Who Pastors the Pastor?
Today’s demands on pastors are a recipe for high stress and burnout. From the pressure to perform with every sermon, to the nagging feeling of needing to appear “perfect”, to the incredible burden and privilege of walking with people through the darkest seasons of their lives—it’s no wonder that pastors report feeling high levels of loneliness and isolation.
For too long, the declining mental and emotional health of pastors has been viewed as a necessary sacrifice required of every person who pursues a professional calling in ministry. However, the evidence is clear that pastors need care, connection, and support as much as their congregations and communities do—if not more so, due to the nature of their work.
Pastors who are struggling with depression, anxiety, and burnout not only need help and support for their own emotional health, but also so they can better support others in their congregations who may be experiencing similar struggles.
Pastor Mental Health Statistics
Recent studies are converging around the same conclusion: Pastors face higher levels of mental and emotional distress than the average population.
- One study surveyed all United Methodist clergy in North Carolina and found that depression and anxiety rates were significantly higher among pastors than the general population.
- Another found that nearly half of pastors reported feeling so burned out that they had to take a break from ministry.
- In a survey of 345 pastors in 27 countries, 12% reported considering suicide.
Mental Health in Scripture
Far from being a modern trend, the pursuit and protection of mental health has been a prevalent experience throughout history, including during biblical times. Although “mental health” is not a term that appears in Scripture, there are many examples of biblical stories concerning what we would today refer to as mental or emotional health:
- Many figures in the Old Testament appear to struggle with feelings of depression and even suicidal ideation, from Elijah to David to Jonah.
- The worry and concern expressed by many of Jesus’ twelve disciples during their ministry, especially Peter, can be interpreted as expressions of anxiety.
- Jesus himself was known for stepping away from crowds to pursue silence and solitude.
- Prayer is often viewed as a form of mindfulness, a practice which encourages nonjudgmental focus on the present moment.
Pastors and Depression
What Is Depression?
Sadness is a passing emotion that everyone experiences from time to time, but depression is a mood disorder that typically requires professional treatment in order to see improvement. Although people often think of sadness when they think of depression, depression is actually characterized by a variety of both physical and mental symptoms, including:
- Loss of interest in what was once enjoyable
- Feeling empty or numb
- Difficulty sleeping (too much or not enough)
- Fluctuations in weight (gaining or losing)
- Feelings of guilt or hopelessness
- Muscle tension and pain
- Brain fog
- Thinking about death in general or contemplating suicide
What Causes Depression in Pastors?
Depression does not have a singular cause, but there are many factors that may increase someone’s risk for developing depression. Pastors are subject to many of the risks of the rest of the general population, including:
- Family history: People and pastors with a history of mental illness or depression specifically are more likely to develop depression.
- Biochemistry: People and pastors may have certain neurological or physiological factors that make them more likely to experience depression.
- Trauma history: People and pastors who have experienced trauma in their life are at an increased risk for depression. Trauma is an emotional response to any event that causes distress, from experiencing abuse or sexual assault to receiving a diagnosis or going through a divorce.
There are also factors that pastors may be specifically affected by due to the nature of their job, including:
- Loss and grief: Many pastors walk alongside people in their church who are facing unimaginable grief, from the loss of a partner to the loss of a child. Constant exposure to these dark realities can make pastors more likely to develop depression.
- Isolation: Pastors often feel isolated from their congregations and may not have access to networks of support from other pastors or people in ministry.
- Lack of self-care: Many pastors work seemingly 24/7, always on call for another community need or crisis. Not getting enough sleep or not getting enough to eat can be symptoms of depression as well as factors that contribute to its development.
- Financial stress: Poverty has demonstrated negative effects on mental health. The constant stress of trying to make ends meet can lead to feelings of depression. Pastors whose salaries may be dependent on the unpredictable giving of others may experience this stress.
- Burnout: People whose identities are deeply intertwined with their jobs can experience burnout when those jobs don’t pan out the way they envisioned or planned. Many pastors face dissatisfaction and burnout when confronted with the realities of being in ministry, which can lead to depression.
Depression in the Church
In general, the church’s record on handling mental health issues has been less than stellar, to say the least. Some churches still believe that depression is a result of a lack of spiritual health or poor dedication to prayer or other spiritual disciplines. Too often, the church has labeled depression as a sin or a punishment from God.
Equating depression with spiritual warfare or sinning damages the church’s witness and prevents people who need help from receiving it—including pastors. Many pastors experience fear that any admission of depressed feelings could put their job in jeopardy. Although some churches are taking steps to normalize speaking about mental health on Sundays, many still have a long way to go in normalizing depression or other mental health issues among their leadership teams, especially pastors.
Help for Pastors with Depression
We encourage any pastor who is struggling with depression to seek professional therapy, medication, or both. Many therapists offer sessions on a sliding scale if your church does not provide you with health insurance. Professional help is by far the best way to learn how depression affects you and how best to treat your specific experience of it.
Prayer is powerful, but it’s important to remember that prayer will not remove your depression. It may, however, give you the strength and encouragement to remember that you are not alone, that God loves you, and that God does not shame or blame you for your depression. Remember to also allow your church community to walk alongside you and support you, as you have so often walked alongside and supported them.
It can also help to connect with other pastors who have similar experiences with ministry and depression. The Gravity Commons is a great place to get connected with pastors from all backgrounds.
