Ministers are among the most over-worked, underpaid members of the workforce, and for many in this occupation, stress and burnout lead to mental health problems and substance abuse.
Few enter into ministry for the paycheck; even the bright-eyed grad student with a drive to help others grow in their faith is aware that their chosen path is a demanding one. However, the demands of ministry are hard to fully prepare for. In fact, nine out of 10 ministers report that their job is different than what they’d expected.
Many people turn to their local church for help during difficult times, and many ministers want their local church body to be a place of healing. However, late-night phone calls, interrupted family dinners and very little time off requires ministers to always be “on.” These day-to-day stressors, combined with congregants’ personal crises, dificult tasks such as working with families for funeral arrangements and a general lack of Christian mental health support can quickly lead to depression, anxiety or addiction.
According to a study conducted by LifeWay Research, a leading evangelical research firm, pastors are twice as likely as the average layperson to be diagnosed with clinical depression. About a quarter of surveyed pastors report that they have personal experience with some type of mental illness, and 45 percent have sought advice from their doctor regarding stress or anxiety.
Unsurprisingly, pastors and other church leaders often neglect their own spiritual needs and self-care to meet the demands of the ministry.
A phone survey that collected information from 1,000 pastors found that 65 percent worked at least 50 hours per week and 8 percent worked at least 70 hours. This time is spent in meetings, sending emails, sermon preparation and connecting with church members through counseling and visitation. Nearly 40 percent of pastors take off fewer than three days per month, and many ministers report neglecting self-care, including exercising and enjoying personal hobbies, to spend more time serving their churches.
Why Don’t Ministers Seek Mental Health Care?
According to a study conducted several years ago, a primary reason that many neglect mental health treatment is low perceived need, or believing that mental health services aren’t needed. Unfortunately, many people believe that seeking help from a mental health professional is the last resort when things are really bad, rather than the first phone call to make during a bout of depression or signs of burnout.
Many also believe that they’re better off handling problems on their own or getting support from a friend or family member, and they wait until they’ve reached a major crisis point before deciding to get professional help. Pastors especially may be reluctant to reach out, particularly if they themselves have experience and training in counseling congregants through difficult times.
A second roadblock to getting professional help is that there’s still a stigma in many churches when it comes to seeking professional mental health services. Much of this is due to a misunderstanding of the root cause of mental illness, along with a misunderstanding of how it’s treated.
Unfortunately, congregants and pastors alike may wrongly believe that a condition such as anxiety or depression stems from a lack of faith rather than stressful life events, genetics, certain medications or chemical imbalances in the brain. Issues such as drug or alcohol addiction are seen primarily as spiritual shortcomings that have spiritual solutions. As a result, ministers tend to try to overcome addiction without professional help, which rarely leads to lasting success.
A third mental health roadblock for ministry workers is negative expectations, or not believing that meeting with a counselor will be beneficial. This may come from negative views formed when hearing others’ horror stories. Within the church, there tends to be a negative view of “secular” counselors in general, and some may have been harmed by counseling received in a church setting, generally by those with no professional training.
The Mental Health Needs of Ministers
According to one study, only 10 percent of pastors will actually retire as pastors. While ministers’ reasons for leaving the ministry are undoubtedly vast, financial stress, burnout and the challenges of living under others’ high expectations are commonly reported. Over half of pastors feel overworked and unable to meet their church’s demands. Eight in 10 have had a vacation or personal time disrupted with ministry duties, and over half report feeling overwhelmed with their role in their church.
Unsurprisingly, factors like these lead to depression and anxiety, two mental health conditions that affect ministers at a higher rate than the general population. Unfortunately, openly talking about mental illness can be a challenge in the church. A study by Baylor University found that about a third of church members who approached their church for help with mental illness were told that their illness wasn’t real.
Substance Abuse in Ministers
Despite their congregants’ expectations of a more finely tuned moral compass, ministers are humans too and face the same struggles as anyone else. To cope with the demands of ministry, many ministers self-medicate their mental illness or unmanaged stress with recreational drugs, prescription medications or drinking too much alcohol. For many, drug or alcohol use provides quick gratification and stress relief without the individual feeling like they’re shirking their responsibilities to their congregation.
Many pastors have preached about the role that drug and alcohol addiction plays in harming the lives and families of those caught up in it and have personally counseled those living with addiction. Because of the stigma attached to addiction and the lack of addiction resources for Christians, many ministers deal with their own addictions in isolation, afraid to share their struggle with anyone for fear of losing respect, members of their congregations or their jobs.
3 Steps for Finding Christian Mental Health Support
As virtually anyone who’s successfully recovered from mental illness or substance abuse knows, acknowledging that the issue is present is the first step in overcoming it. Moderate to severe depression, anxiety and addiction rarely work themselves out, and by simply trying to push through them, the individual delays their own freedom.
1. Connect with the Association or Union
The first step for a minister seeking Christian mental health support is to contact their ordaining body to find out what mental health ministries are available within the congregation. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention has an appointed Mental Health Advisory Group that promotes mental health care for the church, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a mental health ministry with resources for ministers and members.
2. Reach Out to Alma Mater
Another resource that may be available to ministers is the university where they obtained their religion degree. Many schools have counseling services or up-to-date resource pages for seminary students and ministers. As an example, Wesley Theological Seminary’s Pastoral Care/Mental Health Resources Page or Fuller Theological Seminary’s Psychological & Family Services Department may be a good place to start.
3. Find a Mental Health Professional Who Understands the Demands of Ministry
As churches continue to improve their own mental health ministries, many ministers appreciate the privacy and expertise they receive from mental health professionals outside the church. Mental health care providers such as FHE have professionals who specialize in addressing the needs of ministers and others who are disproportionately affected by exposure to trauma, work-related stress and a co-occurring substance use disorders.
If you are a minister experiencing mental health issues or substance abuse, FHE is here to help. Our evidence-based approach addresses clients’ physical, emotional, neurological, social and spiritual needs. To get help for you or a loved one, reach out to us today at (844) 984-1549.