Job stress creates mental health problems for many pastors
5/14/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.
NOTE: An illustration is available with this feature.
A UMNS Feature By Amy Green*
By Amy Green*
is not uncommon for pastors to feel overburdened by their
responsibilities. Burnout and depression are increasing among clergy,
but many are reluctant to seek help. A UMNS illustration by Pashur
House. A UMNS illustration by Pashur House. Photo number 03-179,
Accompanies UMNS #280, 5/14/03
No Long Caption Available for this Story
For many years, the Rev. John couldn't admit to what he says "clouded my soul."
"We pastors always think we're supposed to have it together," he says.
a year and a half ago, when he joined a midsize United Methodist
congregation in North Carolina troubled by financial and other problems,
John's depression worsened. Finally recognizing he needed help, he met
with a pastoral counselor and found relief by confessing his feelings.
His treatment continues, but he believes his progress will only encourage parishioners who perhaps are in a similar plight.
appreciate the chance to care for others, and I also appreciate the
chance to be cared for," says John, whose name has been changed to
protect his identity. "You can't always give. You also have to receive."
is not uncommon for pastors to feel overburdened by their unique
responsibilities. Burnout and depression are increasing, but many are
reluctant to seek help - a troubling trend, since many Americans turn to
their pastors first when needing mental health care.
pastors are happy and satisfied with their jobs, others find the demands
relentless. Pastors are expected to guide parishioners through weddings
and funerals, church dinners and personal problems - and deliver a
sermon each Sunday that will serve as inspiration all week. Many pastors
struggle to set aside enough time for themselves and their families,
and they grow uncomfortable with their congregations' idealized view of
Yet they often believe their feelings are the result of
spiritual failure that can be resolved only with stronger devotion and
prayer. Or they worry that confiding their feelings might compromise
their leadership within their congregations or among fellow clergy.
the case, pastors most often put their congregations before themselves
and will continue to give spiritual and emotional guidance even as their
own circumstances worsen, says the Rev. Andrew Weaver, a United
Methodist pastor and licensed clinical psychologist who has studied
clergy and mental health for more than a decade.
they are the front-line mental health workers," says Weaver, director
of research for the ecumenical HealthCare Chaplaincy, which serves New
York hospitals. "But the truth of the matter is, if you are in distress,
you're not going to be able to help people."
A growing problem
is scarce on the issue, perhaps a reflection of how clergy mental
health has been overlooked in the past, some say. But a 2001 survey of
about 2,800 pastors by the Duke University Divinity School research
project, Pulpit & Pew, in conjunction with the Presbyterian Church
(U.S.A.), found that roughly a quarter scored "significantly" lower on
mental health questions than the general public, says Jackson Carroll,
director of Pulpit & Pew. Pastors responded to such questions as
whether they had felt sad or blue recently, but the survey was not
designed to reveal possible mental illness among clergy.
Many pastors felt their ministries were ineffective and doubted their calling, according to the research.
number appears to be growing, says the Rev. John Arey, clinical
services director for an ecumenical pastoral care ministry run by United
Methodist leaders in Charlotte, N.C. He sees up to five pastors a week.
and large people, assume clergy know how to take care of themselves,"
he says. "At times, it's very painful to hear what they've been carrying
or how long they've been struggling."
Some pastors find it tough
simply to set aside time to confront their problems, says Jim
Schlottman, executive director of the ecumenical pastoral care ministry
Quiet Waters, based in Denver (1-866-5-WATERS; http://www.qwaters.org).
He tells of a pastor who was experiencing marital problems. The couple
believed they could talk privately in an abandoned barn one afternoon,
but they were embarrassed when a church member who had spotted their car
asked later whether it had broken down.
"Being a pastor becomes a very lonely position," he says. "Who is the pastor's pastor?"
of small churches, who may not have access to health insurance or paid
vacation, often suffer the worst, says the Rev. George Megill, a retired
United Methodist missionary who volunteers for the ecumenical
PastorCare, based in Raleigh, N.C. (919-787-7024; www.pastorcare.org/.)
The ministry offers counseling and referrals to mental health providers
nationwide, but it also works with motel owners and others willing to
volunteer a place for a pastor and spouse to enjoy a retreat.
"In these small churches, they have no support system," Megill says.
burdens take a heavy toll, says the Rev. Charles Alexander, executive
director of a United Methodist pastoral care ministry in Birmingham,
"The profession, I think, is one of the most stressful ones," he says.
was troubled both personally and professionally. He was unsure of his
ministry, and he found it difficult to address both his parishioners'
problems and his own at the same time. But seeking help was tough, he
"I was embarrassed that I needed help," he says. "It's
scary as a pastor to ask for help because you don't know what reaction
your congregation will have."
He believed he needed simply an
"attitude adjustment" and prayed hard but found himself only
short-tempered and drained of motivation. He now has been seeing a
counselor for about a year and, with medication, has improved. But he
has shared his struggle only with a few parishioners whom he has
counseled for similar problems. Their reactions have been positive, he
"It's almost like that congregation member is happy to know
that it's OK to seek help," he says. "It's almost like I've given them
permission to seek help."
Treatment for pastors is becoming more
available. The issue is gaining attention, especially since the 2001
terrorist attacks underscored clergy's role in mental health care and
the Roman Catholic Church sex scandal demonstrated their vulnerability
to mental illness. And with a clergy shortage looming, many
denominations - including the United Methodist Church - are taking a
closer look at how they can better nurture their pastors.
than 150 United Methodist leaders are expected for a conference this
summer in Syracuse, Ind., addressing how to develop better spiritual
leaders, and mental health will be a part of the discussion, says the
Rev. Susan Ruach, a sponsor of the conference.
In New Jersey,
church leaders are considering adding a series of workshops on the issue
for pastors and their families. In Virginia, Bishop Joe E. Pennel's
wife, Janene, has organized a task force especially for clergy spouses,
with the idea that "if the spouse is having stress, the clergy is going
to have stress," she says.
"New and creative things are
emerging," says the Rev. Robert Kohler, the top staff executive of the
Section on Elders and Local Pastors at the United Methodist Board of
Higher Education and Ministry in Nashville, Tenn.
budgets have forced the denomination's leaders in many parts of the
country to trim pastoral care ministries, Kohler says. Other leaders are
unsure how to reassure pastors they will remain anonymous within these
ministries. The denomination offers fewer than a dozen pastoral care
ministries across the country, and most pastors are encouraged to seek
help from an ecumenical ministry, he says.
However, as mental
illness gains acceptance, many expect pastors will become more willing
to seek help and will have more options to choose from. That's good news
to Arey. He believes the pastorate will grow only more stressful as
shrinking congregations stretch churches financially and younger
worshippers demand changes in services.
Nonetheless, John feels
good about the future. He once had considered leaving the pastorate but
no longer doubts his calling. He is reminded of an afternoon he spent
praying through tears for help.
"As I look back on it now," he
says, "that bottoming out and the therapy and medication have all been
part of God answering my call."
# # #
*Green is a freelance writer living in Nashville, Tenn.