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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*

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
It 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
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.

But 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.

"I 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."

It 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.

While many 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 them.

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.

Whatever 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.

"Overwhelmingly, 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

Research 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.

That 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.

"By 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; 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?"

Pastors 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; 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.

These burdens take a heavy toll, says the Rev. Charles Alexander, executive director of a United Methodist pastoral care ministry in Birmingham, Ala.

"The profession, I think, is one of the most stressful ones," he says.

Seeking help

John 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 says.

"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 says.

"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.

More 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.

But tight 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."

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*Green is a freelance writer living in Nashville, Tenn.

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