Mental health and pastoral ministry

by Beverly K. Yahnke

God has blessed His Church bountifully with called and ordained pastors who teach, preach and administer the sacraments faithfully. They care for souls within the church and bring God’s life-giving Word to the unchurched as well. For many pastors, the ministry is a joyful vocation. In their service to God’s sheep and lambs, these men are rooted in Scripture, effective and vibrant. They are spiritually mature and resilient, and they inspire confidence among parishioners as they provide both godly spiritual care and capable leadership.

Yet as a Christian clinical psychologist in private practice for 25 years, I’ve met hundreds of faithful pastors who have struggled to find joy in ministry, despite their love for the Lord and their zeal to serve their parishioners. Some were distressed, discouraged, depleted or clinically depressed. Others were anxious and weary, reeling from personal attacks, financial crises or churchly divisions. Most of these pastors admitted that their personal psychological and spiritual needs had not been tended to. Over 70 percent of the LCMS pastors I’ve met clinically acknowledged that they had never spoken with a brother they considered to be their personal pastor. They were even less likely to have sought psychological care.

Many pastors I’ve spoken with have reported that, when taken captive by burnout, depression or anxiety, their first response was to redouble their churchly efforts to ensure that no one would know they were struggling. Others have shared that, in light of Jesus’ words about joy in the Christian life (John 15:11), their own experience of sadness and emptiness in ministry left them feeling guilt, shame or fear that they had failed.

The Holy Ministry does not bubble wrap pastors and insulate them from challenges or spiritual trials. In one 2018 survey of Protestant clergy, 23 percent of pastors reported dealing with some kind of personal mental illness.

Threats to pastoral well-being

The ministry compounds stressors in ways that many other vocations do not. Pastors come to know the lives of their parishioners very well as they baptize, confirm, marry and bury their flock. They are routinely engaged in hearing about and tending to the pain of others; they accompany members into their heartbreaks, horrific moments, confusion, rage or despair. They bring God’s Word to bear into family maelstroms, addictions, failures, betrayals and troubled marriages. Pastors are often the first resource for individuals in the congregation who are grappling with their own mental health diagnoses and spiritual dark nights. They keep close vigil with those who suffer and marinate in the pain of their people.

In addition to this, the pastoral office is truly one of few vocations in which a man must master countless competencies. We ask pastors to be biblical scholars, excellent preachers, problem-solvers, business managers, secretaries, financial wizards, mediators, teachers, counselors, marketers, winsome visitors and savvy leaders in a well-dressed, confident package, willing to do battle (politely) with an increasingly unhinged culture. In smaller parishes we may even ask them to cut the church lawn before the Sunday service. Many parishes turn to their pastors expecting he will do all these things well and be available 24/7. Each and all of these competing expectations can challenge any pastor’s resilience.

What else might contribute to discouragement? At a time when national surveys report that the number of American Christians is in decline across nearly all congregations and church bodies, pastors are still asked to demonstrate their effectiveness with membership metrics. In some places, the only true measure of the pastor’s “success” is congregational size. Counting Baptisms, new members and members in worship can become a litmus test for determining pastoral success, robbing men of joy even when they have been faithful in their calling. In the smallest parishes, the pastor may also be confronted with budget shortfalls which may threaten the school or the church itself.

The causes of pastoral depression, depletion and burnout are legion, but even among pastors who are not experiencing mental illness researchers have noted troublesome, recurrent themes. Dean R. Hoge and Jacqueline E. Wenger’s Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Ministry, a groundbreaking study built on interviews with more than 900 former pastors, showed that

  • 54% lacked agreement with parishioners over what the role of a pastor is
  • 41% felt stress because of criticism from the congregation
  • 55% felt drained by the demands placed on them
  • 51% felt the demands of laity were unreasonable
  • 15% felt pressure by lay leaders to leave the ministry

The high cost of burnout

Given these and other contributing factors, it’s not surprising: Ministry burnout is real and pastoral depletion is insidious. As stressors increase, small losses in functioning over time accrue and can lead ultimately to significant dysfunction and even clinical depression. The pastor with mental health issues struggles to manage his work and personal habits and may neglect time in the Word, meditation and prayer. He probably has not established healthy boundaries for himself or his family, and he is often reluctant to address chronic conflict or others’ unreasonable expectations.

A pastor in these circumstances can soon find he is overwhelmed and rounding the corner to depression. Some pastors-in-decline report that their lives have become a checklist of things to do, completed out of a sense of duty and necessity. They feel empty and find little satisfaction in their work. Pastors who are clinically depressed can often barely function beyond meeting Sunday morning responsibilities.

Dissatisfaction with self, family and ministry all take root and grow quietly. A pastor’s spiritual needs (which are the most essential in his life) are usually the first to be neglected, and his ability to meet his family’s needs may decline swiftly thereafter. Too often, pastors seek mental health or spiritual care only when their life, marriage and ministry are all at the brink of free-fall, their parishioners are upset or perplexed and no one knows quite what to do next.

Combatting clergy mental illness

Fortunately, there are a number of excellent resources for LCMS pastors and their families, along with an increasing awareness of clergy mental health needs throughout our church body. Informed and sensitive efforts to address or even preempt mental health matters among our clergy are being examined throughout the stages of pastoral formation.

For newly installed pastors, the PALS program (Post-Seminary Applied Learning and Support) has been an exceptional blessing. It provides community, ongoing continuing education, support and encouragement for men (and their wives) in their first three years of ministry.

Many LCMS districts have a Ministerial Health Committee, whose members can assist pastors and their families to find appropriate support and care. Circuit visitors may also be able to identify and assist pastors who would benefit from receiving mental health care and spiritual care as well.

Several LCMS Recognized Service Organizations provide respite and care for pastors facing burnout and other mental health challenges. DOXOLOGY: The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care and Counsel (the organization with which I work) helps to provide pastors spiritual, emotional and psychological tools, personal consultation, refreshment in the Word and advanced education. Other organizations, including Grace Place Wellness and Shepherd’s Canyon Retreat, also offer a range of resources for pastoral support.

Church leaders might invite a conversation with their pastor about this article or suggest that their pastor take advantage of a pastoral enrichment/continuing education program, such as DOXOLOGY.

After greeting our pastor at the close of the service this Sunday morning, let’s wrap him and his family in prayer, asking that God will equip, comfort and sustain this man to do all that he is called to do, for Jesus’ sake.

Dr. Beverly K. Yahnke is executive director for Christian counsel for DOXOLOGY: The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care and Counsel. A licensed clinical psychologist who has spent more than two decades in private practice, she also served previously as professor of psychology and department chair at Concordia University Wisconsin.

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 print edition of The Lutheran Witness. 

2 thoughts on “Mental health and pastoral ministry”

  1. Norberto Damián Meyer

    Muy buena concuerda con la realidad
    Me gustó mucho el programa para pastor recién graduados
    Y el programa Doxologia
    Dios los bendiga en su labor

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