Pastor, You Don't Have to Hide Your Hurts

In the wake of Jarrid Wilson’s death, it is more important than ever to be aware of mental illness and spiritual attack, particularly for pastors. In response, Gary Wilkerson discusses the unique nature of depression for church leaders. He also opens up about how people in the church can help their pastors.

In the wake of Jarrid Wilson’s death, it is more important than ever to be aware of mental illness and spiritual attack, particularly for pastors. In response, Gary Wilkerson discusses the unique nature of depression for church leaders. He also opens up about how people in the church can help their pastors.

Bob: Well, welcome to another Gary Wilkerson Podcast. A special podcast today we're doing it from Gary's home.

Bob: We're going to do a follow up of a previous podcast where we talked about depression; suicide as a general topic. More specifically, pastors and suicide.

Bob: It got a lot of reaction from our viewers and our listeners and many of them wrote in, in fact, was one of the topics that got the most response on our social media sites. Some people asking questions, some people making comments about what you said what we talked about. I want to go through a few of those and have you answer them, answer the questions and respond to some of the comments that were made since it got such a great reaction from our viewers and listeners.

Bob: Ivan asked God or actually makes the statement, God can heal the mind and bring peace. We talked in the first podcast about those who have a physiological problem that you probably do need to seek some medical help. Let's take those who are more spiritually depressed and emotionally depressed. God can heal them, can't He?

Gary: Yes, absolutely. This sounds terrible, but I think the reason that not all pastors, being what they've gone through, have committed suicide, I don't mean to be glib about that, but they're in some deep stuff and some painful stuff. When it's not the accusations and stuff I was talking about, the role of a pastor is unlike any other vocation in the world because the paramedic is there during the accident while the pastor walks alongside them too.

The funeral home director takes care of the death of the family member. The doctor takes care of the cancer patient. The teacher educates the one with the learning disability. The pastor is there for all that. He's hearing all of the family suffering. He's hearing all the divorces. He's hearing… and so he or she is exposed to the depths of human suffering, unlike any other profession. It's like without the grace of God, probably every pastor would have been depressed, would have quit, would have given up, would have committed suicide.

I believe it is the healing power of God that has kept 99.999% of us from clinical severe depression. Maybe more have given up and changed careers when they really didn't need to but just couldn't receive that kind of love from God that they need to. Certainly, yes, absolutely, God can heal. It's not even a question that needs to be discussed. I've seen him heal. I've prayed for people and seen them healed.

I met a man in Europe who had been at one of our meetings the year before, and the next year he came back and said, "I came here. I was going to kill myself but the conference changed my life." That's the miracle he's it's talking about. On the other hand, God can heal cancer, and yet people die of cancer. He can save marriages and reconcile marriages, but a lot of marriages end up in divorce, even if the wife has been praying for 10 years to reconcile the marriage.

If you can answer that, you've got, besides the Bible, the bestselling book ever written, then the most important sermon ever preached, why are some people healed and some people are not? I honestly don't know the answer to that. I don't know, and somebody can enlighten me on that. Just as long as your answer is not some sort of tin can platitude of—

Bob: There are plenty of those around.

Gary: Yes, but a real deep, meaningful sense to this would be important. Yes, God can heal, but the reality is He either doesn't or there's a bigger purpose that we don't know, or we're not receiving it the right way, whatever it is, it doesn't always happen. When it doesn't happen, it causes pain, it causes hardship, and it causes sometimes to do that, but it's something that I talk about a lot.

I think we've already talked about this in one of our podcasts before, how I have taken great joy and delight in redefining certain phrases that we throw out. Abundant life means I got a big house, a nice car, and my family's always happy. I never have cancer and I never get in a car wreck, and 4.0 student and all that kind of stuff. If you define abundant life that way, then you don't have abundant life because you're not going to get that.

Even Jesus didn't have it, but if you define abundant life as being you can press through those painful circumstances and still be joyful and still be content, and still have life inside of you. That is abundant life. The opposite of abundance, the word is scarcity. Scarcity tends to get people to be fearful. The opposite of abundant life is a fearful life. What if the circumstances don't work out? Well, where abundant life is, I don't care if--I care, but that's not my highest priority.

