May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I can think of no better time to submit a proposal to all church leaders than now.
But first, some background.
According to a 2022 LifeWay Research report, “Almost 2 in 3 pastors say they are facing stress in ministry (63%). Nearly half also point to discouragement (48%) and distraction (48%) as ministry mental challenges.”
This same study reveals that “more pastors identify stress (31%) as their greatest mental challenge in ministry than any other challenge.”
Another LifeWay Research report states that “26% percent of U.S. Protestant pastors say they have personally struggled with some type of mental illness, including 17% who say it was diagnosed and 9% who say they experienced it but were never diagnosed.”
Now let’s factor in a pastor’s job description. Pastors are called to preach God’s Word, minister to their parishioners’ spiritual needs, and provide spiritual leadership for the church. To accomplish this, they must invest the time necessary to have an active prayer life. Knowing that their work impacts the eternal souls of the people they serve is a heavy weight for pastors to bear. This is the spiritual side of their job description.
But there’s a practical side as well. Pastors must be excellent communicators. They must also be able to oversee paid or volunteer staff, give direction for church programs, and lead the church to grow in numbers (i.e. attendance and budget). They must motivate, equip, and nurture the members of their congregation. Additionally, they often find themselves in the role of counselor or family therapist, even though many of them have little or no training in that area. And in today’s climate, they must handle cultural and political matters with kid gloves, knowing that one misunderstanding could cost them their job.
Oh, and we mustn’t forget the hospital visits, weddings, and funerals.
And committee meetings.
And phone calls, emails, and text messages that need a timely response. Plus, in many denominations, the pastor must guide the church through tumultuous denominational waters.
Is it any wonder almost 2 in 3 pastors are stressed?
If pastors are so stressed, why don’t they ask for help? Why don’t they get help?
Thankfully, some do. But many do not. Why? Here are three main reasons, although this is far from an exhaustive list:
Concern over confidentiality – One pastor told me she’d never go to a counselor in the town where she lived for fear that word would get out that she was seeking help. Another pastor told me that, even though his denomination provided counselors, he would never go to one of them because he felt sure his name would get flagged as someone who needed help and it would hinder his ability for advancement.
Concern over cost – Counseling costs can range from $50 up to $250 or more per session. It’s well worth the investment if a pastor has discretionary funds to invest. But many pastors are simply trying to put food on the table, pay the mortgage, and keep the minivan running. Their kids are in braces and play sports and, eventually, heading to college. Spending money on therapy seems like a luxury they simply cannot afford.
Concern over how their church would react – This may sound like a lame excuse for not seeking help unless you’re a pastor. Seven years ago, shortly after my book Moving On: Surviving the Grief of Forced Termination was published, I heard from a pastor’s wife whose husband confided in his three most “trusted elders” that he was seeking help for depression. They responded by telling him to resign. Another pastor was fired when church leaders found out that he and his wife were seeking professional help for their marriage. These situations are not uncommon and many pastors have heard the horror stories. The result is that they fail to seek help from anyone, especially from a professional counselor.
Author Ericka Andersen puts it this way: “A life in faith leadership demands a shiny external façade.”
Based on my experience in church ministry and as Executive Director of Pastors’ Hope Network, I propose that all churches, regardless of size, make mental healthcare part of their ministers’ salary packages. Whether they are lead pastors or associate pastors, every minister needs access to professional, confidential mental healthcare.
Additionally, churches must insist that their ministers use the mental healthcare options that are offered. At Hope Fellowship in Frisco, Texas, mental healthcare is provided and every minister is required to check in with their counselor periodically, even if everything is going smoothly. Providing this mental health support is built into their church culture. They’re being proactive instead of waiting for their ministers to buckle under the stress of ministry.
If you are an active member of your church and you care about your ministerial staff, please become a mental healthcare advocate for your pastor(s). Insist that mental healthcare be included in their salary packages or provided in some other way.
Admittedly, there are details to work out. The biggest issues will revolve around how to fund mental healthcare and how to change church culture. There won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution but I believe solutions exist. For starters, many Christian counselors give discounts to pastors. Larger churches that have their own counseling ministries can partner with smaller churches. Telehealth allows minister to seek help outside of their community in order to ensure confidentiality. These are just a few ideas. The solutions may not be easy but let’s get the conversation started and see what we find.
We cannot afford to ignore mental healthcare for our pastors any longer.