It’s an epidemic with lots of names: burnout, depression, obesity, physical ailments of unknown origin, sexual acting out, divorce, substance abuse, loneliness and leaving the ministry.
Furthermore, clergy suicides occur frequently. Research statistics vary but the consensus suggests that the number of clergy with mental health issues exceeds the percentage within the general populace.
One denominational administrator told me, “So many of us are off the deep end.”
Why? A cursory review of internet articles resulting from a search for “clergy mental health” provides numerous “explanations.”
Several years ago, John Sanford in his book, “Ministry Burnout,” identified nine “special difficulties the ministering person faces.” These included endless tasks, uncertainty about positive results, unrealistic expectations and exhausted egos.
Clergy friends and clients offered these additional reasons:
- Being “nice” rather than “compassionate.”
- The wish to be liked.
- Situations and circumstances within a pastor’s own family that are potentially controversial or misunderstood, such as being divorced or having a gay child.
- “I am indispensable” syndrome.
- Poor boundaries.
- A “Lone Ranger” approach.
- Diminished respect for clergy.
- A generalized cultural anxiety.
Clergy mental health vulnerability can surface as pastors find themselves as unprepared gateways for mental health treatment within their churches and communities.
“Standing too close to the fires for too long” without training and support can exact a costly toll in ministers’ sense of well-being.
A longtime friend and retired pastor who served as a United Methodist district superintendent added these emotional stressors:
- Reconciling career and call. In other words, determining who is our “boss” – Jesus or the denomination.
- Peer competition for the “high steeple church.”
- Personal decisions regarding faithfulness and success.
- Allowing time for family and self.
How, then, to address the epidemic?
Here I offer “a view from the front lines” as reported by several pastors as well as my own time as a pastor and professional counselor.
It is almost countercultural to remember that to ask for help when one cannot handle a situation alone is not a sign of weakness but of intelligence.
Once, when I stood alone at the new grave of a kindly church member, a veteran minister who knew both the deceased and me gently inquired, “Now, Ron, who shepherds the shepherd?”
So, a first step in “getting well,” however defined, is being able to tell one’s self the truth.
One pastor wrote about “being truthful with ourselves … and realizing our vulnerability as servants.” He observed, “We have a big target on our backs, especially for those whose emotional baggage has not been unpacked.”
“Know thyself” remains essential in terms of boundaries, temperament and family systems.
“Self-love,” the second part of Jesus’ Great Commandment, too often becomes synonymous with narcissistic self-centeredness, thereby complicating appropriate pastoral assertiveness and clarity.
Several of my sources emphasized the importance of outside friends, interests, hobbies, physical movement and mundane tasks, such as cutting the grass, wherein “closure” or concrete achievement can be experienced.
Years ago, I encountered the encouragement by Stephen Brown to develop a “Christian mean streak” as a means of responding to congregation members who “feel free to criticize and correct pastors on things for which they’d never think of criticizing anyone else.”
“Don’t take it personally” is not a way to avoid accountability. There is much truth in the aphorism, “What Saint Peter tells you about Saint Paul tells you more about Saint Peter than it does Saint Paul.”
During my pastoral ministry, after the “hellos” of my initial pastoral visit to a female church member, I was interrogated with, “Preacher, what’s your politics?”
Retrospectively, I wished that I had said something like, “The same as Jesus’.” But sensing her meaning, I immediately answered, “You’ll never know.”
Self-awareness or insight often is facilitated by spending time with a clinically trained pastoral counselor who is able to speak and understand the languages of faith and therapy.
The residual stigma in acknowledging one’s distress and seeking professional help is exacerbated by spiritualized exhortations to “just pray it away” or “have more faith” and slogans such as “too blessed to be depressed.”
The basic ingredient in clergy mental health is nurturing one’s own spiritual being.
Rabbi Edwin Friedman advised clergy to take their sacred book into the sanctuary and spend time there as a fundamental practice for one’s healthy being and functioning.
One minister told me, “Without my Sabbath time, I find myself run down and less able to handle the daily challenges of the pastorate. When I conscientiously take my Sabbath time, I seem to be better able to take the criticism and deal with the roadblocks that keep the church from being the church.”
Anecdotal testimony suggests that few pastors adhere to that discipline.
Even though the “epidemic” is here, there is also hope that clergy can develop an immunity through practicing physical, emotional and spiritual disciplines.
When in the U.S. Army, I learned a phrase that can apply to clergy seeking to avoid mental health crises – “preventive maintenance.”
In other words, fix it before it breaks.
Ron Wachs is a North Carolina-licensed professional counselor supervisor, practicing at CareNet of North Carolina, a subsidiary of Wake Forest Baptist Health. He is a retired United Methodist minister with more than 15 years in the parish.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series for World Mental Health Day 2017 (Oct. 10). Part two, by Katie Swafford, is available here.