talk about it because it feels like I’m failing.” 

Burnout is surprisingly common

We all share a basic human need to feel successful, so it is not surprising then that burnout within a couple of years is quite commonplace for bookkeepers and administrative leaders.  In Jim’s experience, it is about a two-year cycle, “You either make it long-term, or you burn out by the second year.” 

What makes success so hard in the second chair?  As Jim put it, since many administrative leaders are not pastors, their title unfortunately does not carry the same weight.  From a purely hierarchical standpoint, they hold a lower rank.  Their voices are listened to and respected but not used as a primary driver to create priorities or set agendas.   In his words, “business administrator is a key role, but it’s seen as secondary.”

Sally recounted to me the difficulty in trying to make her voice heard, “About the sixth finance committee meeting, pleading for the same support, that we need to communicate to and educate our members, I gave up. It fell on deaf ears. It wore me out.”

In her particular case, only 25% of their church was giving consistently, and in the low times, rather than communicate this to the church, they would reach out to the same 10 “big-tithers” to ask them to write fat checks. 

The connection between burnout and depression

There is a very real weight involved with church finances, which can sometimes lead to burnout. Does the burnout ever turn into depression?  Out of the five church leaders we spoke with, every single one had either a personal or family battle with depression. 
Bill expressed it to me this way, “Sure I’ve personally felt depressed. I get these waves that come out of nowhere. Wave after wave, it hits me. I feel like I have a target on my back.” 

“Depression,” he continued, “is seen as a weakness, not just in the church, but in America in general. Just like men don’t cry, depression is similar. You can’t have depression.”

Randy’s daughter suffered from clinical depression as she grew up, and now, 7 years later, she’s not on medication anymore.  But initially they felt, “a feeling like we don’t want people to know about this.”

Finally, there are stories out there similar to the one that Stuart told me: 

“I went 15 years straight without a sabbatical, leading the worship ministry for our church.  It was towards the end of those 15 years that the church decided to send the senior pastor on sabbatical. As he left he told me that they’re going to give me one when I get back.  But, instead, when he came back we gathered together as a leadership team, and the senior pastor said this, ‘While I was gone I visited a lot of churches and we can do better that what we’re doing in worship ministry.’ What I heard him say was, what you’re doing is just not good enough.  Something broke in me that day.  I knew I had to pass the baton.” 

The Church is not immune

As mentioned earlier, and confirmed in our conversations, the illness of depression is widespread, and the church is not immune.  The troubling part then is that many churches are not yet able to confront the tension between depression and faith.  Rather than making the church a safe harbor, we have set up stigmas and stereotypes around the disease that create more harm than good.

“If you had more faith you wouldn’t feel this way.  Pull yourself out,” was the way Sally described the church’s view on depression.

Bill said this powerful statement, “It’s real. People experience depression. Lots of times pastors think they can handle this by praying, but in our case we refer them. This is bigger than me.”

Randy, in telling me the story of his daughter, “There’s a feeling that you are failing in some way, but you can’t just think your way out of it. Be aware that you are down in the bottom of a dark hole and can’t see your way out.”

Popular pastor and blogger Jarrid Wilson, who suffered through much of his teenage life with mental health issues, sums it up well, "I felt as if all the ‘Christian’ resources were outdated, and really didn’t address the fact that taking medication was okay in the eyes of God…It was as if all the answers I was finding were suggesting that I just needed more faith. Seriously?"

The fact is depression has become one of those issues we do not address until we absolutely have to.  As Sally described, “Some traumatic event needs to happen in order for it not to be shaming.”

The toughest part is that as a church employee, you cannot turn it off on the weekends.  Church is a seven-day a week venture.  When you walk into the building, it is Jim, the business administrator, not just Jim my friend and fellow church attendee. 

This leaves administrative leaders caught in the strange dynamic of feeling extremely isolated in a church setting that for many others is a place of support, comfort, and community. 

The pressure, the burnout, the shame, the isolation, it all leads us to the reality that we’re in: many church leaders are battling with depression.  Stuart went so far as to say this, “maybe it’s just a natural byproduct of ministry that happens.” 

You are not alone and there is always hope

Perhaps the worst part about an illness such as depression is the heightened sense of isolation.  When individuals suffers from depression, they feel alone and unable to ask for help, and as church employees who may already feel shame about their struggle, this isolation can seem insurmountable. 

If you are reading this and you can relate to the feelings of being depressed worried and burnt out, be encouraged to know this: You are not alone in your feelings and there is always hope. And while this may sound cliché, these were the exact sentiments expressed by everyone I interviewed.  You really are not alone in your struggle.

Here are three other pieces of advice to take to heart if you are in a place of depression in the church.

#1: Make It a Team Effort
Seek out the community God has given us rather than isolating.  As Stuart put it, “Clergy is horrible at this. We don’t model the community that we tell our people to be involved with.”

Find a confidant, not for advice, but just for listening and honesty.  If you already have people around you whom you can trust, be honest with them.  “It’s my job to be transparent with my team,” said Bill. 

Then, from a professional standpoint, share the burden of responsibility as a leadership team.  Do not carry the weight alone. 

Jim had a unique suggestion, “Twice a year visit a local church and make a buddy. Find your counterpart and buy lunch. Ask for help instead of offering yours. This builds relationship.”

#2: Find Your Own Version of Sabbatical

Set boundaries, especially on Sundays.  If it is not blood, death, or destruction, it can wait until Monday.  Bill’s church has a standard policy for their leadership, “Our church gives us a five-week sabbatical every five years.  It takes several weeks to fully decompress.  We come back refreshed.”

Sabbatical is God’s law to keep us fresh and healthy.  Even if your church does not allow for a multi-week break, find your own version of a rest period and take it. 

#3: Change the Perspective
We know that success is crucial to fighting burnout; however, success can be defined many ways, find a way that works for you.  Do not give up, get creative.  Stuart encourages pastors to “Redefine success away from numbers and more towards ministry, love, and the work God is doing.”

While you are changing your perspective about success, also learn the difference between responsibility and control.  We cannot always fix the giving problem, but we can be good stewards of what we do have.

Finally, adjust your thoughts on depression as a whole.  There are times when faith alone does not work.  Randy put it this way: “Don’t be afraid to get professional help – you can’t think your way out of it. It’s not just having a day of the blues.”

Derek Gillette is communications manager for Pushpay. He can be reached at derek.gillette@pushpay.com.