Clergy depression: carrying it all, burying it all

Do you have “the blues” or sometimes describe your mood as “just feeling a little down in the dumps”? Life is full of tragedies and triumphs, so these feelings are perfectly normal. However, clergy stressors can make “the blues” constantly recur or outright linger for weeks, months or years. Common clergy stressors can include moving; family or financial strain; difficult church members; overloaded, unpredictable work schedules; social isolation; self-doubt and self-criticism.

These stressors can not only lead to physical health issues but depression. Depression can present itself through poor sleep, low energy, thinking about suicide or extreme mood swings, excessive anger or hostility or feelings of worthlessness. Dr. Chuck DeGroat, vice president of Newbigin House of Studies, states that pastors “often devote themselves to working harder and succeeding more, all in an effort to cast out their demons of depression and despair.” In other words, DeGroat finds that pastors commonly welcome overloaded schedules as a way to deflect from their own feelings.

We often disguise, ignore and/or bury those feelings. We are supposed to balance everything alone and flawlessly. We grapple with expectations for a pastor to only be viewed as highly energetic, emotionally present, engaging and available 24 hours a day. We dread the consequences of not answering a phone call. We believe or are told that the church would collapse if we are not available. We lament/question our call to ministry.

There is, however, some very good news! You are never as alone as you feel, and there is help available. Support for depression can be found through talk therapy, through a variety of prescribed medications, or a combination of both.

WebMD asks the somewhat surprising question, Could You Be Depressed and Not Know It?  However, we often don’t recognize the symptoms that we’re having as being depression.  Sometimes people think, “I’m not suicidal, so I must not really be depressed.”  Again, a range of symptoms is normal, and it’s rare for a person to experience all the symptoms of depression at once.

Depression is NOT a sign of weakness. There is great strength in the pursuit of support and/or treatment.

Below are some other helpful resources:

  • A short self-assessment tool can be found on the Mayo Clinic site.
  • Find someone to talk to at Professional Online Counseling or Professional Online Pastoral & Religious Counseling
  • PastorBurnout.com provides support and information around the burnout that pastors feel during their journey through ministry.
  • Clergy Recovery Network is a non-denominational ministry that provides support for clergy dealing with issues ranging from clergy burnout to church conflict.
  • Pastor Swap gives pastors (and their families) an opportunity to swap homes and churches for the duration of a vacation or sabbatical. The ‘swaps’ can be domestic, international and/or interdenominational.
  • Christo Ministries provides counseling, consulting, and support services to clergy and their families, other church professionals, and congregations. One of their goals is to help congregations eliminate unnecessary conflict and dysfunctional leadership in a way that’s supportive of pastors.

9 thoughts on “Clergy depression: carrying it all, burying it all

  1. Great article, Angela – my very own wellness advocate! What is also difficult about depression is that even those of us who recognize our depression and get help through therapy and medication must still contend with churches and church members who just don’t want to believe their role in the stress of the clergy. I’m not suggesting that those people and churches cause our depression, but I do think that their denial of or giving lip service only to clergy stressors makes our coping and healing more complicated.

    • Hey Beth!

      Thank you so much for your input (and the “shout out”….).

      Unfortunately, disbelief and intolerance does remain around the stresses of clergy (much less anyone else in public/social service). Research conducted via Spirited Life demonstrates that demands on clergy are one of a range of possible contributors to the decline in a pastor’s overall health. So there is very little doubt that the pastoral workload certainly goes beyond the lingering perception that many pastors only work one hour a week.

      However, I believe that there is an erosion (albeit S-L-O-WWWW) of mindsets around the realities of clergy stress and possible links to depression. While the stigma and misconceptions about depression gradually evaporate from our churches and communities, the existence of an outside support system is premium! It is very difficult to continue re-creating friendships and covenant groups with each appointment move. But, I hope more clergy consider taking advantage of the eyes and ears of a clinician/professional listener, a hopeline (or even a nice, shiny wellness advocate) to provide a little support when they are feeling otherwise alone or unheard. No doubt a work in progress…..amm

    • Well said, Beth. One of the challenges I talk with many of my pastors about (as a Wellness Advocate) is how to navigate the tricky waters of sharing with congregations about the pastor’s own physical and mental health needs. On the one hand, some pastors desire some small sense of privacy, in an otherwise public role, while others feel comfortable sharing their struggles publicly toward the end of de-stigmatizing depression, etc. One of the messages we feel so passionate about in the Spirited Life program is one that Angela so eloquently articulated above: YOU ARE NOT ALONE!

  2. This is a little talked about area and I think it is great that you are bringing this to light. I don’t think anyone thinks about the fact that ministers and pastors do take on a role that gives to everyone else, but often leaves them drained. A dedicated clergyperson will always be there day and night for their congregation and they find themselves lost in the mix. One solution would be to assign a pastors advocate in the congregation. Someone assigned to go check on the pastor and family periodically. Someone to listen to their needs and issues for a change. This may help alleviate or ease the burden and incidence of clergy depression.

    • You are right! Our society still grapples with apprehension around depression. Although the stigma remains, I have seen some progress. Clergy are starting to realize the realities of depression and the very available treatments. Pastors are definitely learning how to reach out to their social and community supports more often. It is encouraging, but still a work in progress. — Angela

  3. Pingback: "Shut Up! Nothing Is Wrong With Me!" | Fallen Pastor

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