Clergy Health in the News


Recent news articles in The Christian Post and The Anniston Star (Alabama) mention the Duke Clergy Health Initiative’s findings of increased depression rates among North Carolina Methodist pastors alongside other studies that show similar mental health concerns among clergy. As possible theories for these high rates of clergy depression and burnout, both articles point to the 24/7 nature of the job and pastors’ hesitancy to nurture themselves.Beach_chairs_Curacao

The solution? Experts and clergy in both articles recommend regular time off and taking vacation.  (Did you know that on average, Americans forfeit four of their allotted annual vacation days?)

-Katie Huffman

Image from Wikimedia Commons via CC

Get in touch… with massage therapy


As part of our final farewell to Group 2 pastors, the Spirited Life team offered chair massages during their concluding workshops. Throughout that entire day, pastors were able to sign up for ten-minute chair massages provided by local massage therapists. While a few were hesitant, many absolutely enjoyed it! Some even signed up for a second (or third!) massage as time permitted.

It was so gratifying to watch as pastors allowed themselves to enjoy such a gift. Some pastors were even inspired to discuss the origins of their tensions, and many left the experience considering the possibility of setting up future massage appointments.

While massages are typically wellness massage-285590_640perceived as an indulgence, they are actually centuries old in existence and provide a variety of benefits to a person’s mental and physical health. For instance, people use massages to relieve pain, rehabilitate sports injuries, reduce stress, increase relaxation AND reduce anxiety and depression.

It is true that massages can be expensive. However, there are cost-effective ways that you can occasionally treat yourself to this amazing form of self-care. For example:

  • Seek out Massage Schools in your area. To eliminate the guesswork of finding a reputable massage therapist in your area, the North Carolina Board of Massage & Bodywork Therapy has a list of schools that provide licensed instruction for massage therapy. Some of the schools offer discounted rates because the students are in the process of being licensed. A list of those schools can be found here.
  • Contact your local Community College. Another good resource is your local community college as they occasionally offer massage classes for individuals, independent from a degree program. Taking a massage class through a community college’s continuing education department is a great way to pick up some basic pointers. I mention this option because it’s one that can be enjoyed by you and your significant other.
  • You can locate a massage therapist in your area through this locator.  When you call for an appointment, ask about special pricing packages.  Some places offer deals where when you buy a certain number of sessions up front, you get a session free.  

If you have never had a massage before – treat yourself! If you’ve enjoyed a massage in the past – maybe it’s time for another!

-Angela MacDonald

Image from via CC

Welcome to the Human Race


ParkerJPalmer-informal6001Parker Palmer is a Quaker teacher, writer, and world-renowned speaker and activist. He has received ten honorary doctorates in addition to his other academic accomplishments. He is the founding partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal which, according to his wikipedia page, “oversees the “Courage to Teach” program for K-12 educators across the country and parallel programs for people in other professions, including medicine, law, ministry and philanthropy.” By any account, Palmer is successful, leading a fulfilling life and reaching many people with his ministry. And yet, at the height of his success, Palmer, when in his mid-forties, faced for the first time a debilitating depression.

let-your-life-speakIn his book, Let Your Life Speak he wrote about his experience. “Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection, not just between people but between one’s mind and one’s feelings. To be reminded of that disconnection only deepened my despair” [p. 62]. This disconnection was experienced as friends unhelpfully tried to cheer him up, encouraging him to get outside and smell the flowers. He writes, “And that, of course, leaves a depressed person even more depressed, because while you know intellectually that it’s sunny out and that the flowers are lovely and fragrant, you can’t really feel any of that in your body, which is dead in a sensory way. And so you’re left more depressed by this “good advice” to get out and enjoy the day.”

As someone who has wrestled with depression myself, I can attest to the difficulty of being with friends and loved ones who want to offer advice.  While they mean well, and I would never want to disparage them for the courage to try to walk with me in my suffering, a depressed person really doesn’t want to hear easy answers. As the story of Job reminds us, sitting in silence with the person who is suffering is an immense gift. Job 2:11-13 recounts,

When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

In real life this can be so hard to do. When someone we care about is in pain, we naturally want to do all we can to help ease their suffering. But as Palmer goes on to write, “One of the hardest things we must do sometimes is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to “fix” it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery and misery” [p. 63].