Should Christians Take Antidepressants?
A person should always take antidepressants if their doctor prescribes them. This includes both Christians and pastors. Antidepressants are medications that can help treat mental illness, especially depression. No one would encourage a Christian to avoid wearing a cast and simply pray that God would fix their leg; similarly, no one should encourage Christians to avoid taking antidepressants and simply pray their depression will go away.
Pastor Suicide Prevention
Pastors who do not receive professional help for depression or other mental illnesses face the very real threat of death by suicide. If you are in crisis or need help now, call or text 988 to get help from the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline today.
Pastors and Anxiety
What Is Anxiety?
Everyone experiences feelings of nervousness or anxiety from time to time, but people with anxiety disorders experience these feelings at a high intensity, high frequency, or both. Clinical anxiety has both physical and mental symptoms, including:
- Obsessive or intrusive thoughts about the present, past, or future
- Feelings of doom or despair
- Difficulty breathing
- Rapid heartbeat
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Muscle tension
- Panic attacks
- Taking steps to prepare for worst-case scenarios
- Going out of your way to avoid the object of your anxiety
What Causes Anxiety in Pastors?
Research has not found a singular cause for anxiety, but instead a variety of factors that may increase a person’s likelihood for developing an anxiety disorder. Such factors include:
- Family history: People and pastors with a history of mental illness or anxiety specifically are more likely to develop anxiety.
- Biochemistry: People and pastors may have certain neurological or physiological factors that make them more likely to experience anxiety. In fact, psychologists differentiate between anxiety as a “state”—a passing experience of emotion—and a “trait”—an innate tendency to experience anxious feelings and thoughts.
- Trauma history: People and pastors who have experienced trauma may experience anxiety regarding people, circumstances, or objects related to the trauma. For example, a person who was injured in a car accident may experience anxiety the next time they get behind the wheel.
There are also pressures and factors that may trigger or exacerbate anxiety in pastors specifically, including:
- Perfectionism: Many pastors feel the pressure to appear “perfect” to their congregations. This pressure can cause anxiety as pastors become fearful of being “caught” as an “imposter” or “fraud” when they fall short of that perfection.
- Performance: There’s a reason public speaking is consistently ranked as people’s number-one fear, even more than death, and yet many pastors are expected to engage in public speaking at least once a week, if not more. The constant pressure to perform a certain identity or personality can cause pastors anxiety and leave them feeling isolated.
- Personal deconstruction: Some pastors have experienced a personal deconstruction of their faith. While deconstruction is difficult and even traumatic for any Christian, it’s especially anxiety-inducing for pastors, whose entire livelihoods may be at stake if they decide they no longer believe in certain denominational creeds—or Christianity itself.
Anxiety in the Church
In the past, churches have often equated anxiety with not having enough faith or not trusting or believing in God. Some Christians with anxiety have been advised to simply pray harder and study the Bible more, along with other spiritual disciplines. Often, the church has treated anxiety as something within the believer’s control; the message boils down to, “Just stop feeling anxious.”
Treating anxiety like a character flaw, personal choice, or sin instead of a mental illness has been damaging to the church’s witness and damaging to believers. It has also isolated pastors and encouraged a type of performative faith that doesn’t allow pastors to be human beings who make mistakes and need the love and forgiveness of Jesus, just like the rest of us.
Help for Pastors with Anxiety
As with depression, pastors who struggle with anxiety would benefit most from receiving professional mental health treatment. They would also benefit from receiving the support of their congregation, especially their leadership team, who can help relieve pastors of the intense pressures placed on them due to the nature of their position.
Pastors who struggle with anxiety may find comfort in meditating on the scriptures, particularly the Psalms, as a reminder that others in biblical history have felt the tension of dealing with the reality of anxiety while still remembering that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving.
What Is Burnout?
Burnout is a condition characterized by high levels of exhaustion and depersonalization, as well as a low level of personal accomplishment and connection to work. Many pastors struggling with burnout consider quitting ministry altogether; in fact, one study found that 38% of pastors in the U.S. considered quitting in the last year. Symptoms of burnout include:
- Exhaustion, fatigue, and insomnia
- Physical aches and pains
- Increased irritability and negativity
- Reduced sense of connection to work or others
- Increased mental health problems, including anxiety and depression
What Causes Burnout in Pastors?
Burnout is highly prevalent in Western culture today, but particularly among pastors, whose jobs and identities are often completely intertwined. The gap between what pastors expect ministry to be like and the reality of what it is actually like is a huge source of burnout. Other factors that contribute to burnout include:
- Poor work/life balance
- High levels of professional stress
- Not feeling in control of decisions that directly impact your life
- Lack of support from others
- Having to compromise your values at work
- Lack of fairness or equitable treatment
- Dissatisfaction with the outcomes of hard work
Help for Pastors with Burnout
Unlike anxiety and depression, burnout is not a mental health disorder. While therapy can help pastors with burnout, it may not be necessary. Finding support among peers and learning to set healthy boundaries can go far in helping to alleviate the symptoms of burnout.
Find Support & Resources for Pastor Emotional Health
At Gravity, we’re glad we can offer a safe space for pastors experiencing mental and emotional health struggles to connect with their peers in the field. The Gravity Commons provides a space to make long-lasting connections with other pastors and to receive support in navigating the highs and lows of ministry. We also regularly update a free list of mental health resources for pastors.