By Carl Addison
Trish Harrison recently wrote in the New York Times, “If you are a part of a church, there is a good chance your pastor is not all right.” A growing number of researchers agree: there is a growing mental health crisis impacting clergy across denominational lines. Among new data are the following unsettling findings:
- Near the end of 2020, approximately 30% of pastors were seriously considering leaving ministry. This was in the early stages of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
- As 2021 neared an end, it was the expectation of many experts that the number would be decreasing. However, that number increased to 39%.
- By March 2022, Barna reported that the number of those considering leaving had increased to 42%. Other researchers discovered that among those pastors 45 and under was 46%.
While Covid was certainly the great accelerator of this alarming trend, the reality is that ministers are currently facing what might well be considered a perfect storm. Political division, racial tensions, theological battles, stress from differing views regarding LGBTQ+ issues, and a myriad of other cultural forces have magnified the stress factors already inherent to ministry in the local church.
Changing expectations of the part of parishioners has also become a major issue driving the mental health crisis for clergy. Some of those include:
- The feeling that “I didn’t sign up for this” is a common thread among those pastors who are struggling. The changes in expectations feel incredibly unrealistic to many. The need to be a CEO, a real estate expert, the growing need to excel in technology, managing challenging budgetary issues in these inflationary times, and similar issues seem to many to be not only unrealistic but downright impossible.
- These and other seemingly unrealistic expectations have created a growing strain on marriage and family relationships for many pastors. This is a key factor in the mental health crisis.
While online presence has been a positive for many pastors and congregations, there is an often-unrecognized downside to this new way of doing church. The comparison parishioners make with polished and well-funded online services, along with the inevitable comparisons made with other preachers has created feelings of inadequacy and doubt among many leaders. Further, those choosing to avoid returning to church in person and instead utilizing online resources creates tremendous stress as metrics that were used pre-pandemic has led to discouragement for the pastor and has engendered growing criticism within local church circles.
Growing financial stress has created even more hardship for pastors. Inflation continues to impact church income, often resulting in pay cuts for ministry families. It is forcing a growing number of pastors being forced into co-vocational roles, something else they feel as though they didn’t sign up for. And, no, there is no clergy discount at the grocery store!
Anger expressed in social media also contributes to this crisis. Church members inappropriately using Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms has emboldened critics, disappointed pastors, and hindered the work of the church. Often, pastors find themselves on the receiving end of such rage.
Fatigue has often been reported as one result of this perfect storm. Burnout, an emotionally dangerous place, is thought to be at all-time high. Pastors are often running on empty, and the reality is that many, as stated earlier, are not all right. The challenge for many in ministry is that there has long been the. perception that it is not all right for pastors to not be all right.
Loneliness is another force driving this crisis. For decades, researchers have reported that 70% of pastors feel like loneliness is a key factor impacting their well-being. We are learning more and more that ministry in isolation is dangerous to the mental health, emotional well-being, and spiritual vitality of pastors. This is a significant factor.
In the midst of all that, the weight of the pain and heartache of those the pastor serves is a heavy load to carry. Many of the cultural issues facing pastors are also impacting parishioners, and carrying that weight is challenging. Not to mention, there are always the issues of death and grief, personal issues of those pastors love and serve, and the driving desire to see people come to faith all remain even in these changing times.
One of the most common manifestations of mental health issues among clergy is depression. One North Carolina study of United Methodist pastors discovered that depression and anxiety rates were significantly higher among ministers than that of the general population. The often-related experience of anxiety, many times co-existing with depression, is on the rise at alarming rates.
Burnout, a complex set of symptoms that includes emotional exhaustion, a high degree of depersonalization, and a low sense of personal accomplishment, has become one of the chief causes of clergy exiting ministry entirely. Lack of self-care, inadequate boundaries, accelerated stress levels, and unresolved conflict contribute to cause burnout. Much more could be said about burnout. Suffice it to say here that it is hazardous to mental health, and clergy often find themselves in the perfect. place to experience it.
Harrison, quoted above, also wrote, “ministry in America is not sustainable if nearly half of younger pastors feel burned out and are considering leaving ministry as a vocation. To move forward and heal, pastors need rest. They need support. They need access to therapy. And like the rest of us, they need kindness and grace. (Italics added)”. We cannot afford to overlook the impact of her observation.
So what do we do? The problems seem almost insurmountable. How do clergy maintain an acceptable level of mental health amid today’s challenges?
For those who find themselves facing troubling mental health issues, there are some immediate steps that should be taken. The first might be the most difficult. The stigma related to clergy needing help, particularly professional help, must be rejected. It’s ironic that while pastors frequently encourage parishioners to seek help, they find it alarmingly difficult to seek it themselves.
Find a counselor or a therapist. Lay leaders can be a huge help here. Encourage your pastor to seek someone to talk to, and pay the bill! Consult with your physician – do you need medication? A personal note here – in a conversation with my then personal physician, he indicated that in all his years of family practice he had never had a pastor as a patient who at least at some point who didn’t need antidepressant medication. Pastor, you are not alone!
Seek the support of colleagues. It might be surprising to find how many of them are in similar situations. Research continually indicates that pastors who are healthy and thriving in ministry do not serve in isolation. They have a mentor, and they have peers in their lives. Take the risk, connect with both a mentor and colleagues. We are created to live in community. Admittedly, that is sometimes very difficult for pastors to find. However, these days it is not a luxury or even optional.
Cultivate appropriate boundaries. Make allies with your elders or board members. Enlist the help of family and colleagues to develop a greater capacity to say no, and to better discern what you say yes to. Every time you say yes to something, you are saying no to something else. Admittedly, in the role of pastor, this is much easier said than done. Yet, now more than ever, it must be done.
Prioritize life-giving relationships. The strain on clergy marriages today is immeasurable but very real. it’s virtually impossible to thrive in ministry if one isn’t thriving at home. Guard your day off with tenacity. It’s easy to live out our call in a way that our families feel second or third or worse in our priority list. That’s dangerous.
Most critically, guard your walk with Jesus. It’s not a stretch to say that one can die spiritually while preaching strong sermons and leading well. We can get by on talent and ability for a while and no one will be the wiser. But without spiritual health, effective ministry simply cannot be sustained.
Engage with a spiritual director or someone who can help nurture your walk with Jesus. Adjust your schedule so that it reflects that you prioritize your life with him. Watch out for the “drift” that is so common in the lives of pastors. No paster ever intentionally neglects this crucial part of our discipleship. We just drift into it.
Join Thrive! Through Indiana Ministries Thriving in Ministry program, every single suggestion above is possible for you. Counseling services, a connection with a mentor, peer relationships, and spiritual formation resources are all part of what Thrive offers. Find out more, talk to someone who is involved, reach out to me at email@example.com. If you feel like you are flourishing in your life and ministry, Thrive can help you stay on track. Stagnant? Thrive can help. Struggling? Don’t wait another moment. Click here https://form.jotform.com/212594699753170 to apply, or email me to learn more.
Pastors are not all alike. We all have different needs, habits, lifestyles, and preferences. There is no one size fits all solution. So, make a plan that suits you. Recognize the dangers to your mental health that is inherent to ministry. With the help of a spouse, a mentor, and trusted colleagues, develop a personal thriving plan that will not only help you survive, but thrive.