It's making sure all my circumstances, "God, you better make sure all of my circumstances of life are storm free, problem free. If not, you're not a good God and you're not keeping your promises." That's a false view of abundant life. The true view of abundant life is, in the midst of this, there's no scarcity. I have abundance of peace, I have abundance of joy, even I have-- Now, that scarcity is the opposite of generosity.

I can give to other people, even-- That's when you see-- I think the deepest people you see, the deepest, real spiritual people are not those who can quote scripture a lot. That real deepest people are, and you've seen this before, they've been through such pain. Their stories are like, "You endured that and yet you're more concerned about me. You're other-centered. You have a grace about you, a generosity about you.” Those are the people I love being around, that they have endured.

Not the person that, I've heard it said before, there's a person who shouts the coordinates down from the mountaintop like, "I'm up here and here's how I got here. You can come up here too if you follow my 10-step program and pay $49 for my 12-point thing and buy my book. I'm shouting my coordinates from the mountaintop." Whereas the people we tend to learn from are those who are on the edge, the precipice of the abyss.

They're right on the edge but they're not jumping. They look into that and they've survived, and not only survived but now they're thriving. They're giving something away that is not, "Look at me, how great I am on the mountaintop," but, "Let me share in your suffering. I know how to walk alongside of you, and I know how to speak in your life." There's a depth about them, and that to me is abundant life.

That may be why some are healed and some are not because the abundant life is not everybody being healed. The abundant life is not everybody having the perfect marriage and the abundant life is not everybody being rich. The abundant life is when you don't have that and you're still generous, you're still God-fearing, and you're still loving, then you have a deeper-- You've exchanged life. You gave up the corrupt American materialistic mentality of, "I want to achieve more and be successful and famous and rich and sexy. I want all these things." You give that up, you tear that down. You're willing to replace it with, "I'm content, I have joy, I have life, I have abundance, I have peace, I have grace, I have forgiveness, I have kindness and--"

Bob: No matter the circumstances.

Gary: Yes, no matter the circumstances. In our culture today, wouldn't you say, hands down, it's like this one, success, fame, fortune, a huge following, that's what we should aspire to. God will help you get there. Follow God, he's the best way to get to the mountaintop. Even if people achieve that, that's why they're still unhappy. It's never enough like, "Okay, I got to this mountaintop. I got to get to that one because that's not making me happy.

I still feel like a failure. I still feel like I'm not enough. Whereas this person here is-- I think that's what Jesus meant when He said die to yourself. He didn't mean die to love or die to grace or die to a godly ambition that wants to extend love to a hurting world. He didn't mean die to that. He meant die to the self-built construct of our life that is based on a world system and exchange it. That's the thing, you'll never get rid of the old until you see a better alternative. For most of us, we don't see-- okay, gosh, this is hard to say, but I was reading something the other day that said, "Would you rather be a good father or a great success in your field of labor?" If I'm honest, I tend towards the great success.

Bob: We think if we're a great success, we'd be a good father. We'll take care of that in the backend, right?

Gary: Yes, but I don't know if that's what they're meaning. I think they're meaning he could be only one or the other. I know what I'm supposed to say and the good moral Christian that I am wants to be a good father, but when I look back to my history of my life, I think I've proven the opposite, that the career and the calling and the so-called work for God, I think the thing that I struggle most when I look back at my relationship with my own father was that for large portions, large chunks, he chose-- not God over us, I wouldn't mind that because you've got do that, but chose the vocational career of ministry.

Even though it's ministry-- The problem with that is when you're a child, you can't accuse that. If your dad is out there and he's running some corporation, you're like, "That corporation is more important than me? No way, dad. You've got to give me your attention." If it's ministry, you feel guilty if you come against that.

Bob:  Once again, it's a good thing that we have taken in the wrong direction.

Gary: There's nothing wrong with being successful in your career and wanting to be really good at what you do, and these guys here are amazing, right? If you had to choose between a good father and being great at your career, you got to choose being a good father because, during that season of your kid's life, that's your greatest vocation. Your kids know it if it's not, you can tell them that and you can try to -- I remember times where my dad would take me for a bike ride when he came home from work. I'd think, "What a great bonding time," and his mind would be like—

Bob: He's somewhere else.

