For American clergy, the burdens of their calling increasingly threaten mental well-being

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For Roland Stringfellow, the pandemic remains a weight not completely lifted. As the 2020 lockdown disrupted his church community in suburban Detroit, the resulting emotional stress was compounded by the social unrest and political polarization that followed the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

“So many congregations have not recovered from that period of time,” said Stringfellow, senior pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit, located in Ferndale, Michigan.

The situation was unbearable for some: Stringfellow saw fellow pastors seek relief from alcohol or substance abuse. If not for the supportive staff he’d assembled around him, he said, he doubts he would have made it through his divorce or the pressures of leading an LGBTQ+-friendly church through the uncertainty of the pandemic and a climate of rising anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric.

“How do you deal with those and care for a congregation?” said Stringfellow, who is gay. “How can you be there when everyone is afraid – and you have those same emotions?”

According to the Clergy Health Initiative, a project of Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, clergy are among the nation’s most overworked individuals, juggling multiple roles while often raising their own families. But tensions triggered in recent years have added to the strain, creating mental health challenges and prompting many to reconsider their callings.

The Rev. Roland Stringfellow, senior pastor at Metropolitan Community Church in Detroit.
The Rev. Roland Stringfellow, senior pastor at Metropolitan Community Church in Detroit.

A survey of 1,700 clergy sponsored by The Hartford Institute for Religion Research last fall showed high levels of discontent among the nation’s Christian clergy. Nearly half said they’d thought about leaving their congregations, while more than half said they considered leaving the ministry altogether.

For many church leaders, the pandemic was a wake-up call regarding the structural issues within their institutions, including the oversized burdens placed on pastors.

“Pastors were left with more work and limited resources,” said Adrian Crawford, lead pastor at Engage Church in Tallahassee, Florida. “You had people really hurting, and a lot of pastors didn’t realize what was going on inside of themselves. Their wives and children were going through the same struggles, so the pastor was leading the people but also trying to be there for his family. Those emotions have got to go somewhere.”

For Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, the situation is broadly reminiscent of the disaster-relief incidents he’s ministered through, including Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

“We learned then that a significant number of clergy will leave the ministry five years out from the disaster because the stress was so overwhelming,” Meyer said. “COVID-19 pushes this phenomenon from a local to a national level.”

Despite their own stresses, clergy often don’t feel they can seek help. According to the Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, ministers say they face numerous obstacles to accessing mental health services, including cost, feelings of shame, difficulty taking time off work, or a lack of denominational support.

Adrian Crawford, lead pastor of Engage Church in Tallahassee, Fla., said the COVID-19 pandemic left many pastors with more work and fewer resources. As a result, he said, many are dealing with stress that they often don't feel able to address.
Adrian Crawford, lead pastor of Engage Church in Tallahassee, Fla., said the COVID-19 pandemic left many pastors with more work and fewer resources. As a result, he said, many are dealing with stress that they often don't feel able to address.

That can have trickle-down effects on congregations as struggling pastors withdraw or become irritable. Before he was diagnosed with clinical depression, Mark Dance, who spent 28 years as a pastor for Baptist churches in Arkansas, Texas and Tennessee, said he experienced no moral meltdowns or train wrecks; he simply avoided people he once enjoyed conversing with and found it hard to make decisions.

“When a pastor is healthy, the church is going to be healthy,” said Dance, now director of pastoral wellness for faith-based investment firm GuideStone. “But when a pastor is not, erosion happens, and it’s very gradual and subtle.”

Instead, many keep their struggles to themselves.

As Crawford put it: “Superman can’t show he has a weakness. Pastors want to be the hero in everybody’s story.”

Pastors' burdens breed mental health challenges

Growing up as a pastor’s daughter, Jennifer Oh saw that dynamic play out firsthand.

“My father always had thoughts of, 'Is this the right thing for me?'” said Oh, now restoration center coordinator for her church community in Los Angeles. “It becomes very lonely…. But there’s this idea of, ‘I have to do what Jesus does. I have to sacrifice. I have to be an example.’”

Most of the nation’s approximately 244,000 clergy members work 40 to 60 hours weekly, and 25% of them work 60 hours or more, according to the Columbia Theological Seminary. “This has detrimental implications for clergy and the entire ecologies in which they are situated,” the school said in a blog post. “He or she is expected to be the administrator, teacher, preacher, counselor, staff supervisor, facilities manager and fundraiser all at once.”

At the same time, clergy face a continued decline in public perception, part of a broader downturn of faith in U.S. professionals overall. Just 32% of Americans rated clergy as trustworthy in Gallup’s 2023 Honesty and Ethics Poll, down from 64% in 2001 and the lowest point in the poll's 47 years.

The burdens can be oppressive. A 2008 study by Duke Divinity School found United Methodist clergy in North Carolina experienced depression at higher rates than the general state population. Late last year, a quarter of American Methodist congregations left the United Methodist Church, largely over issues of sexuality and gender identity, in the largest denominational schism in U.S. history.

