In my last post, I wrote of my mini-sabbatical from church and the importance of taking a sabbatical as part of a minister’s spiritual journey. Sabbaticals are important because they give ministers the space and time to tend to their own personal issues, many of which originate from family, spiritual, marital, and mental strain. Without the type of release a sabbatical offers, a minister’s work can get the best of him.
Two days before my article printed, Major N. M. Hasan, a military psychiatrist, murdered thirteen individuals at Ft. Hood. There are several theories why Hasan killed others, but what is most peculiar to me is that Hasan was a psychiatrist. He belongs to a profession committed to heal people not hurt them.
Hasan’s situation was unique; it is rare that a healthcare provider murders another in cold blood. It is not uncommon, however, that many healthcare providers face overwhelming job stress and pressure that leads to unhappy endings. In 2008 the American Medical Association reported that suicide rates among doctors were higher than the national average. That’s roughly 400 doctors a year.
The reason that healthcare providers commit suicide is because they neglect dealing with distress, depression, and mental illness for the sake of their career. Ours is a society that expects doctors to be stable and healthy; any sign to the contrary compromises the doctor’s reputation. Instead of dealing with their issues, healthcare providers suppress their suffering. Eventually, the stress becomes too much to bear.
As healthcare providers of a different type, ministers also face extreme stress and depression. Ministers are spiritual pillars of a community, and, like doctors, they find it hard to reach out for help when help is most needed. Greg Warner, writing for the “Biblical Recorder,” noted that a quarter of all pastors struggle with depression at any given time, many of whom fail to seek treatment with a licensed counselor.
In several other studies on depression among clergy, ministers have cited various reasons for experiencing distress. Some reasons include job loss, pressure to grow a church, trying to meet unrealistic expectations, and failing to make deep relational connections with trusted support systems.
If ministers do not attend to their spiritual, mental or emotional health over time, their issues can build up and lead to symptoms that we have seen in the public sphere: Pastors get caught committing adultery, engaging in pornography, disengaging from a church, or preaching macabre sermons that lack hope. Any one of these can be a sign that a minister is not taking steps in dealing with his inner demons.
Talking candidly about ministerial depression or mental illness remains taboo, but churches must take steps to help their clergy face the realities of stress. Some churches do so by building into the minister’s salary a stipend for professional development or therapy. In turn, ministers are more open about struggles in which prayer is needed regarding areas of family, finances, marriage, sin, or grief.
Another way churches can help is by encouraging staff regularly. Writing cards, sending emails of encouragement, providing constructive feedback on sermons, and praying for a pastor can make a world of difference. Pastors are better prepared to serve churches when they feel their congregations treat them as normal human beings.
In a tech-savvy and therapeutic-centered society, many resources are now available to ministers and doctors who need help with distress. Retreat houses, therapists, spiritual directors, and pastoral counselors stand ready to help our ministers, but ministers need for us to let them know that seeking help is okay. Ministers are a part of the Body of Christ and need edification and intervention just like the rest of us.