[read time 4-5 minutes]
What if your profession brought you instant credibility, trust, and influence? You don’t need to become President, Prime Minister, a doctor or police officer to gain these – just become a church leader. Yes, research suggests that clergy are among the most trusted professionals in our society. (Trihub et al., 2010)
Clergy (pastors, ministers, reverends, chaplains, bishops, fathers etc.) are said to be responsible for the social, mental, moral and spiritual formation of the 120 million Americans that attend church. I’m sure those numbers could translate to other Judea-Christian / Westernised countries like Australia, NZ and the UK. What a tremendous opportunity!? What an enormous responsibility?!
So, what exactly do most clergy do aside from preaching? Sadly, I recall too many sarcastic comments from church-goers who’d ask me, “So what does the pastor do all week? Play golf? Have tea with old ladies? I mean, all they have to do is prepare a sermon, right? Perhaps do the occasional hatch, match and dispatch (read: baby dedication/baptism, wedding and funeral)”.
Ummm, no. Today, in many societies, so much more is expected from our church leaders. I still remember a pastor acquaintance confessing that a business degree would have been handier than a bible-college degree because so much of his time was consumed with navigating problems akin to running a service business – leases, employment agreements, council approval, balancing finances, dealing with board, clients and staff etc.
Religious leaders are also expected to be an administrator, teacher, counsellor, business person and fundraiser all at once. (Trihub, McMinn, Buhrow Jr., & Johnson, 2010) They are also to be trustworthy, righteous, good (by whatever standard you set), law-abiding, kind, solid, safe, socially involved, modest, holding-it-together sort of people. Right? Sadly, what many fail to see surrounding clergy work is, although the physical labour in these roles are minimal, the emotional, relational and spiritual labour is very high. Hence, the high rate of burnout and mental health issues.
It is important to realise that the landscape of our broader culture has changed over the last few decades. Studies show we have become more narcissistic, which means entitlement, materialism and public aggression are on the increase (Twenge & Campbell, 2010). With the high demands and expectations millions of people place upon religious leaders, their mental health should be something the church at large should be seriously considering and prioritising, I think.
Is the mental health of clergy that bad? Well, psychologist, Dr Steven Sandage reports that: “Many religious leaders…deal with being underpaid, working long hours, counselling their flocks on serious personal issues, and being the butt of criticism from congregants. He says a previous Danielsen study found post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in one Christian denomination’s clergy that “was higher than that of post-deployment soldiers.” (The denomination has requested not to be identified.) (Barlow, 2017)
I find that last contrasting figure between soldiers and clergy both shocking and validating. Validating because although I am not leading a traditional congregation per se’ I have spent lots of time serving church leaders with advanced pastoral care services – and it rings true. Shocking because I, like many working in a pastoral capacity, underestimated the toll of our work. I’ve had the advantage of working in a space where mental health research and language is normalised but still can’t help but feel a little useless or shameful when I’m not coping. Maybe your experience is different, but I can’t recall the last time I saw guest speakers at ministry conferences address clergy mental health and Shepherd-care – which, in my opinion, is a tragedy shaped by ignorance, dishonour and pride. It’s time we humanise this workspace.
If you are a religious leader (clergy) reading this, a quick PTSD self-assessment like this one may give you an indication of where you are, and I can’t stress enough to you the importance of addressing it, starting with a visit to a GP and/or psychologist or counsellor. If it’s not PTSD, but you suspect something else, take it to a professional also. Everyone will be better for it.
Perhaps, as a reader, you serve on the board of a church or on its leadership team. Don’t, for a minute, think that your religious leaders and their families are immune to mental health issues – because statistics tell us that the opposite is true. Thankfully, recent studies show that denominational mental health support for clergy has improved since the nineties, but if recent studies revealing high levels of PTSD are true, then we must pay more attention and consider how clergy-care takes place.
Here is what research by Trihub et al. (2010) shows us:
- Six biggest stress factors to clergy include: financial stress, lack of family privacy, frequent moves, spouse being on call, spouse is busy serving others, and lack of ministry to clergy family.
- Many pastors feel a lack of organisational support over time, feeling that the primary emphasis is on increased church size, rather than on the health of the pastor.
- Many pastors don’t want to seek mental health services, as they fear reprisal from their board/congregation/leaders, which conveys weakness or incompetence. (Again, reinforcing the belief that the shepherd must always be OK)
- If support services were made available to them, then lack of finance, lack of time, and confidentiality were the three most significant obstacles to getting help.
- Organizational issues that lead to burnout include bureaucracy, administrative support, interpersonal problems and workload.
I have several friends that lead churches which are part of independent church networks. If your church is outside of any kind of denominational support, it’s essential the leadership are aware of the above factors and consider ways of providing support for their pastors and their families. Perhaps you can budget and schedule regular visits, check-ups, supervisory sessions with a trusted Christian mental health specialist, for example.
Again, we need to humanise this workspace. If church workers and their families are susceptible to burnout, PTSD and other mental health challenges, it’s the joint responsibility of the body of Christ to address this with humility and seriousness. We can’t afford more casualties, especially when these casualties are injured whilst serving their people.
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Barlow, R. (2017). Studying the Benefits of Humility. Retrieved from www.bu.edu/today/2017/studying-the-benefits-of-humility/
Trihub, B. L., McMinn, M. R., Buhrow Jr., W. C., & Johnson, T. F. (2010). Denominational support for clergy mental health. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 38(2), 101–110.
Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (2010).