Over the past year, I’ve done a ton of speaking, preaching, teaching, and writing about grief, suffering, and hardship. I did not choose this; it chose me. One of my church members committed suicide in September 2010. Then, in January 2011, my father committed suicide. One year later, I traveled back to visit the family and celebrate our survival and recovery, only to learn that my dad’s brother had committed suicide. So in January 2012, we held the funeral almost exactly a year to the day after my father’s funeral. I started speaking out about suicide and depression, and every time I did, people would come to me and tell me their stories.
People are hurting, broken, wounded, and grasping for help and hope. Their pain can truly be overwhelming. Shepherding is difficult enough when the sheep are healthy; it’s nearly impossible when the sheep aren’t well. It’s terribly difficult to lead the flock to green pastures when many of them are crippled by depression and despair. Thus, I have learned that it’s very important that the minister does not become consumed with sickness and despondency.
’ll assume that as a minister, you sincerely care for those who hurt and that you seek God in prayer for their prosperity. Here are three simple keys for effective ministry to the depressed: (1) provide specific lifework assignments; (2) urge them to seek professional help, and (3) do not enable.
Now that you have the general idea of the keys, let’s take a closer look at them.
1. Provide specific life-work assignments. Depressed people are blinded by circumstance and drained of energy. They need encouragement and direction. Litter your counsel with Bible promises and encouragement, but be specific and intentional about coaching your listeners toward specific projects and goals. Pain, loss, grief, and suffering are part of the transition time, and the transition time is the perfect time to start a ministry, write a book, go back to school, and just do something new and different. Without specific goals and objectives, things continue to fester and spoil. People have to get up, get out, and do something.
2. Urge them to seek professional help. Oftentimes the depression and hardship are so severe that not even the most charismatic person can encourage those suffering from depression. These people need a professional to help them deal with these types of issues—and you are not it. Look for warning signs (i.e., suicide-speak, excessive drinking or drug use, etc.) that they need professional therapeutic care, and do not hesitate to refer them. You are not God. Don’t try to play the hero with people’s fragile lives.
3. Do not enable. I recently heard an Adventist chaplain say that God is extremely co-dependent. (I wondered what made him say that; I’ll ask him later.) If God is co-dependent, I’m sure it’s because He can handle it. We can’t. We cannot enable others because of our own insecurities and weakness. If people refuse to pursue their goals and refuse to seek help, I certainly cannot help them. I must move on to those sheep who relish the leading of the shepherd.
There it is. Do these three things, and you will pour new life into the broken bodies of many ailing souls. There is no shortage of depressed people, but there is also no shortage of divine grace and power that can lift the weakest believer out of the doldrums of depression, despondency, and despair. That’s what God does: “He heals the brokenhearted and he binds up their wounds” (Ps. 147:3).
Christopher C. Thompson pastors the Ephesus Seventh-day Adventist Church in Columbus, Ohio. This article first appeared in Best Practice, January 14, 2013. Used by permission.