Clergy Mental Health

By Mark Stephenson

You need to do something about this,” the pastor pleaded. I was walking back to my room while attending the annual governance meeting of my denomination, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), when this pastor approached me. He urged, “I won’t tell you the details, but you need to do something to address the mental health challenges pastors face.”

Disability Concerns helps churches minister with people who have various disabling conditions, including mental health challenges. Though the pastor’s request caught me off guard, it did not surprise me. I know several pastors who live with mental illness, and I had seen statistics.

When I brought the pastor’s request to the Mental Health Task Force of Disability Concerns, we assembled a team that included chaplains, pastors, people who minister to pastors, and people will lived experience of mental illness. Among them was Rev. Rick Nanninga, who lived through a period of agoraphobia early in his professional ministry.

At our first meeting, we told stories. We recalled a CRC pastor who lived with depression and was missing. (His body was found years later; he had completed suicide.) We heard from a pastor who went through a time of severe depression. We heard about congregations struggling with how to minister with and to their pastors who had acute mental illness.

Although most congregations and pastors do not want to face it, our research revealed that many ministry leaders live with mental illness.

  • The number of pastors diagnosed with clinical depression was double the national average.
  • Forty five percent sought advice from their family doctor regarding stress and anxiety issues.
  • Nearly one-fourth of all pastors (23 percent) acknowledge having “personally struggled with mental illness,” and half of those pastors say the illness has been diagnosed. (LifeWay Research)

Not surprisingly, pastors accede to their own and to their congregations’ demands to perform, neglecting time for self-care and for their own faith nurture.

  • On average, pastors surveyed are working 50 hours. A quarter of them work more than 55 hours.
  • Nearly 40 percent take fewer than three days off per month.
  • Many ministers neglect regular exercise, personal devotions, and relaxation to find more time for serving or to avoid feeling guilty.
  • Ninety four percent of pastors said that although they read Scripture to prepare sermons, it rarely nourishes them personally. (Centre for Clergy Care)

Our team found many resources related to clergy mental health, but we did not find guidelines for pastors and congregations to navigate the rough waters when the pastor has acute mental illness.

Our team created two versions of a Guide for Clergy Leave of Absence for Mental Health Reasons. The two versions conform to the policy and structure of the two denominations represented on our team, the CRC and the Reformed Church in America. They could be used as templates for American Baptists or people from other denominations to create their own.

The Guide recommends things like:

  • (for the pastor) Seek professional help in processing and reflecting on your situation so that you can gain insight and make healing and healthy changes. Be patient with yourself. Healing takes time.
  • (for the council or consistory) Pastoral care is important. Let the pastor and the pastor’s loved ones guide you as to what they need. The need for emotional space varies and must be respected. It may be tempting to prescribe what should be done and when, but the details for an arrangement need to be worked out with the pastor and the pastor’s health care providers.

In order to introduce this document, we have created slide presentations of varying lengths, discussion questions, sample case studies, and a leader’s guide. The materials are not copyrighted, and may be modified as users see fit.

I hope and pray that the resources our team created give at least one helpful answer to the plea of the pastor who approached me several years ago. More importantly, our team hopes and prays that this resource will provide a map for pastors and congregations to deal with a difficult situation in a healthy way, and that they can honor God and love one another as they journey through it together.

The Rev. Mark Stephenson is director of Disability Concerns, Christian Reformed Church in North America.

The views expressed are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies.