Mental health: Clergy job often equals stress

Just as Jesus healed people struggling with mental, emotional and physical ailments, United Methodists reach out to their sisters and brothers who seek healing. In this series, United Methodist News Service shares stories of individuals and congregations tackling the challenges of mental health through a variety of ministries.

Answering God's call shouldn't be bad for your health.

But for about half of all ordained United Methodist clergy, it is.

Close to 50 percent of United Methodist clergy who answered a survey conducted by the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits said their jobs stressed them out.

Five percent suffer from depression, 26 percent report at least some functional difficulty from depressive symptoms and 47 percent experienced hostility in their congregations.

To show some perspective, for matched U.S. adults used as a benchmark, only three percent suffer from depression and 12 percent report difficulty working, taking care of things or getting along with others.

The survey also found United Methodist clergy have a higher percentage of physical conditions including obesity (40 percent), high cholesterol (51 percent), borderline high blood pressure (prehypertension) (11 percent), asthma (17 percent) and pre-diabetes (9 percent).

Emotional and mental health issues exacerbate physical conditions, said Kelly Wittich, manager of health and wellness at the Center for Health, United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits.

"If you look at our disability claims for clergy, you see that mental health ends up being a much higher reason (for resigning) than in an average workplace setting," she said. "These are mental health issues extreme enough to keep people from continuing."

It's just the job

Some of the stress risks are systemic, Wittich said. A report by the Church System Task Force in 2011 identified 13 key factors that differentiate between healthy and unhealthy individuals.

Stressors that seem to come with the job include trouble maintaining a healthy work/life balance, frequent appointment changes and relocations and existential burdens of ministry - feeling obligated to carry the weight of others' emotional and spiritual burdens or overwhelming needs.

A built-in stressor is The United Methodist Church's itinerant system, which moves pastors from church to church in their conferences. "Think of how stressful it is when you have to move ... to leave a support network, routines and have to start from scratch," Wittich said.

Other stressors range from striving to live a healthy lifestyle while surrounded by high-caloric, fat-saturated potluck dinners to problems with living authentically and failing to live according to deeply held personal values and beliefs.

Compassion fatigue

"The very acts that get clergy rewarded in their ministry can also be the very things that wreak havoc on their family, personal, physical and spiritual lives," said the Rev. Sheri S. Ferguson, executive director of the North Alabama Annual (regional) United Methodist Pastoral Care and Counseling Center.

"The very acts that get clergy rewarded in their ministry can also be the very things that wreak havoc on their family, personal, physical and spiritual lives."
-The Rev. Sheri S. Ferguson

Ferguson cites one study of psychologists that points to four factors that contribute to burnout: being young, having low income, engaging in little personal psychotherapy and feeling overly committed to clients.

"These factors certainly apply to clergy," she said.

Ferguson said clergy could do specific things to prevent compassion burnout and mental health problems.

"Clergy need support/accountability systems where they can talk about the demands of ministry in a confidential environment," she said.

Other healthy tips include having hobbies, nurturing humor and working to keep a balance between work and family. She also suggests clergy should participate in worship outside of the place where they are the leader.

Game changers

The Church Systems Task Force report identified four areas that, if changed, would have a positive impact on clergy health:

  • Adjustments to the itinerancy and the appointment systems
  • Emphasis on a good match between the clergyperson and the congregation; acceptance and use of clergy gifts and graces
  • Spiritual support for the clergyperson from someone other than the district superintendent
  • Revisions to the district superintendent role to better support clergy

In addition to a change in the "system," congregations also need a paradigm shift in their expectations for their clergy, Ferguson said.

"I don't think a lot of the folks in the pews realize or think of their clergyperson as a human who has the same vulnerabilities as all of us," Wittich said.

"I don't think a lot of the folks in the pews realize or think of their clergyperson as a human who has the same vulnerabilities as all of us."
-Kelly Wittich

Some tips for congregations include:

  • Make sure your clergyperson is taking time off for Sabbath and vacation. Don't schedule meetings every night of the week. Give pastors time to spend with their families.
  • Welcome new pastors and their families. Be the emotional support for them instead of just expecting it from them.
  • Handle conflicts in a loving, Christian manner.

"This is a long-term process, and it really requires the whole denomination to stand up and take notice and do something about it," Wittich said. "You want more for your clergy and congregants than for them to not to be depressed but (also) for them to be emotionally healthy. It's moving from wanting them to survive a mental or physical health issue to wanting them to really thrive.

"Can you imagine if every leader of the church were emotionally thriving, what an impact that would have on the mission of the church?"

This article was first published on July 12, 2013.

*Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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