Gary: Yes, he's somewhere else. That hurts as well. This idea of what you value, you've got to value life, and especially exchanging the success syndrome of the American dream. Exchanging that for these really much more meaningful things, but most people can't be convinced that this compassion is more meaningful than success, or grace, whether it be extended towards others or towards yourself, is a much more meaningful way to live your life than being affluent or popular.

But we live in a culture that constantly, the whole-- if you watch TV, everything you hear on the TV is, "You're not enough. Buy my product and you'll be enough." That is the American corporate ladder, success ladder, or fame ladder that totally goes against the whole gospel is being, "That stuff, it's okay. You need some of it in your life." It doesn't hurt to have a little bit of applause and a pat on the back, but what you really want is His grace and compassion and mercy and kindness, but those things are not.

Occasionally, you'll hear a sermon series at church on them and stuff like that, but more-- would you agree with this? We're more likely to hear how to have a good marriage, how to choose your right career, how to financially be sound and secure.

Bob: We want to be a success in everything we do. Even the churches want to be a success. As you've mentioned, if the numbers aren't there, then you're a failure. We especially see it now in the era of megachurches and the rest that's going on, that's just what everybody's after. This is just a different version of it.

Gary: Then those mega-churches, gosh--and I'll put myself in that category too. I was in the deception of, "I'm not good enough, but when my church gets to be 2,000, that's the number that makes you a mega church. We were right on the edge of getting to be almost 2,000 members. I remember thinking like, "I can't wait. If we can get a couple more hundred people in the church, then I'll be a pastor of a mega church.

Then I can go to the meetings and say, yes, I'm a pastor of a mega church." It doesn't mean anything.

Megachurches, I'm not into all that. I'm lying. I actually was and probably still am to some degree. You're not only ministering to try to fill your own needs, but you're attracting people who are just like you. I'm coming to church because you're a guy who can speak to the issue of, "What do you do to get your needs met?"

I'm not talking about the need to love and to have grace. That's an appropriate spiritual hunger. One's a spiritual hunger and the other is of carnal hunger. The carnal hungry is, "Pastor, would you teach me how to become more successful? Now, how do I pray? I'm in this house but I want that house. Can you teach me how to pray?"

Bob: Even Jabez has a prayer [laughs].

Gary: Yes, right. I heard somebody say if one of the first things that God will say to the author of Prayer of Jabez is like, "Where did you get all that?"


Gary: That was a lot for just that one little sentence.

Bob: Yes, I understand what you're saying. Alfred brings up a point with this then. He asked the question of these pastors, can't he resign? I guess the underlying question there is, should he resign? Should a pastor going through depression that is so severe that he's considering this, should he step out?

Gary: Yes, I think so. I think you need to get diagnosed medically if you're in clinical depression. If you're not medically in a place where you're given the green light like, "Okay, you're safe. You're dealing with depression, you're dealing with suicidal thoughts, but you're managing it and you're getting the right soul care internally yourself, and externally through community and through counsel, so you're safe," but if you're fresh into it and you haven't been going through the process of understanding what you have, why you have it, maybe some strategies, how to live in the midst of it, and then maybe even, Lord willing, as we talked about earlier, the healing part of it and how to come out of it.

During that process, if you're doing all that we talked about, like you're getting those critical emails and you're self-critical, and the next Sunday sermon is going to be… Can you imagine being self-critical, and depressed, and you get up and you preach, you've just poured your gut out to people and you leave and just feel miserable, and then you get an email like, "What's wrong with you?" I think you are setting yourself up for greater soul damage to stay in the ministry at that point.

But I think, again, a lot of people do it because they don't know what else to do. They don't know if they have the finances to be able to do that. I wish there was a ministry. Maybe there's one out there and they could send in some information about how a pastor could be provided for for a season while they take a sabbatical. Again, most churches are under 200 people in America, and so they can't afford to pay a year salary while a pastor is maybe on a sabbatical getting the care that they need.

But I would recommend if possible, and this is maybe me on a mountaintop sending my coordinates down how to get there, but even if you had to work at 7-11 or something like that, and I'm not putting that job down, it's a good work that somebody is doing, but if you had to do something different that maybe don't pay as much but less demanding and give you time for the soul care, for the community that you need to build, and going into counseling, then that'd be good.