Time passed and Palmer found treatment that helped him, though he continued to struggle over the years.  After a while he felt compelled to write publicly about his experience, and he was met with a surprising result–people REALLY responded to his experience with depression.  In a recent interview with Palmer, now in his seventies, he shares what he learned about being vulnerable in this way:

I’ve written nine books… but the one piece that I’ve written that has gotten the most response by far is a chapter in Let Your Life Speak about my experience with depression.  It’s my acknowledgement of weakness, it’s my capacity to be vulnerable which has made me more friends than whatever capacity I have to be smart and strong…

When you start understanding wholeness not as perfection but as embracing everything you are, then you become able to talk about it [weakness] and to invite other people to share those same pieces of their own lives.

For many people, Palmer included, writing and speaking about depression has been part of the healing process.  It can be so hard to take that first step and open our mouths to admit we are struggling, but so often that experience is liberating.  I know for me, when I have the courage to share with a trusted friend about my story, I open up the possibility of receiving new support, deepening that relationship, and allowing the other person to be honest about her own suffering.

Near the end of this short video interview, Palmer reminds the viewer of the Leonard Cohen song that says:

Forget your perfect offeringSunlight Shining Through Forest

Ring the bells that still can ring

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.


Thank you Mr. Palmer, for your honesty and vulnerability, and for reminding us all that we are not alone in our suffering.  In fact, suffering is simply part of being a member of the human race.

Other Parker Palmer Resources:

  • I first heard Parker Palmer talk about his experience with depression in an interview on the NPR show, “On Being” with Krista Tippet.  It is a wonderful episode that I highly recommend!  Listen here >>
  • The 4-minute video interview with him talking about writing publicly about depression is excellent.  Click here to watch the short video.
  • His book, Let Your Life Speak, is excellent!  Well worth purchasing or checking out of your local library.
  • The website of his organization, the Center for Courage & Renewal, is pretty fascinating.

Caren Swanson

Walking With Grief


Walking With Grief

George MacDonald**


5613751328_359c13b1a0_bDo not hurry

as you walk with grief;

it does not help the journey.


Walk slowly, pausing often:

do not hurry

as you walk with grief.


Be not disturbed

by memories that come unbidden.

Swiftly forgive;

and let Christ speak for you

unspoken words.

Unfinished conversation

will be resolved in Him.

Be not disturbed.


5619333529_4ff0fd7698_bBe gentle with the one

who walks with grief.

If it is you,

be gentle with yourself.

Swiftly forgive;

walk slowly,

pausing often.


Take time, be gentle

as you walk with grief.


** Adapted from a passage in David Elginbrod by George MacDonald in Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community, 2002. USA: HarperCollins.

Caren Swanson

Images by flickr user seyed mostafa zamani via creative commons.

The Secret Pain of Pastors


Through our research with Spirited Life, we discovered a particularly surprising finding: pastors show high rates of job satisfaction, along with high levels of job stress. While there are a few theories behind such a contrast, pastors admit their love of the Church does come with a unique combination of stressors. For example, most pastors devote well over forty hours each week to sermon-writing, hospital visits, and committee work, yet they continue to hear from church members that they “only work on Sunday mornings”. This misunderstanding of the nature of pastoral work is one of many consistent issues faced by clergy.

secret_pain_small_216226948In the article entitled “The Secret Pain of Pastors”, Pastor Philip Wagner names and explores six common problems that clergy face. Those problems are listed below and include quotations offered anonymously from various Spirited Life pastors.

1. Criticism. With so many structural changes within denominations, pastors are often assigned fault for a church’s lack of growth, sermon length, service length, and lack of interest in community outreach, among other complaints. We have heard from many of the pastors in Spirited Life how criticism can come in many forms, either directly or indirectly, including withheld offerings.  The sense that pastors should be perfect often feeds into this tension.

2. Rejection. Pastors face rejection based on race, gender, age, ideas, etc. Wagner explains that “one of the most difficult conditions to achieve is to have a tough skin and a soft heart.” Although the rejection can oftentimes feel very personal, Wagner encourages pastors to “love people, hold them lightly, and don’t take it personally.”

3. Betrayal. Pastors learn to trust their church members, but they also experience violations of that trust, sometimes in the form of “telling the pastor’s personal issues to others,” according to Wagner.

4. Loneliness. One SL pastor has said that many clergy are warned to expect feelings of loneliness. “Clergy are told in seminary that their District Superintendent is neither their pastor nor their friend. This leaves clergy with no one to cover their back so to speak. Who can clergy turn to for support?” For more on this theme, check out Wellness Advocate Tommy Grimm’s blog post about the isolation experienced in ordination.

