Bearing the Weight of Souls

Facing Despair, Depression, and Renewal in Ministry during the COVID-19 Crisis

Casey B. Hough

In one of his lectures to his students, Charles Spurgeon once stated, “Our work, when earnestly undertaken, lays us open to attacks in the direction of depression. Who can bear the weight of souls without sometimes sinking to the dust?” Without question, the present crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the weight that many ministers bear as stewards of the Bride of Christ. One can imagine that if Spurgeon had been lecturing his students in 2020, he would have lamented the pain of being separated from Christ’s sheep and noted how such situations weigh heavily on ministers.

Many ministers have admitted to feeling overwhelmed with the new “normal.” They are worrying about the long-term impact of the crisis on church finances, the day-to-day rhythms of pastoral care, and the near-overnight shift to online services. As the weight has increased, many have come face to face with cracks and weaknesses in the foundation of their pastoral work. They feel inadequate, struggle to sleep because of fear, and wrestle with the joy-stealing thief of comparison to other churches and ministers. Like looking upon the shallow roots of a fallen tree that were exposed after a storm, many ministers are facing the eerie, quiet stillness of ministry during the COVID-19 crisis with a Mark 9:24-like faith: Lord, I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief. All of these factors weigh heavily on many ministers, often leading to a sense of despair and depression that feels like approaching tsunami waves that cannot be outran or avoided, only weathered.

For ministers with any acquaintance with the Apostle Paul’s ministry, though, finding oneself to be a servant of Christ in hard circumstances should not come as a surprise. While the minister’s task is certainly noble (1 Tim. 3:1), no one ever claimed it would be easy. The minister bears not only the weight of his own soul, but the weight of others’ souls, which includes his family, his congregation, and often others in his community. In the case of the COVID-19 crisis, however, I believe that this crisis which has been the source of despair and depression in ministry can also serve to renew and revitalize our ministries.

An opportunity for a renewed vision of ministry

An opportunity for renewal exists in at least three areas of our ministry: our health, our hearts, and our hope.


In the past, ministers have often been tempted to evaluate the health of their ministries based upon visible metrics like attendance and giving. To be sure, such metrics are not a bad thing in and of themselves, but the pandemic is teaching us that the health of our ministries is more than these things. By reorienting the way that ministers think about a “healthy ministry,” one may find that their anxiety and despair dissipate because they are using more faithful measures to evaluate the effectiveness of their ministry. As more than one pastor has explained to me, “Seeing the church serve the community during this crisis has refreshed my heart.” A more biblical perspective about the health of ministry, which COVID-19 has forced upon us, may result in ministers being more encouraged about their congregation.


In terms of our hearts as ministers, the requirement to be physically separated from one another can reveal a lot about the way that ministers view their work. Ministers bear the title of “servants of Christ,” which assumes a nearness to Christ’s people. As Harold Senkbeil wrote, “The title ‘servant of Christ’ does not isolate pastors in a sterile bubble, but it connects them all the more intimately with people in all their earthy humanity.” (The Care of Souls, pg. 24). Yet, in the context of this crisis, nearness has all but been forbidden. Shepherds and their sheep have been isolated from one another not because of fear, but because of love. As ministers, we find that we ought to “yearn for” church “with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:8). 

It is a gracious thing when God exposes our false hopes in order to replace them with the solid rock of his promises. 

Thus, as ministers navigate the water of this difficult time, it would be helpful to ask themselves: What do I miss during this time? Do I miss the people that Christ has entrusted to me? Or do I simply miss preaching in front of an audience? Do I miss praying with the people, serving the Lord’s Supper, or do I like not being around them? Such questions can be helpful for exposing the perspectives that we have unknowingly harbored about ministry for years. Fortunately, ministers are sheep, too, and can find rest and forgiveness in the Good Shepherd.


Finally, COVID-19 has taught ministers what we should have already known regarding our hope. We are learning once again that we are not ultimately in control of anything. We are stewards of Christ’s sheep, not owners. Just as his ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts, so also, his plans are not our plans. If our hope for fruitfulness in ministry has been our plans and our performance, then COVID-19 has granted us a merciful exposure and allowed for us to refocus on being faithful to Christ in the time that we have left on this earth as shepherds to his flock. 

It is a gracious thing when God exposes our false hopes in order to replace them with the solid rock of his promises. The gates of hell will not prevail against the church of Jesus Christ, not because we are such good ministers, but because Christ is unwaveringly committed to the sanctification and glorification of his bride. He will present her without fault.

Thus, as ministers, as stewards of the Bride of Christ, we have nothing to fear. We can be sure about the destiny of our work. The various sources of our pain and our despair during the COVID-19 crisis are overcome not by our own strength or might, but by the Spirit of God that is at work within the church (Zech. 4:6). We are not in this work alone. Christ will stand by us (2 Tim. 4:17). His power will be made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).

Maybe this crisis will cause us to be still before God and be reoriented to the good, life-giving aspects of our work as ministers. Spurgeon himself, a man often tormented by depression and despair in ministry, was often aided by reconsidering his own ministry in relationship to that of Mr. Great-heart from John Bunyan’s work, Pilgrim’s Progress. Spurgeon writes,

“I am occupied in my small way, as Mr. Great-heart was employed in Bunyan’s day. I do not compare myself with that champion, but I am in the same line of business. I am engaged in personally-conducted tours to Heaven; and I have with me, at the present time, dear Old Father Honest: I am glad he is still alive and active. And there is Christiana, and there are her children. It is my business, as best I can, to kill dragons, and cut off giants’ heads, and lead on the timid and trembling. I am often afraid of losing some of the weaklings. I have the heart-ache for them; but, by God’s grace, and your kind and generous help in looking after one another, I hope we shall all travel safely to the river’s edge. Oh, how many have I had to part with there! I have stood on the brink, and I have heard them singing in the midst of the stream, and I have almost seen the shining ones lead them up the hill, and through the gates, into the Celestial City.” (from Spurgeon’s Autobiography, II, 131)

May that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip us with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen (Heb. 13:20-21).

Casey B. Hough (Ph.D., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as lead pastor at Copperfield Church in Houston, Texas, and assistant professor of biblical interpretation at a Luther Rice College and Seminary. Casey and his wife, Hannah, have three sons and two daughters. For more ministry resources from Casey, visit his website, www.CaseyHough.com.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24