Book Review: The Pastor With a Thorn in His Side, ed. Stephen Kneale (Grace Pubs. 2021.)

Though neither a pastor nor someone who suffers from depression, I’ve been looking forward to reading this book. As the editor, Stephen Kneale, is keen to point out, this book is not only written for the pastor suffering from depression. Though the book tells the stories of seven church leaders, it is a beneficial read for both pastor/elder and church member.

The subject matter is not light, and the stories at times make for grim reading. Self-harm and deep emotional pain are themes that crop up again and again, and the destructive power of this illness is clear to see. Nonetheless, each contributor is not only frank in what they say, but genuine and warm in how they speak. I can’t imagine these personal stories would have been easy to write, but the tone in which they are written is spot on, and as several contributors make clear, the heart to help others in similar situations has motivated each author.

The book claims to offer the reader two things, as the front cover indicates: “stories of ministering with depression and what the church can do to help.” In the interest of brevity, this review will consider each of these aims.

Stories of Ministering with Depression

Seven pastors have come together to contribute their own stories in this book. The seven men are very different, some retired, some only just starting out in ministry. Their individual experiences of depression are likewise varied. Several contributors first suffered before they began to work in a pastoral context, others saw their mental health decline as their ministry unfolded. Each story is very readable, even if not necessarily enjoyable.

Whilst some chapters offer more by way of ‘lessons learned’ – suggestions or advice from their own experiences – the purpose of these testimonies is perhaps most clearly explained by Adam Thomas.

…God works through the circumstances of our lives to enable us to serve others. For me, this includes working through my struggles with depression. Now that I’m in a position where I can speak openly about my own story, I trust that the Lord might help others through my testimony, just as I was helped previously by hearing from others.

Adam Thomas, pp.71-72.

The stories in this book are told to encourage others that they do not wrestle with this sickness alone, and to urge the church to love and support those who struggle with depression. To that end, this book is much needed. To pastors reading this book and battling depression themselves it is a simple fraternal word: you are not alone, this struggle is human and this struggle is shared.

Two things jumped out to me from each account. The importance of a plurality of eldership is a theme that comes up again and again. Just as a pastor is flawed, so are other elders, but fellow-workers with whom to shoulder the load are time and again commended in these stories. Only one contributor speaks of leading a church without other elders, something that was shown to have made things much harder (and he notes that his church soon adopted a plural eldership.) Though no fellow elder is perfect, each pastor in this book testifies to the kindness of God in giving us this system of church governance in this particular matter. Secondly, each contributor testifies to the importance of the church family. This looks different for each man. Some benefited from cards and gifts, others from visits and excursions, all from prayer and encouragement. God has gifted us the local church to live all of the Christian life alongside one another, and this includes walking with those who suffer from depression.

What the Church can do to Help

What does The Pastor with a Thorn in His Side offer in this regard? Whilst each contributor does present some reflections on what helped them, they rightly stress that this doesn’t mean these things will work for everyone. Similarly, Kneale is keen in his conclusion to point out that there is no silver bullet for treating depression and loving those who suffer from it.

In wrapping up the book Kneale observes six characteristics that crop up in all seven stories. Some of these are shared frustrations (the well-meaning insistence that “I get how you feel” for example is almost always unhelpful and untrue) but some are helpful suggestions. Each chapter spoke about the need to seek medical help, and many contributors have benefitted from medication. Thoughtful engagement with the sufferer is also welcome, whether through acts of kindness or brief conversations.

The conclusion goes on to describe a few things that worked for some but not all of the contributors. This felt a little unstructured, but does make the important point that just because something has been useful for one person, we can’t assume it will be so for others. Kneale helpfully dwells on the importance of encouraging our depressed pastor (or any brother and sister) in the glorious truths of the Gospel. “Reminding the sufferer of God’s sovereignty and His promises to work even this for their good isn’t trite, but ultimately comforting for a believer who already recognises that truth but may not be feeling it in the moment.” (134.) Wisdom such as this is welcome, and a good reminder that the Gospel remains wonderfully true even in the depths of depression.

The conclusion did leave this reviewer wanting more. Ideas such as praying for our suffering pastors were not really mentioned until the very last page, and some more thoughts on this and similar themes would have been valuable. Of course, as almost every contributor wisely notes, there is no cure-all for depression, but broader thoughts, rooted in Scripture and spoken in love, of how the church might care for and respond to the suffering pastor would have been really beneficial. One example would be some comments on how to respond to the diagnosis of depression being shared with the church. Several contributors spoke of this as a challenging moment, and a few reflections on that would have been appreciated.

Overall, the second aim of the book is perhaps more implicit. Each story offers lessons from personal experience, and the conclusion presents some reflections on the seven stories together, but this reviewer was left feeling things could have been pushed further. Kneale and co. have much wisdom to offer on all this, and it would have been great to have heard a little more.

Conclusion

Any book on this topic is going to be unable to offer all of the answers, but these compelling testimonies offer a winsome and loving reflection. I hope very much it leads to pastors currently wrestling with depression feeling emboldened to seek help, and that it equips church members more broadly to love and honour their pastor in such situations. This book is a reality check; some pastors do suffer from depression, and we must not ignore this. I will certainly commend it widely. If you are in ministry yourself, or if you want to love your pastor and your church family better, do pick up a copy of this book. It won’t answer all of your questions, nor provide a silver bullet for battling depression. But it testifies to the God who walks with each believer as they face the challenges of life, and it offers powerful testimony on an important topic.

The Pastor With a Thorn in His Side is available from DayOne books. More info can be found at pastorwithathorn.org.uk.

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