“Clergy engage in many stressful activities, including grief counseling, navigating the competing demands of congregants and delivering a weekly sermon that opens them up to criticism,” the authors wrote. “The strain of these roles is further amplified by having to switch rapidly between them.”

Clergy who felt their efforts were inadequate were more prone to depression, the study found, while those doubting their call to ministry were more prone to anxiety.

Some clergy may be more at risk than others. Research published in 2002 found Protestant clergy reported higher levels of stress than Catholics: women rabbis reported the highest levels of work-related stress, while Catholic sisters reported the lowest.

In Los Angeles, Oh said many church leaders are still flummoxed by lower attendance numbers that never recovered post-COVID-19. That drop comes as greater numbers of Americans, particularly Gen Zers and millennials, have pulled away from Christian faith systems, instead describing themselves as agnostics, atheists, or “nothing in particular.”

“There’s a sense of not doing enough, that you have to do more and more,” she said.

The lockdown prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic left many pastors nationwide stressed and scrambling to find ways to conduct services and maintain community without gathering in close quarters. In Jacksonville Beach, Fla., senior pastor David Ball of the Church of Our Savior delivered a Palm Sunday sermon during a drive-in church service in April 2020.

That strikes at the heart of the reward most pastors find in their work, Meyer said – the strong emotional ties they form within their congregations.

“The idea of church membership is dying away,” he said. “From a pastor’s point of view, they’re not able to make deep relationships with people…. The struggle to do the daily work of the congregation falls more on your shoulders and takes away from your family and the basic emotional ties that keep you healthy. Burnout, distress and loneliness are inevitable challenges.”

For some pastors, unwanted scrutiny and abuse

A volatile political climate has added to the malaise. Pastors feel pressured to tiptoe around potential landmines, fearful of offending conservative congregants by expressing empathy for immigrants or irking progressives by decrying abortion.

“A lot of people want the clergy to think the way they do, and they want Jesus to think the same way they do, and sometimes that is just not the case,” said Matthew Bode, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Ferndale, Michigan. “That puts clergy in a difficult position.”

“Toxic and biased congregations are the rule these days, especially in more rural communities,” said Tracey Karcher, a former Methodist pastor who runs a general store in Sand Springs, Montana. “Incoming pastors and ministers need to be equipped to handle these challenges, and they need the support of their higher-ups and supervisors.”

Karcher said women pastors can face unique challenges that affect mental well-being, including bullying, abuse and assignment to less prestigious roles or lower-salaried positions. When anxiety or depression do strike, Karcher said, female pastors enjoy less support than males, are belittled as weak or inadequate leaders, or accused of overblowing the situation.

Frank Schaefer, pastor of University United Methodist Church in Isla Vista, Calif.  In 2013, Schaefer was defrocked following a trial at the rural Pennsylvania church where he served after a congregant discovered that Schaefer had officiated his son's same-sex wedding in Massachusetts. The ruling was later overturned on technical grounds and Schaefer's ordination reinstated.

Frank Schaefer, pastor of University UMC in Isla Vista, California, knows from experience how ministers can be targets of emotional abuse. A decade ago, he was defrocked after a church trial at his Methodist church in rural Pennsylvania for officiating his son’s same-sex wedding in Massachusetts; the denomination’s judicial council later overturned the ruling on technical grounds.

Schaefer described the experience as “emotionally taxing,” starting with the fact that one of his own parishioners had initiated the proceedings against him.

“As pastor, you’re always expected to be strong,” he said. “You’re supposed to always be ready and available to help others. You never speak about your struggles in public.”

'Don't be afraid to befriend your pastor'

As the stigma around mental well-being has vanished, that dialogue has filtered into church communities as well. According to the Columbia Theological Seminary, when asked what they found beneficial for their mental health, ministers cited sabbaticals, prayer and support groups, individual counseling and retreats.

“Clergy talk more openly about their own mental health than when I started 24 years ago,” Bode said. “Years ago, there was no limit to what you could ask a pastor to do. Now we have better boundaries, like ‘Today is my day off.’”

Some, like Crawford of Engage Church in Tallahassee, find inspiration in Biblical references.

“Take Cain and Abel – that first murder happened because Cain felt some kind of way,” he said. “God asked him, ‘Why are you depressed and angry?’ He shows up as a counselor, giving him a point of self-discovery.”

He and others say the solution starts with themselves and learning to lean on others for help.

“I became a pastor in the late ’80s when it was taboo to befriend church members,” said Dance, of GuideStone. “But that isolation is not part of our call. It’s not a sentence to solitary confinement. You’re leading a family – and sometimes a family needs you, and sometimes you need the family.”

Congregants, too, can help simply by asking their pastors how they’re doing and being good listeners.

“Don’t be afraid to befriend your pastor,” he said.

Crawford said a seemingly healthy church culture may actually reflect codependence.

“Pastors want to be needed,” he said. “But people have to understand: They’re responsible to you, but they’re not responsible for you. The pastor is human, just like you.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mental health: US clergy struggle with workloads, political atmosphere