Clear indicators can signal debilitating depression in ministers
By Jeff Brumley
The numbers of clergy experiencing depression have increased because the profession has become tougher, says Christopher Carlton, an ordained Methodist minister and director of Emory Clergy Care, a Georgia-based agency that provides counseling and other wellness services for ministers.
Clergy financial and sexual abuse scandals have publicly tarnished ministers, while declines in membership have added financial stresses that turn pastors into nearly full-time capital campaign managers, Carlton says.
A difficult economy and reductions in church staff have forced individual ministers to shoulder more duties, in turn leading to feelings of isolation and over-work experienced by even the healthiest pastors, he says.
And there’s personal debt. Carlton says seminary graduates are leaving school with mountains of debt previous generations didn’t face.
“We are seeing a larger rate of burnout in our pastors. We are also seeing the career option of being a pastor as a less attractive route.”
There are also inherent factors in the ministry that are exacerbated when ministers don’t take care of themselves physically, spiritually and emotionally, says Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, a co-principal investigator for Duke Divinty School’s Clergy Health Initiative.
Feeling called to their work makes pastors more likely to experience existential crises when difficulties are encountered in the workplace, Proeschold-Bell says.
Discord in the congregation, disagreements over ministry and finances — all natural occurrences — can trigger depression.
“Clergy worry if they have not been living faithfully to God. For them, it can take on divine significance that can resonate more deeply with them.”
Even in the healthiest churches, she says, pastors tend to be placed on pedestals, making it even harder for them to express concerns or seek help when problematic emotions arise.
The result often is social isolation — which is also one of the top predictors of depression.
Another “top predictor of depression is the unpredictability of emotions,” she notes, explaining that bounding between weddings and funerals, baptisms and hospital visits means “clergy don’t know at any given moment what emotions they are going to be facing.”
Even traditional stressors can become gateways to depression when ministers are working and eating more, and sleeping and exercising less. Forgoing vacations and other days off can also lead to mental illness, Proeschold-Bell says.
“Their bodies are a gift from God, and that gift or that grace needs to be responded to by being a good steward of yourself. Live the joyful life that God really wants for us.”
Former Baptist pastor Bryan Hatcher agrees, noting, “There is a cultural expectation that our pastors have it all together and that they are the last people who are going to be depressed.”
Besides getting more sleep and exercise, seeking therapy, joining peer groups or developing one-on-one relationships with clergy can provide much-needed outlets for stress, says Hatcher, chief operating officer for CareNet at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Another key to staving off depression: “Setting firm boundaries that are firm and healthy, but not overly rigid” and stop putting jobs ahead of their own physical and spiritual wellbeing.
“It’s when I get hyper-focused on work and don’t get to the gym and start living on coffee … that my thinking gets cloudy and my feelings get cloudy.”
—A version of this article was published originally by ABPnews/Herald in 2013.
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