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    Pastor, Heal Thyself?

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

    Amy Simpson

    The constant work of helping others—and often feeling in over their heads—can cause vicarious trauma (trauma caused by direct exposure to others' traumatic experiences), compassion fatigue, discouragement, and other forms of suffering. It can also be depleting. "If you're a pastor," Coffield says, "you're getting calls late at night, helping people in crisis, doing premarital counseling with couples that have no business getting married. Each week, the average pastor will live with two or three of the five or six big hinge moments in a person's life: births, deaths, marriages, changing jobs. Their regular life includes those dramatic moments of other people's lives."

    "Clergy are subject to the same pitfalls as everyone else, in the context of high conflict, high expectations, and high incidence of loneliness," says Dr. Margo Stone, clinical psychologist and associate executive director of Midwest Ministry Development Service in Westchester, Illinois. "In recent decades, we've seen much more pronounced loss of respect for the pastoral role—people feel free to say rather astounding things to their pastors that they wouldn't say to anyone else. This can be very hurtful and batter pastors' self-esteem. There's also the expectation that if your faith is strong enough, you should be able to rise above."

    Many pastors are planted in what Stone calls "the soil of depletion, in which seeds of dysfunction and misconduct grow." Stone regularly works with pastors who have burned out, become ineffective, or experienced moral failure. She points to the harmful potential of spiritual, physical, and emotional exhaustion: "I have yet to meet a pastor who meant to hurt others. It starts in the soil of depletion."

    Norm Thiesen, PhD, professor of pastoral counseling at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, agrees: "Pastors need to understand people, the problems they bring. They need to understand that a lot of the negative stuff people throw at them are not personal attacks; it's really about their own struggles and personal background. Pastors tend to personalize what's not personal. As a pastor, you aren't necessarily the cause; you're also not necessarily the cure."

    David Clark, PhD, vice president and dean at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, points to research conducted by the seminary two decades ago that highlighted the critical importance of mental, emotional, and relational health for those in pastoral ministry: "We learned that men and women in ministry struggle for two reasons: first, spiritual and relational failure—allowing the dark side of human sin and dysfunction and woundedness to spoil leadership effectiveness. And second, leadership failure—not knowing what it takes to lead people."

    "The way to offer the best ministry to people in distress is by making sure you've cared for yourself physically, emotionally, relationally, spiritually," says Virginia Todd Holeman, PhD, chair of the department of counseling and pastoral care at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.

    "We're on the cusp of realizing the importance of mental health for pastors," says Coffield. "We can't train for knowledge alone. It's a difficult job in many ways. It can be very lonely. It's a wonderful calling, but with unique potential for burnout and the potential for escaping the stress in destructive ways."

    Seminaries Offer Support

    Seminaries are recognizing their important role in supporting the mental health of pastors—both in building their health as they train, and in setting them up for healthy ministry in their future careers.

    Coffield points to one tool all seminary on-campus experiences can provide: a cohort of friends. Working pastors, he says, "will not always feel like they can be honest about their doubts, struggles, and fears." The friends they make in seminary can be an ongoing support system of people who are walking through the same fires. RTS seeks to "provide a context so people can get ongoing relationships that will help them deal with the challenges of long-term ministry."

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