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Dealing with Depression

The Oxford English Dictionary defines depression as “feelings of severe despondency and dejection.”[1] Depression, like stress, is a common effect of pain in the life of a leader. A leader’s depression can manifest itself in numerous ways: behaviorally, cognitively, and emotionally. These manifestations can originate from within or independent of a leader. Regardless, the leader must confront and manage them in spite of pain or difficulty.

Unlike stress, depression is not always a result of leadership, and it is not common to all leaders. However, it does emerge in most every leader’s journey. A leader’s emotional, mental, and genetic makeup are the lead determining factors in the presence or occurrence of depression. Because of depression’s commonality and its pain that results in leadership tension, it is essential to this discussion and chapter.

Depression is a real tension in the life of a leader. Although it does not plague all leaders, it does affect most. This is true even in Christian leaders. H. B. London questions: “The Church is the essence of the Christian movement and the cornerstone of everything we believe and stand for. Yet 40 percent of its leaders say they’re thinking about bailing out. Why are 40 percent ready to give up?”[2]

Depression in the life of a leader is not a new issue or phenomenon. Many great leaders, both secular and sacred, encountered and fought with depression. Sir Winston Churchill referred to his depression as a “black dog” in a letter to his wife dated July 11, 1917. Churchill mentioned “his cousin Ivor Guest’s wife Alice, who spoke of a doctor in Germany who completely cured her depression.” He added, “I think this man might be useful to me—if my black dog returns.”[3] Charles Spurgeon once wrote, “As it is recorded that David, in the heat of battle, waxed faint, so may it be written of all the servants of the Lord. Fits of depression come over the most of us. Usually cheerful as we may be, we must at intervals be cast down. The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave are not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy.”[4] Mother Teresa described her depression: “I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”[5] The list of leaders who have battled depression, from President Abraham Lincoln, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., theologian Henri Nouwen, and so on, continues to the present.

By definition, depression can also be “a recess or a dip in a physical object.” Applying this physical perspective to human emotions creates a metaphor of sorts. It denotes that depression can also be a loss, reduction, or lull in someone. The metaphor definitely applies to the struggle or tension an individual faces in leadership. Lulls, recesses, absences, and depressions occur in the life of a leader. He or she must address these depressions to maintain healthy and balanced leadership individually and organizationally. Dr. Richard Swenson explains this perspective of depression in his quantum of emotional energy theory:

Each morning we rise to meet the day with a certain quantum of emotional energy. For some, this energy reservoir is huge, while for others it is nearly drained empty. … This quantum of emotional energy is not fixed but instead is in constant flux with the environment. We are always losing energy into the environment and receiving energy back again. Sometimes the reservoir is being drained, as when we are sad or angry. Other times the reservoir is being filled, perhaps by expressions of encouragement or activities successfully completed. No matter how large or small the quantum of emotional energy is at the start of the day, and no matter how fast or slow it is exchanging with the environment, one thing is certain: The amount within us is finite. No one has an infinite capacity for emotional discharge. When our reserves are depleted, they are depleted. If we make further withdrawals, pain will be felt.[6]

Depression is caused by a few major factors: long-term stress, great loss, unresolved problems, and unmet expectations. These are similar to the causes of stress. However, depression differs in that there is never a good kind of depression, whereas a certain amount and type of stress are actually beneficial and healthy. Depression is a loss or void that must be addressed and filled. The more a leader knows and understands the causes and symptoms, the more likely he or she is to survive and thrive in depression.

Depression affects ministry leaders in the same way it does their secular counterparts:

· In one study, 45.5 percent of pastors said they experienced depression or burnout “to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from ministry.”[7]

· Studies from Standing Stone Ministry showed that “every month approximately 1,700 to 1,800 pastors leave the ministry. The main reason is burnout.” Further, “according to an article in the New York Times … 40% of pastors and 47% of pastoral spouses are suffering from burnout, frantic schedules, and/or unrealistic expectations. And 45% of pastors say that they’ve experienced depression or burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from ministry.”[8]

· “The clergy depression prevalence was 8.7%, significantly higher than the 5.5% rate of the national sample. The high rate of clergy depression signals the need for preventive policies and programs for clergy. The extrinsic and intrinsic demands and rewards suggest specific actions to improve clergy mental health.”[9]

