Clergy Burnout

The New York Times report that “findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.” The full article is here.

Pastors have a lot going for them. In general because we live and work in a highly relational environment, we have the opportunity to build good supportive relationships with others. Furthermore, we have a faith that sustains us in difficult times and beliefs which help us understand our “tribulations” in a bigger context. We also pray. All these elements have been proven to increase one’s resilience and wellbeing.

But the results are contradicting what one would intuitively think. There are complications;

Pastors aren’t equipped to self-care or monitor their own mental wellbeing. Pastor’s overwork and don’t take sufficient time off (as pointed out in the above article). Often pastors are isolated and unable to develop transparent supportive relationships with congregants. We tend to have triumphalist theologies of overcoming, abundant life, standing firm, believing in the face of opposition, and simplistic ideas that prayer, faith, reading God’s word and serving Him faithfully will result is us gaining victory over such temporal issues such as stress, anxiety and the odd inconsequential feelings of depression. After all we walk by faith not by feeling – which generally means we can become unfeeling through supression and denial.

Pastors don’t debrief with a professional. We often deal with extremely difficult people who are often experiencing extreme difficulty in their lives, yet we don’t have the level of training to be able to manage the drain on our personal resources. Pastors are spread too thinly, expectations are inflated, vision can border on magical thinking. We can even tend to buy into our own charisma and the cult of personality.

And we’re probably the least likely to get help, because that would show just how weak and ineligible we are to lead God’s people. We lead by example after all, and if we are offering life and life more abundantly, but can’t demonstrate it, then we’re a sham. So we fake it til we make it until in my case, I got too sick to even fake it.

Here’s a really practical thought. Maybe all pastors should attend a mental health first aid course. This would help destigmatize mental illness, educate on warning signs and hopefully help get early diagnosis and treatment for those who are already suffering. And all the congregants who have a mental illness all said – Amen!

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2 Responses

  1. Amen.

  2. Great post and an important topic. 🙂

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