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).