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    Pastor, Heal Thyself?

    Supporting ministry leaders to face the mental health challenges of their difficult and lonely calling.

    Amy Simpson

    Mental Illness in PastorsIn his book Overwhelmed and elsewhere, well-known pastor Perry Noble has written about his struggle with depression and anxiety. He wrote of going on a date with his wife and acknowledging his misery:

    We were sitting at Outback, and I simply couldn't take it anymore. I told her, "We have a great house, we have nice cars, we're living comfortably, and the church is growing at a rate I never thought it would. I'm getting asked to travel and speak at conferences all over the country. And I hate my life!

    Over the next three years, I experienced days that were so dark, so difficult, and so overwhelming that I considered taking my own life. I finally decided not to do it after I concluded that it would be the most selfish, cowardly act I could commit, and the pain I would cause my wife, my little girl, and my close friends wouldn't be worth it. But I still remember some of those long days when I just wanted out of here.

    According to a 2010 New York Times article, "Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans." They are plagued by porous boundaries and constant accessibility to parishioners and others, thanks in part to cell phones and social media. According to Pastors at Greater Risk by H. B. London Jr. and Neil B. Wiseman, 45.5 percent of pastors report having felt depressed or burned out to the degree that they had to take a break from ministry.

    Matthew Stanford, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, says, "The likelihood is that one out of every four pastors is depressed." But this statistic would simply mirror the national average. In one Duke University study, pastors reported experiencing depression at double the rate of the general American population. High levels of stress make pastors' risk of depression and anxiety disorders much higher than the risk for people in other professions.

    At the same time, claims Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, many pastors are "reticent to say anything about their depression lest they be viewed as unfaithful to God and unable to help others."

    Challenges in Ministry

    This struggle with clergy mental health is happening within the environment of a larger-scale public mental health crisis. Each year, 26.2 percent of the American adult population suffers from a diagnosable mental illness. At the same time, an estimated 20 percent of children are at least mildly impaired by some type of diagnosable mental illness. And about 5 to 9 percent of children ages 9 to 17 have a "serious emotional disturbance." That translates to millions of individuals and families directly affected by mental illness. And pastors are regularly called upon to provide support in these emotional and mental crises. In fact, the church is the first place many people go for help with mental illness. Among the people who have sought treatment, 25 percent have gone first to a member of the clergy. This is a higher percentage than those who've gone to psychiatrists, general medical doctors, or anyone else. And 25 percent of those who sought help from clergy had the most serious forms of mental illness. Most pastors are not equipped to give seriously ill people the level of care they need.

    This high demand for care means church leaders are dealing with their own and others' mental health challenges simultaneously. "The church is still at the front line of mental illness issues," says James Coffield, PhD, associate professor of counseling and clinical director of the MA in counseling degree program at Reformed Theological Seminary of Orlando (RTS-Orlando). "Even in our very cynical culture, when people are struggling, there's something in them that says, 'There may be help in this church.' The aver-age pastor will see some significant psychopathology in his or her ministry." Coffield says even in his work as a clinician, "I don't see as much psychopathology as the engaged pastor."


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