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A recent study conducted by Duke University revealed a phenomenon that will not surprise those of us in vocational ministry, but may shock a few of you looking in from the outside.
The title of the news release said it all: “Clergy More Likely to Suffer from Depression, Anxiety.”
The study, published in the Journal of Primary Prevention, compared the mental health of 95 percent of the United Methodist clergy in North Carolina (1,176 pastors) to a representative sample of Americans.
“The demands placed on clergy by themselves and others put pastors at far greater risk for depression than individuals with other occupations.”
“Greater” as in double the national rate.
It reminds me of one of the wisest adages about ministry I’ve ever read (from the wit of Stuart Briscoe). The three qualifications of a pastor are:
“The mind of a scholar,
the heart of a child,
and the hide of a rhinoceros.”
That pretty much covers it.
The problem is that most of us don’t do so good with the “hide” part. That’s why the first chapter in my book, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary, is titled “Emotional Survival.” It was the first chapter because it needed to be the first chapter.
I wrote about having coffee with a fellow pastor who needed more than caffeine to pick himself up. Summer attendance was down. Key people were leaving because of disagreements about the direction of the church. And money was very, very tight.
I felt nothing but empathy. Yep, been there, felt that.
“Jim,” he said, “I knew seasons like this would come. I just didn't know how stressful they would be.”
Neither did I. To this day, the disappointments can still blindside me. Nothing prepares you for how ministry can drain you emotionally, leaving you in pain or, even worse, feeling numb or in despair or with seething anger. This is why so many good men and women in ministry have careened into moral ditches, or simply soldier on with plastic smiles and burned out souls.
Hear my heart: the church I have the privilege of serving as pastor is nothing short of amazing. The people are loyal, faithful and generous. I love serving as their pastor.
But I’ve been serving in vocational ministry for nearly thirty years, and it hasn’t always been so…nice.
It reminds me how a few years ago, my wife Susan and I were part of a specialized mentoring retreat with about a dozen couples, all well-known leaders of large and thriving churches. The first night started off with an open-ended question: “What are your key issues right now?”
As we went around the room, the recurring answer in each of their lives was “emotional survival.”
We shared our stories about the hits and hurts that come our way in ministry as occupational hazards, and how they tear away at our souls, sapping our enthusiasm, our creativity, and our missional stamina. They leave us dreaming of finding ourselves on a beach with a parasol in our drink,
What makes ministry so emotionally hazardous?
It all starts with overbuilt expectations. When you enter ministry, you can’t help but dream. For many of us, we dream big. That's one of the marks of a leader - a compelling vision for the future. But for almost everyone, it's not long before the dream collides with reality.
When I planted Mecklenburg in the fall of 1992, I just knew (though I wouldn’t have said so publicly) that we would be a church in the hundreds, if not approaching a thousand, in a matter of weeks.
Willow Creek, eat our dust.
The reality was starting in a tropical storm with 112 people, and by the third Sunday - through the strength of my preaching - looking out at 56 folks. Actually, 15 or 20 of those were kids in another room, so maybe 40 were actually in worship. We also, I believe, counted people who were in the hotel and walked by slowly.
Yes, our numbers did eventually increase, but I don't care what kind of growth you have — you usually had hoped for more.
Then there are the day-in, day-out realities of serving in a church that is very real, very flawed, and very challenging. No matter how well it goes, you have problems, issues, struggles, defections, setbacks, barriers, betrayals and defeats.
You have to live with a level of quality about ten miles below what ignited your dream.
Then there is the work — hard work — and you realize that it could take years for even a glimpse of your dream to become reality.
And those are just the emotional hits from your expectations.
Then there are the hits that come from the people you are working so hard to serve.
This is the heart of the emotional drain.
We are shepherds, and sheep can be messy. Wonderful, glorious, beautiful, and beloved by God, but still sin-stained, sin-soaked, with lives lived for years far from God and in need of serious repair.
And they can hurt you more than you could possibly imagine.
In particular, through the relational defections of those you trusted, and the crushing train-wrecks of those in your leadership mix that can throw you into crisis mode.
I talk about all this and more in the book. With detail. And examples I wish I didn’t have to offer. But I also outline some coping strategies that have come from the trenches. Strategies I hope serve others as much as they have served me.
But there’s no quick fix. Ministry is what it is. You won’t ever escape the hits and the hurts. They come with the territory. You can’t read the psalms and not feel David’s depression and anxiety; you can’t read the many letters of Paul in the New Testament and not feel the draw of ministry on his emotional tank.
The good news is that David, Paul, and probably every one of those Methodist ministers in the study will tell you the same thing:
No matter the cost, no matter the hardship, it’s worth it.
I’ll speak for myself.
Just show me
…one hungry person fed,
…one homeless person sheltered,
…one child rescued from sex trafficking,
…one family strengthened,
…one marriage restored,
…one widow comforted,
…one orphan loved,
…and most of all, one life bursting up through the waters of baptism,
And I’m all in.
Always will be.
Just make sure you extend some grace when you see me in the occasional fetal position.
James Emery White
James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary.
“Clergy More Likely to Suffer from Depression, Anxiety,” released August 27, 2013, read online.