5. Weariness.SL pastor has described feeling weary from dissatisfied parishioners: “When members become dissatisfied with clergy or antagonistic, they choose to withhold their offerings because they believe it will punish the clergy.”

6. Frustrations & Disappointments. One SL pastor has said, “If you bring in 10 new members, but you have 11 members die (no control on that!) then clergy are deemed inefficient because of a negative growth rate.”

Below are some suggestions of how pastors can counter some of this secret pain they face:

  • Remember the Call. Think back to your first hint that you were Called to ministry. Was it a ‘Damascus moment’ or a ‘Slow Glow’? Remember the first time someone called you Pastor. Too often, pastors deal with emotionally draining situations; reflecting on your Call may bring back a renewed perspective on why you entered ministry.
  • Steal away and pray. Take your Sabbath!
  • Kate Rugani reminds us in her article that ‘Self-care is not self-ish’.
  • Remember that you are NOT alone. You are not the first member of clergy to face any of these challenges. Seek counsel of clergy outside of your denomination. If you are a pastor in the Spirited Life program, this is an area where your wellness advocate can provide a listening ear while also helping you find ways other support resources.
  • Laugh! While Spirited Life researches improvements for a pastor’s mental and physical health, WebMD maintains that laughter is one of the most reliable of medicines.  Here’s something to get you started:

–Angela MacDonald

(Quotations shared with permission from current SL participants; video clip from YouTube)

In the Brilliance of Spring, Remembering the Darkness of Advent


Keeping the liturgical year may be conducive to better health.

Allow me to explain.

We’ve known for some time that SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder – causes lots of people to experience mild depression during the winter months, when days are shorter and the weather cold and grey. Just as it is no accident that people feel a “spring” in their step this time of year, with the abundance of sunshine and blooming flowers, so too in the darkening days of fall do many people experience a dimming of their mood.  Recent research takes the relationship between the seasons and mental health farther, suggesting that waning sunlight and advancing darkness can have more serious mental health implications than previously thought.  Seasoned pastors – pun confessed – understand this and are prepared to deal with parishioners’ angst come November.

8201390638_69580c35ab_bBut what about pastors’ own vulnerability to the grey days, with their attendant increase in demands that time and creativity be spent planning for Thanksgiving, Advent and Epiphany? Have you ever felt your energy begin to dissipate at the mere thought of trying to explain to your congregation why Gospel lections for Advent begin apocalyptically? The Gospel for December 1, 2013, is Matthew 24, “one taken, one left.” Get ready.

Perhaps it’s time that pastors thought of keeping the liturgical year as a means of self-care, especially during the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle. Some years ago I wrote a liturgy for Longest Night (always either December 21 or 22) in which I confessed my own discomfort with the “tidings of comfort and joy” that cultural Christmas demands we feel, and unleashed upon the congregation the fruits of my historical-critical research by noting that Bethlehem doubtless stank when Jesus was born.  They loved it; some wept; I could scarcely make it through the Great Thanksgiving; the Holy Spirit triumphed.

And I was healed. By confessing the power of the darkness, owning that Luke’s birth narrative is scarcely so sanitized as we prefer to think, announcing that Incarnation made Mary scream in pain, and grasping that all of this is what Emmanuel – God with us – means, I was changed. Writing the liturgy displaced the darkness for me. It was unanticipated self-care, prevenient grace for us Wesleyans.

448485266_4af81d7b3b_bIn this joyful season of Eastertide, when new life is erupting all around us, take advantage of the long days and fresh energy to think ahead to the long nights of Advent and Epiphany.  It is not selfish, pastor, to ask yourself what you need in a particular liturgical season, in order first to receive the grace you have been called to sign and proclaim to the congregation. It is not selfish; it is responsible stewardship. Design those liturgies for yourself, too, and let the Spirit take care of the rest. She will.

–Ed Moore

Top image by flickr user Herr Olsen.  Lower image by flickr user Jeff Kubina.  Both used with permission via Creative Commons.

Examining life


Woman & Mirror“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

So I learned in my Intro to Philosophy class my freshman year of college, as spoken by Socrates. Reading these word’s in Plato’s Apology felt like an epiphany; self-knowledge and philosophical reflection confer meaning and value to life. “Know thyself” is the answer to fulfillment!

But as I’ve grown older, I’ve learned that self-knowledge can enslave as often as it empowers. When we ask, “Who am I,” the answers can be too disappointing to bear. This can especially be the case for pastors. As parishioners exalt them to a high moral status, pastors can easily adopt for themselves those expectations for perfection. But when they examine their lives, they can find anger, apathy, and sadness. When they examine their ministries, they can find failed churches, disappointed parishioners, and uninspired initiatives. The unexamined life might be pointless, but the examined life can be depressing. Socrates encouraged us to look at our lives, but he didn’t describe how. What measure do we use? What lens do we look through?