Depression, like stress, is accompanied by warning signs. Although the warning signs vary for each individual, leader and follower alike experience them. The following are common warning signs: sense of hopelessness, frequent tears, difficulty concentrating, difficulty in decision making, irritability, insomnia, lower activity levels, loneliness, lack of marital attraction, eating disorders, and physical aches and pains.[10]

Depression also arrives and continues at differing levels. “In mild depression we continue to function normally; we can tolerate the feeling. Medium depression begins to affect us. We start canceling out on obligations. In severe depression, people are totally incapacitated and unable to take care of themselves, and that can be dangerous. They won’t eat. Their wish to die is so strong that suicide is a real threat.”[11] These levels and their length of stay vary greatly with each individual and situation that has triggered the depression.

When it comes to depression, there are no quick answers or solutions, and one size does not fit all. The variables are too great, the leaders are too unique, the circumstances are too complex, and the genetics are one in over seven billion. Walking through depression is a journey. Wayne Cordeiro likens recovery from depression to a battery: “Your soul is like a battery that discharges each time you give life away, and it needs to be recharged regularly. You haven’t given it time to recharge, and that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual slow recharge.”[12]

Therefore, the first key is to identify. The leader needs to begin the process of identifying what fills and what drains him or her. Work toward activities that fulfill, and work to minimize activities that drain. This is an oversimplification, but it is a step in the journey toward health. The first step will help to protect a leader from the depths of depression.

Second is to surround. The leader needs to surround himself or herself with colleagues and meaningful relationships that will affirm and rebuke. Pastor and leader Bill Hybels writes, “We need us all, my friend, whatever it is that we are leading, wherever it is on the globe. The kingdom advancement we’re pursuing needs us all.”[13]

Third is to install guidelines and guardrails. These will serve to protect and warn the leader to keep him or her on “the road” to a successful journey and not derail. Wayne Cordeiro refers to this as a “dashboard.” “It includes twelve dials that meter vital systems essential to my health and success. I first delineate what they are; then I assess them. Then I decide which require immediate maintenance and repair.”[14]

Fourth is to create margin. Just as with stress management, margin is critical in regard to depression in the life of a leader. Margin facilitates the rest, reflection, and recreation that replenishes a person. It is critical to long-term success and health. “Margin grants freedom and permits rest. It nourishes both relationship and service. Spiritually, it allows availability for the purposes of God. From a medical point of view, it is health-enhancing.”[15]

Last is to care for the soul, whether a leader’s vocation is secular or sacred. The soul is the only eternal and redeemable part of a person. Because of its importance, it affects all other entities of an individual’s life. Depression does not strike the mind or the body as much as it does the soul. “The seduction of leadership, the grind of ministry, the brokenness of our culture, and the pace of twenty-first-century life create and environment in which it’s very challenging to stay healthy at the soul level.”[16]


[1] Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “depression,” accessed April 22, 2016,

[2] London and Wiseman, 35, iBooks.

[3] Martin Gilbert, Churchill, A Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1991), 230.

[4] Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), 167.

[5] Mother Teresa and Brian Kolodiejchuk, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta” (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 187.

[6] Swenson, 61–62.

[7] London and Wiseman, 263, iBooks.

[8] Omar Miranda, “Nine Secrets to Avoid Pastoral Burnout,” Ministry, July 2014, accessed December 12, 2017, -pastoral-burnout.

[9] Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell et al., “Using Effort-Reward Imbalance Theory to Understand High Rates of Depression and Anxiety Among Clergy.” Journal of Primary Prevention 34, no. 6 (December 2013): 439–53.

[10] Cordeiro, Leading on Empty, 60–64.

[11] Archibald D. Hart and Marilyn Thomsen, “Coping with Depression,” Ministry 57, no. 9 (September 1984): 4–6, accessed December 12, 2017, /1984/09/coping-with-depression.

[12] Cordeiro, Leading on Empty, 88.

[13] Bill Hybels, Leadership Axioms: Powerful Leadership Proverbs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 205.

[14] Cordeiro, Leading on Empty, 176.

[15] Swenson, 61.

[16] Lance Witt, Replenish: Leading from a Healthy Soul (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 25.

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