Because my kids have struggled with addiction before, I've been to a group called-- What's it called? Al-Anon. It's for the family members of those who have addictions. I love being there. I know people say like, "You shouldn't go to that because it's not Christian." It's not anti-Christian either, but I go there because it's anonymous, and so no one knows I'm a pastor or a Christian or a leader. I go there. The anonymity, it's so cool because it's like I can say what I want without a filter. I can be who I am. Isn’t that sad that a lot of pastors can't. You can't do that in a small men's ministry. Men in the group can, and the pastor can hear that like, "I'm so sorry, you're hurting," but the pastor can't say, "My wife is..."

I say all that to say, if a pastor is listening to this and you're dealing with some issues: an addiction or pain, or an internal suffering that is beyond your capacity to move beyond and it's getting to be depression and maybe suicidal thoughts is getting counseling. Get a group like that, something outside your own church, a therapy group for people that are suffering with depression. Go in anonymously and talk, and you'll be able to say things that-- I walk away from those meetings just feeling like-- and it felt really good to say what I had to say, but also felt good to hear what other people, their stories, like "Okay, I'm not in this alone."

Bob: You're not trying to hide anything anymore.

Gary: Yes. We need to say that to pastors who are depressed and maybe even thinking of suicide, "You're not alone. You're not one in a billion. There's other men and women out there like you because of the pain you've been through and because of the hardship. Because you're doing so good dealing with people who are hurting all around you and you're so compassionate, it's just causing you to hurt in ways that maybe it had become unmanageable to you. Again, that's where you put your own oxygen mask on.

Bob: Yes, before you help the person next to you.

Gary: Right, yes. A lot of these pastor's conference we do, we'll give-- Remember I talked about the altar call? A good response. If we're talking about a particular issue, a lot of pastors come to the front and the expectation would be, "Pray for me," I was like, "Yes, I'm dealing with that issue." Maybe I'm going to say I’m preaching on anger for instance, might have a pastor come forward. "I can't. I've been dealing with anger, anger at my congregation and maybe even a little bit angry at God. Pray for me."

Oftentimes, it's not like that. It's like the guy falls on his face and weeps and sobs, and you're looking at him like, "What did I say?" It's so much aloneness, so much loneliness, so much having not dealt with issues that it comes-- It doesn't come out like a tear. It comes out as-- gushes out or a cry of anguish.

It says to me, it's like, "Okay, there's some stuff that--" instead of going to the revival, this is the long haul, this is the long journey over a long period of time of healing and growing and processing.

I would recommend you find some books about healing of the soul, of caring for your soul, of things that feed you. There comes a time, you have to put down the leadership books, as good as they are, and the how-to books and the church growth books, and just feed your own soul.

Bob: Gary, why don’t we finish up with this one, it came from a Pastor Roy Kerr who I guess you know.

Gary: If it's the same one, from Ireland. Used to head up Teen Challenge in Ireland, a good friend of mine if that's you—

Bob: Here's what he asks. He says, "Gary, what's being done to support these pastors?"

Gary: Well, the little bit we can do, and it feels very little, and I guard my heart to not be that kind of person that bleeds all over the world and feels like I have to fix every problem. My little bit is, it's my bread and loaves. I think that's the best anybody can do is just say, "I can't care for the souls of all these men and women, but I can sure try to do that." We do with these pastors conferences that I was talking about.

One of the other questions that we didn't go into that I noticed you mentioned before that we didn't talk about is like the five-fold gifts of ministry. That's a way you can intentionally help yourself by having other people-- Even if you're in a small church, you don't have to be a one-man show. You can ask for help. There was a church in Kenya we were at last month or two months ago, and it's a church of maybe 10,000 people and they only have one staff member, the pastor. Everybody else is a volunteer.

The place is run better than any organization I've ever seen here in American, powerful, because the people just know their calling and their giftedness. You can have a church even if you have not a lot of money by willingly giving up some of the power and control. Some people are harming themselves because they are under such a need to control everything. You’ve seen that before, right? Pastors who like-- they say the Catholic Church.

Bob: My Dad was one of those. He just did it all himself.

Gary: He was in radio ministry, right?

Bob: He was a pastor and [crosstalk].

Gary: He's a pastor? Okay.

Bob: He was in pastorate, then he was in radio, went back to the pastorate, just did everything himself and it took its toll on him.

Gary: What did you think of that when you watch him do that?