Brennan Manning, a beloved writer best known for his book Ragamuffin Gospel, passed away recently. He spoke and wrote openly about his struggles with alcoholism but only as a window to a deeper reality to his life. Manning saw his life in the terms of his memoir’s title: All is Grace.

In an article on his website, Philip Yancey offered these words about his friend Brennan.

As you read this memoir you may be tempted, as I am, to think “Oh, what might have been…if Brennan hadn’t given into drink.”  I urge you to reframe the thought to, “Oh, what might have been…if Brennan hadn’t discovered grace.”  More than once I have watched this leprechaun of an Irish Catholic hold spellbound an audience of thousands by telling in a new and personal way the story that all of us want to hear: that the Maker of all things loves and forgives us.  Brennan knows well that love and especially the forgiveness.  Like “Christian,” the everyman character in The Pilgrim’s Progress, he progressed not by always making right decisions but by responding appropriately to wrong ones.  (John Bunyan, after all, titled his own spiritual biography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners).

Yancey knows that Manning’s story can be examined as a disappointment or a triumph, and the difference is grace. How do you frame your life? By the standard of “always making right decisions” or “by responding appropriately to wrong ones”? When we examine our lives, may we discover with Manning:

“All is grace.”

–Tommy Grimm

(Image by flickr user Cia. /via Creative Commons)

Suffering and hope in the balance


It is with deep sympathy that Christians across the United States offered prayers last Sunday for the family of Rick Warren, California mega-church pastor and best-selling author of The Purpose Driven Life. The news of his son Matthew’s suicide after a lifelong struggle with depression broke on Saturday, bringing mental illness into not only national headlines, but also into the conversations of churchgoers, who, truth be told, have not always been the most sympathetic and understanding of this complex issue.


I recall a time when as a college student, I overheard a conversation between a friend and another young woman who happened to be a committed Christian. My friend shared that she had lost her teenage brother to suicide after he spent dark years struggling with depression. The other woman informed her in no uncertain terms that depression is a form of demonic possession, and that if her brother had received healing prayer, he would not have died. Needless to say, this did not inspire my friend to join the young woman’s church. Now, of course, this is an extreme example, but it highlights the fact that that the church hasn’t always been the best at untangling the physiological, emotional and spiritual threads that surround mental illness.

The good news, which many churches have been shouting from rooftops for years, is that God is with us, even in our suffering. The Dark Night of the Soul is not a sign that God has abandoned us, or that we are somehow being punished. The other good news is that the Body of Christ is alive and well in the world, and, in many churches and communities, it offers a safe harbor from the storms of life, even the internal ones.

Furthermore, medical and therapeutic advances over recent decades have shed ever-increasing light on the mysteries of mental illness, making them more treatable than at any point in history. Nothing will alleviate suffering completely, as the death of Matthew Warren reminds us, but it is important to see the hope that we have.

When Rick Warren shared the news of his son’s death, he chose to write a letter to his congregation, telling them about his son’s struggles, and also about his joys. It is heartbreaking that any parent should have to write such a letter, but it is a beautiful expression of love and loss and vulnerability:

To my dear Saddleback Family,

Over the past 33 years we’ve been together through every kind of crisis. Kay and I’ve been privileged to hold your hands as you faced a crisis or loss, stand with you at gravesides, and prayed for you when ill. Today, we need your prayer for us.

No words can express the anguished grief we feel right now. Our youngest son, Matthew, age 27, and a lifelong member of Saddleback, died today.

You who watched Matthew grow up knew he was an incredibly kind, gentle, and compassionate man. He had a brilliant intellect and a gift for sensing who was most in pain or most uncomfortable in a room. He’d then make a beeline to that person to engage and encourage them.

But only those closest knew that he struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts. In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided. Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.

Kay and I often marveled at his courage to keep moving in spite of relentless pain. I’ll never forget how, many years ago, after another approach had failed to give relief, Matthew said, “Dad, I know I’m going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?” but he kept going for another decade.

Thank you for your love and prayers. We love you back.

