The Toll of Ministry Life – Emotional health, burnout and PTSD among clergy

[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.

Feel free to reach out, share this article or leave your comments.

David Tensen
LeaderHeart

 

References:

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).

8 Comments

  1. Sarah April 14, 2018 at 8:04 am

    This article was so relevant for me. My spiritual father/pastor a few years ago resigned due to burnout and mental health issues and has not been able to attend church regularly due to judgement and shame. It’s really sad to see but I’ve seen this more than once. I was in ministry for many years and have recently chatted with someone who has told me that I’m carrying last trauma and burdens for people over the years of journeying with people through ministry. To me, trust and confidentiality is important so I never shared peoples stories unless they were in a dangerous situation such as suicide or domestic violence. How do you process and walk out your emotional health without betraying someone’s confidence?

  2. Debbie Gadd April 14, 2018 at 9:48 am

    Thankyou David …. such an important message!
    We journeyed through the burnout of our previous pastors and good friends.
    We learnt a lot along that journey.
    We do things very differently now. Pastoring was not something on my ‘Bucket List’ but my husband and I have responded to the very clear call of God to step up and lead our precious church family.
    Reluctant at first, and still stinging with the pain of our dear friends, we have from day one chosen to access professional Counselling, rec leave, and locked in holidays.
    Life as a senior pastor still brings an unending stream of challenges and heartbreaks, along with the regular valleys and mountaintops of life, but we intend to finish this race they way we started … so we pace ourselves, and we maintain transparency with our Leadership.
    Being willing to be vulnerably honest has made all the difference for us along this journey we find ourselves on.
    Thankyou for all you do David … your blessings, teaching, and workshops have been an invaluable aid to us keeping us floating in the River of Grace!
    Shalom ❤️

  3. Helen April 16, 2018 at 3:29 pm

    Thanks David.
    I speak from experience. My husband & I were pastoring churches for a number of years when one day the pressure of ministry caused my husband to resign and a few months later, ultimately cost our marriage and family as well. David J. Riddell has a whole ministry (“Living Wisdom”) dealing with mental/emotional health and thousands of hours of counselling people and providing a wealth of tools to help people to recover, find real help and freedom which may be of help to readers on this vital issue that’s rarely addressed.

  4. Alison April 16, 2018 at 4:27 pm

    Am a PK so not under any illusions about the workload of clergy. Maybe one of the reasons we are commanded to pray for our leaders. Also a little encouragement can go a long way.

    Alison Collins

  5. Marcia April 16, 2018 at 10:40 pm

    Thank you so much for bringing attention to a situation and condition that is seemingly ignored. I have been in leadership at my church, both on the ministry side and the administration side. The expectations and demands of both have been debilitating! Unfortunately, I have stepped away. I love the Lord and His people, but the lack of understanding and the time commitment was just too much. I pray for my pastor and his wife… I know the challenges and appreciate all they do.

  6. Merri Ellen G :) September 8, 2019 at 9:57 pm

    Yes, indeed. I was a pastor for 10 years in an institutional church and saw about 8 staff crash and burn in various roles. Finally, my doctor told me to get out when my own health began to suffer. I was diagnosed with PTSD and had to learn how to walk and talk again. Yet, God is good and He has used that experience for GOOD over and over as I now walk with pastors through burnout, healthy sabbaticals etc in Canada. (Your mentoring across the ocean was a huge help to me.) I also see a beautiful shifting happen. I believe we will see more and more disciple making movements and less huge institutional churches which will unlock greater growth in the kingdom of God. Movements are mobilizing more people to step up and use their gifts and unleash Holy Spirit to flow more freely into all kind of cultures and social circles in order to transform darkness into light! Here’s what I mean… https://followingtrusting.com/2018/01/29/disciple-making-movements/

  7. Denise Nasello September 9, 2019 at 7:29 pm

    So true seen this often sadly .I would also say this is true of heavily involved volunteers also

  8. Paddy November 18, 2019 at 8:19 am

    Thanks so much for this…

    I’m glad you began to bring this more towards people who serve in church and not just clergy…. Clergy burn their people…
    I’ve had numerous conversation s with people just in this last week about how hard church can be to attend because they know the structure of leadership abuses their time and asks more of them then is reasonable, all under the spiritual pitch of suffering for Christ etc when really it’s suffering for the person at the top to get the glory, or the success of their brand, their organisation, the security of their side hustle income (Not Jesus).

    Ultimately, if churches are seeing a higher burnout of clergy then return soldiers… Then we can assert two logical deductions…

    1. If clergy are burning out then they’re also burning their people out. It is a system or failed system of management rather then just isolated to one person with bad time management and no ability to say no. If the person at the top is burning, so so will their staff.

    “Follow me as I follow Christ or your off the team”.

    2. If it takes any sort of burnout to manage churches then the model is seriously wrong.
    (Yes many people just don’t have what it takes – not everyone can be a dr, a magistrate, a politician… These are hard, taxing, high output roles and we put barriers to entry to attain these in society …).
    But at some point we need to appreciate the fact that some systems and mechanisms are straight out unhealthy. If churches in general are structured this way, then a complete rethink is critical.

    I would also venture that due to this epidemic of stress, the broader western church will revolutionise it’s structure to look more like the majority world churches, in that they’ll be smaller, home based, less program, more intimate networking, more social and communal, more online etc. Because the gospel calls us to healthy, sustainable community practices, even if it costs us the dream of megachurch ,speaking circuit, NY Times bestseller ministries.

    I appreciate the call to support clergy but the old adage of “hurt people hurt other people” rings true even in this scenario, and so if these stats are indicative of anything it’s that we have a huge burnout on our hands, not of just clergy, but of those who also donate so many hours, out of work, out of family, out of relaxation hours to the success of their local congregations.

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