Why Christian Leaders Struggle with “Dark Nights of the Soul”

If you read church history at all, you’ll learn that men as faithful to God as Martin Luther and Charles Spurgeon struggled with bouts of at least heaviness, if not depression. I’m convinced more church leaders than we know face these battles. Here are some reasons we do, followed by a simple suggestion when we struggle:

  1. Our calling is a calling of God. We’re blessed to have that calling, but we still answer to the Creator of eternity. That’s a weighty reality that sometimes gets really heavy.  
  2. We work with life and death. In fact, we work in the light of eternity, reminding people of life and death matters. Just that fact can pound on our shoulders.
  3. We live with our own sin. No church leader I know wants to be hypocritical in front of church members, but all of us know our own sin issues. Our desire to be leaders of integrity increases the burden of our own sin.
  4. Sometimes, few people respond to our leading. Jesus warned us that many would not choose the right path, but His warning doesn’t lessen the pain when few people respond positively to our ministry.
  5. We carry the weight of the burdens of others. Yes, we can pray and turn them over to God – but our heart still hurts when others hurt.
  6. Many of us have few real friends. Sometimes we’ve made that choice (wrongly, in my opinion), but it’s still lonely when you bear ministry alone.
  7. We don’t always use spiritual disciplines well. For some, disciplines are sporadic at best. For others, we turn to them only as a Band-Aid to try to legalistically fix our issues. Neither takes us closer to the God who wants to heal us.
  8. We tend to be perfectionists. I don’t know many pastors who like to mess up. We want to do well, to please others as we serve God. Any failure brings pain.
  9. We haven’t learned the power of 2 Corinthians 12:10. We preach about strength in weakness, but we haven’t learned how to live it. Our head theology doesn't get translated to our heart living. 
  10. We struggle with the dark night, and then beat ourselves up for being depressed. “No strong believer should feel this way,” we think – and the cycle continues. 

If you’re struggling with this kind of anguish, I plead with you to talk with a brother or sister in Christ. You’re not the only one facing this battle, but you likely won’t win it if you battle alone. For all of us – let’s say a prayer today for our church leaders.

31 Comments

  • Donna Irvin says:

    I can see some of these in Tracy, thank you so much for sharing.

  • John Newland says:

    This list is too true. I’m thankful for the friends God has always provided when all I wanted from God was to take me away from this world’s brokenness.

  • darreldavis says:

    Thanks Dr. Lawless…I am convinced that spiritual warfare plays a huge part in this also.

  • wcbcpastor says:

    Perhaps it meeds to be mentioned that many Southern Baptist pastors – particularly in ‘pioneer’ areas are the only Southern Baptist for miles…I have great fellowship with pastors of other denominations, but as our local association meets irregularly and our regional convention only meets annually – other than that there are training opportunites and such… but as a smallchurch, single staff pastor my conference budget basically allows me to travel to our regional convention and thats it.
    Steve

  • A Hurting Wife says:

    Dr. Lawless, this list describes my husband. Please, please pray for us. It feels like a cycle that will never be broken sometimes.

  • Ron Whited says:

    I believe the scriptures contain our answers to these concerns. Reading the lives of men like David,the shepherd turned king and prophet,and Jeremiah the weeping prophet,along with numerous others who knew the agonies of defeat and indifference far more than the joys of victory it would seem obvious that this “top ten list” is quite normal for those sold out to Christ.

    In fact,when I think about this even more it would seem that we in the church today have bought in to the notion that because we serve a great God our lives should be more like that which is championed by the word of faith prosperity crowd.No illnesses,no worries,money pouring in,friends the world over,living the dream.

    Unfortunately,that does not sound like the God of the bible,at least the one I have read for the past 40 years. We must never forget that we are at our strongest when we are on our knees.Our strength is made perfect in weakness.When I think of Paul I think of him telling how many stripes he received,how many times he was stoned and left for dead,shipwrecked and adrift on the sea.

    Beloved,we all struggle at times. All of us go through seasons when we wonder if we’ll ever be victorious again.After all,weeping endures but for a season,but joy comes in the morning!

    I want to encourage everyone of you to hold fast to that which you know to be true.When we struggle may we cast all of our cares upon Him because He cares for us!

    My apologies for the mini sermon:)

  • Ken Etter says:

    too many speak or preach what they don’t even live in their own lives. What many have missed in scripture is that the two greatest figures in the New Testament and in the NT Church both had wilderness times – Jesus and Paul. Taking time to get one’s own life, one’s own mind in alignment with our Father (aka surrender of the carnal mind) has never really been understood or even more practiced by church leaders. Leaders are always doing something, working on some project or activity, that outreach or this ministry, how to “grow” the church. Yet it is not our works, or study or service or messages or any of this that builds the relationship with our Father, it is our surrender and that surrender has to start with our minds and thoughts.

    This is the truth behind the term repentance which unfortunately has been taught as only a response to sin yet more accurately means to change all of one’s mind or all of the inner man. And what is one’s mind changed to, it is transformed to align solely with God, His Kingdom and His word, to be so deeply united with Him that one perceives and thinks no other way. But the solution is not our effort, but our surrender. If leaders were to start having their own wildnerness time and actively seeking and working on surrender, you begin to see a dramatic transformation in not just the quality of the leadership, but a lot of what the author speaks about, the struggles would disappear as well.

  • Jinci Carter says:

    Thank you for encouraging us to pray specifically. These struggles affect many Christians…not just leaders.

  • Elaine says:

    Thank you for opening a dialogue on a prevalent but mostly taboo issue in church let alone in society as a whole. We need to speak up and break the barriers.

  • Bruce Hawk says:

    This great struggle is in us all. The challenges with understanding love, discipleship, Christian interaction with others and living a faith based life is no different in my heart than it is in any one’s. Everyone is the same. We were all cut from the easy life as a result of our
    beginning in the Garden.

  • Allen Baker says:

    My heroes of the faith have always been Luther and Spurgeon, and have read “Dark Night of the Soul” makes me humble and prayerful for my fellow leaders and myself. Thank you Father for grace and thank you Chuck for your great encouragement. God bless you.

  • Alvin Reid says:

    This is very good, Chuck. I would only add another: some, and more than a few, also battle with some level of clinical depression. This I fear is the too often unspoken (& more likely unknown) reality for more than a few. I highly encourage any pastors who struggle with these issues you cited in any ongoing manner to speak with a godly, biblically based therapist or counselor. It could save a ministry or in some cases a life.

  • lasalandra says:

    Excellent, timely encouragement. Praying of you and all in leadership Favor with God Eph. 1:15-23; Favor with Man Philippians 2:3-11; Pure Vision Proverbs 3:5-6; Spirit, Soul Body Ephesians 3:14-20; Warfare and Protection Ephesians 6:10-20; Priorities Matthew 6:25-34;Family Ephesians 6:1from -9 The Mighty Warrior Beth Alves Joseph

  • Don Hicks says:

    I have found after working with pastors for 20 years in personal and professional crisis that many times the pastor gets confused between the Holy Spirit job description and Responsibility and the pastors job and responsibility.
    When this happens it will destroy the pastor and church.

  • Gerardo says:

    Thank you Pastor, it bring tears of my eyes known I am not alone, but to know others pastors and church planted are too, it will be good to start to find a good christian friend, I know many people’s but I always alone, my God bless you.

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