Pastor Rick

When someone in such a position of influence in American Christianity is touched by mental illness, I can’t help but hope that the stigma that exists in our society at large, and in the church in particular, will be eased at bit. People are talking about depression and other mental health issues this week, which is a great place to start. There is an abundance of articles and resources available online, including an excellent post on the Her~meneutics blog on that has many practical suggestions for making the church a more hospitable place for those with mental illness. As the author reminds us, we are not called to have all the answers or be able to fix everything, but we are called to love.

As we pray for the Warren family, let us pray too that God will open our eyes to the suffering in our own congregations, families and communities. Truly, lives are in the balance.

— Caren Swanson

PLEASE NOTE:  Find more posts on this blog about depression and mental health by clicking on each word.

(Image by flickr user spinster cardigan, via creative commons.)

‘Physically, Psychologically, and Spiritually Depleted’


The Charlotte Observer ran a news story last week about the medical leave of the Rev. Steve Shoemaker, the pastor of Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte.  Shoemaker wrote in a letter to his congregation on December 28 that he is “physically, psychologically, and spiritually depleted, and must get help.”

Shoemaker entered a 30-day residential treatment program in Maryland for help with depression and anxiety.  He said he had been taking prescription medication and had recently been self-medicating with alcohol.

In the article, Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown, a member of Myers Park Baptist church, ordained minister, and physician administrator, lauded Shoemaker’s passionate ministry and dedication to improving the lives of others.  She shared: “Being a pastor the way Steve does it, you’re refueling everybody else … but not often do you stop to let the big tanker come and refuel you.”

While this story may have been ground-breaking news for some readers, clergy depression is something we are well aware of at the Clergy Health Initiative.  We encourage pastors to be mindful of their emotional, physical, and mental health, and to seek the support they need to pursue wellness when they are feeling depleted.

At Spirited Life, we give thanks for Rev. Shoemaker’s honesty and vulnerability at a time of exhaustion.  We are grateful for his courage to seek treatment.  Thank you, Rev. Shoemaker, for being a witness to others of our limitations as humans seeking to follow Christ in ministry in the world.  May this time apart and away be one of healing and restoration, to the glory of God the Father, the Great Healer.

–Catherine Wilson

(image by flickr user mlhradio/via Creative Commons)


The Pain Behind the Mask


The holidays are expected to be a season of joy, benevolence and (frequently) a LOT of shopping. However, studies reveal that the holidays can also signal the recurrence of past emotional pain and an increase in ‘the blues’ or ‘holiday depression.’ As such, many pastors also deal with an uptick in requested pastoral counseling sessions. This means that pastors may hear countless stories about the memories of lost loved ones, the absence of family due to travel or family conflict, and strained marriages.

Pastors are expected to be caring, available, and safe receivers of this information. And society conditions all of us to present a brave front in the midst of sorrow. So how can pastors manage the weight of sadness heard from congregants while it may inevitably remind them of their own losses?

One way is by recognizing depression, which often gets masked or overlooked.

Drs. John Lynch and Christopher Kilmartin have written a compelling book entitled The Pain Behind the Mask. Although the book’s subtitle says that it addresses masculine depression (an often undiagnosed condition), the authors provide incredible points throughout the book that can be useful for everyone. The authors specifically mention female professionals who decide to adopt a less feminine persona as a survival skill in male-dominated professions.

Lynch and Kilmartin explain that women are diagnosed with depression twice as often as men. However, they note that those statistics may be inaccurate since men experience depression differently than women and are expected to display “traditional masculinity” (hyperindependence, toughness, unfeeling, detached from feelings).  While the definitions are not absolute, Lynch and Kilmartin describe the differences in masculine and feminine depression using the figure below:

The book delves deeper into these and other topics, featuring chapter titles such as  ‘He Sure Doesn’t Look Depressed’ and ‘Empathy for Self and Responsibility for Change.’

It seems to be human nature for all of us to wear some type of mask in our everyday lives. Whether it is at the workplace, a social event or even church, our masks serve to disguise or protect us. For pastors, it can be especially difficult to find a safe place to remove that mask. Further, it may be difficult to recognize that you’re actually wearing a mask when you believe it has been removed.

The Pain Behind the Mask goes on to provide a list of helpful questions to consider if you or a loved one notice that there is a strong disconnect between one’s public appearance and private appearance. Most importantly, The Pain Behind the Mask includes very helpful information and tips to assist you in improving relations with your peers, family and yourself.

Do YOU have an outlet, reliable support person or system that gives you a safe place to take off your mask?

– Angela M. MacDonald

Image credits: Puppy photo courtesy of Bill Weaver, via Flickr/Creative Commons. Book cover and image on male/female depression courtesy of ‘The Pain Behind the Mask.’