While many Americans are hanging spooky decorations and picking out costumes in preparation of Halloween, October is also Clergy Appreciation Month. It’s a time to not only celebrate church leaders but also to remember the important role they play in our society and local communities, including the significance of their mental health. Unfortunately, however, pastors and church leaders have suffered from increased mental health concerns for far too long.
While I am not a mental health professional, I consider myself to be a pastors’ pastor. Over the years, I have pastored churches in Colorado, Michigan, New York and the United Kingdom. Additionally, through World Challenge—the organization I lead—I have conducted pastors’ conferences in more than 60 countries around the world, speaking and ministering to well over 100,000 pastors. Through these opportunities, I have experienced firsthand and seen the struggles pastors face on a day-to-day basis.
According to a study by Lifeway Research, 23% of pastors acknowledge they have personally struggled with a mental illness. That is almost one-in-four pastors. Why are pastors uniquely positioned towards depression and anxiety?
In 2013, a study by the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School stated, “the demands placed on clergy by themselves and others put pastors at far greater risk for depression than individuals with other occupations.”
Think about that. Expectations by themselves and others.
Pastors are exposed to the depths of human suffering, unlike any other profession. The paramedic is there following an accident, but the pastor walks alongside the family at the hospital. The funeral home director takes care of the death of a family member, but the pastor provides spiritual support. The doctor takes care of the cancer patient while the pastor prays for them. The teacher educates the student with a disability while the pastor helps support the family. It is the pastor who is expected to be present and supportive through all of life’s challenges and tragedies. They are sharing in all the suffering of their flock. The weight of this burden can be heavy.
Being a pastor is a public position. Criticism is ripe for any sermon, prayer, event and so forth. Pastors are constantly hearing if their sermon was good or not, if an event was worthwhile to attend or poorly managed. Criticism can have tremendous effects on a pastor’s self-esteem and self-worth. For pastors who are self-critical as well, this can add to the burden and uphill battle to maintain a positive outlook.
All of this leads me to ponder, what we can do about this problem?
In recent years, the topic that got the most response on my podcast was around pastors, depression and suicide. Listeners were dissatisfied with the idea that a pastor would be dealing with things like depression. Instead, listeners felt that pastors should be providing answers to life’s problems—not experiencing them. This thinking emerges when we put pastors on a pedestal. We have to remember that pastors are human just like the rest of us. While they should be “a step ahead of us” in our spiritual journey in order to lead us along, we can’t demand more of them than that. Pastors experience hardship and emotions just like the rest of us.
Pastors must learn self-care. Like the old adage says, “Put your own oxygen mask on first before helping someone else,” it is vital that pastors are emotionally, mentally and spiritually healthy in order to do their job well. However, pastors often believe the opposite and want to take care of everyone else first. While admirable, over the long haul, this approach will only leave them burnt out and empty.
Pastors need to also practice the spiritual disciplines they preach. Daily scripture reading, prayer, and time with the Lord will help encourage and equip pastors for their role in supporting and leading others. These disciplines are essential to the Christian way of life and for keeping us focused on the truth. The Lord’s promises are new every morning and we need to be reminded of the hope found in Jesus every day.
If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, don’t be afraid or ashamed to reach out for clinical help. There are many organizations available and willing to help, such as Standing Stone Ministry who specifically helps church leaders. No one should be alone in their time of pain and need.
As Christians, we should commit to praying for our pastors and church leaders each and every day. I implore you to make this a regular practice during the month of October. Our pastors do better when they live healthy, spirit-filled lives. Let’s do all that we can to help and encourage them.
Gary Wilkerson is the president of World Challenge, a global ministry that aims to transform lives through the message and mission of Jesus Christ. Wilkerson is also the founding pastor of The Springs Church, which he launched in 2009. He has traveled nationally and internationally to speak at conferences and conducted mission ventures such as church planting, starting orphanages, clinics and feeding programs among the poorest of the poor and the most unreached people of the earth.