Bob: Fortunately, it wasn't a young child when he did this. He did it after I was an adult, but I could see it from afar and see how it would tear him up, see how he would take everything so personally because he dealt with everything, and any criticism came his way, he'd lived and died it every day. It was just hard to watch. He just needed more people around him, but he was not willing to ask help from that generation. You don't ask for help. You didn't want help. They can, but I'll do it. They don't do it, I'll do it.

Gary: It hurts us to do that and it hurts the people that were meant to be doing that position that we're filling, that God had called them to do. If they have a particular gift and you're feeling, "I'm the only person who can do that," if they have the gift of service but you feel like you have to go out and be at every hospital visit yourself. That doesn't necessarily answer the question directly because that's that pastor's job to gather around them the kind of people with the five-fold or all the gifts of the body, not just five, but we could maybe recommend that more if we see a pastor hurting.

That's when we could reach out and help just by saying like, "If you're in that church, maybe be a little bit more not selfishly looking for a position, 'like I should be the Sunday school teacher or head of the men's ministry,'" that's corruption as well, but offering like, "I'm here to help," and maybe being honest with your pastor like, "Can we talk about this? It seems like you're doing a lot of stuff. How are you feeling about that?"

See if you can help a little bit. That's the way people in the church could help. There are ministries that are out there specifically designed for pastors to get help. Maybe I can do a little bit of research and get a couple of names. I have one that I actually want to be on this podcast, a really close friend of mine, Pastor Doug Wellborn. He's involved in a ministry that exists. There's several. I don't know, there's several, at least a handful of their leadership that go all over the country.

When I was going through a hard time, he actually flew here without me asking and just spent three days with me. I don't know if he can do that for everybody that's listening to this podcast who needs help, but that ministry can help. We'll put his name and some of the contacts for that ministry in the notes.

Bob: We'll do that. Great. Well, I would hope those listening that aren't pastors would get from this program that you could probably do a lot yourself, as you pointed out, if you see a need in the church. I know it's harder with mega churches. It's harder to find a place and find things to do but perhaps look for ways that you might help relieve the pastor from some of the burden he's under and just understand that he has issues just as you do and that he needs help as well. Be compassionate, show them some grace, and help out wherever you can.

Well, Gary, thank you for the answers on these. I like this. Hopefully, we'll get some more questions on topics, hear what the listeners are thinking and the viewers. A reminder to those listening and watching, if there's something that you've wondered about, have a question about, or something that we've touched on and you have questions about, send them in.

Key Questions from the Podcast

  • Can God heal depression?
  • How should pastors and church leaders truly measure success?
  • Should pastors who are struggling with depression and suicide resign?
  • What can we do to support pastors who are hurting?

Notable Quotes from the Podcast

Pastors are exposed to the depths of human suffering unlike any other profession.…without the grace of God, probably every pastor would have been depressed, quit, given up, committed suicide. I believe it is the healing power of God that has kept 99.999% of us from clinical severe depression. – Gary Wilkerson

Exchanging the success syndrome of the American dream for these really much more meaningful things, but most people can't be convinced that compassion is more meaningful than success, or grace, whether it be extended towards others or towards yourself, is a much more meaningful way to live your life than being affluent or popular. – Gary Wilkerson

We need to say to pastors who are depressed and maybe even thinking of suicide, "You're not alone. There's other men and women out there like you, because of the pain you've been through and because of the hardship. You're doing so good at dealing with people who are hurting all around you and you're so compassionate, it's just causing you to hurt in ways that maybe it have become unmanageable to you.” – Gary Wilkerson

I would recommend pastors find some books about healing of the soul, of caring for your soul, of things that feed you. There comes a time when you have to put down the leadership books, as good as they are, and the how-to books and the church growth books, and just feed your own soul. – Gary Wilkerson

Resources Mentioned in the Podcast

About Gary Wilkerson

Gary Wilkerson is the President of World Challenge, an international mission organization that was founded by his father, David Wilkerson. He is also the Founding Pastor of The Springs Church, which he launched in 2009 with a handful of people. He has traveled nationally and internationally at conferences and conducted mission ventures such as church planting, starting orphanages, clinics, feeding programs among the poorest of the poor and the most unreached people of the earth. Gary and his wife Kelly have four children and live in Colorado Springs, CO.

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