There’s a secret in the church that’s destroying lives and breaking families. It’s not often addressed by leaders, and it’s not frequently taught at conferences. Yet it’s a secret that is increasingly common among those leading our churches.
We clergy struggle with mental wellness.
I recently created and distributed a survey among licensed clergy in our denomination. My hope was to understand their experiences with mental wellness and get a glimpse of their day-to-day lives. Are they anxious? Depressed? Suicidal? Do they seek help? Do they feel free to seek help? The results were painful. Of the 228 pastors who responded:
Regarding mental wellness:
72% have, at some point, had depression
64% have thought about leaving the ministry
54% have sought professional help for ministry and/or personal struggles
51% have anxiety (an additional 22% have had anxiety in the past)
29% have had suicidal thoughts
27% have taken medication to deal with anxiety or depression
10% have considered or have engaged in self-harm
Regarding their safety and ability to heal within the denomination:
49% said the Church of the Nazarene does not create a culture where pastors can receive the help they need
34% believe seeking help would negatively affect their relationship with their district superintendent or negatively impact their ability to find future employment
I created this survey because I am represented within this survey. Since nearly the beginning of my time as a lead pastor, anxiety has been my constant companion. I haven’t always had the language to describe it, and I didn’t always have the proper lens to see it for what it was, but it was there, walking with me and speaking into my heart, casting fear over my leadership decisions.
It took some time for me to reach out for help (and only then because of firm but loving encouragement from my brother-in-law, who recognized the signs from our conversations), but I did eventually seek help. My efforts to get help led me to working with my primary care physician to find a medication that worked for me. I also found a spiritual director to begin untangling my interior life, and I eventually began seeing a therapist too.
In every sense of the term, dealing with my anxiety has been filled with heavy lifting. It has been difficult and painful work. It has required opening dark closets and examining past hurts and failures. It means staring, wide-eyed and unflinching, directly into the darkest corners of myself—and believing I’m someone who is still worth loving. This work was difficult, and painful, and felt a lot like death.
Internal examination, confession, and spiritual work are not new or unique, of course. For centuries, the mystics and saints called this effort the journey to salvation. Certainly all Christians of every stripe eventually confront the question of how to reconcile the fact of our everyday sins with the reality of our eternal salvation. Different faith traditions offer different explanations for resolving this paradoxical tension, but Nazarenes often encounter a unique struggle because of our holiness doctrine.
We Nazarenes have a beautiful tradition full of justice, holiness, reconciliation, repentance, and restoration. Ours is a tradition that calls the broken out of death and into life. What a tradition to belong to! However, there are moments when our theology drifts away from the swirling eddy of healing and hope and into a swiftly moving current of rigid behavioral rules and social expectations of achieved perfection. I remember—early on in my ministry training—fretting over the fact that, though I knew I’d had a sanctification moment, I was very obviously still imperfect. What was wrong with me? Should I not be a pastor? Was I lying to others in my claims of sanctification while also being very human? These questions created a rich and fertile soil for shame to take root, a shame that eventually bore a harvest of anxiety.
The communicated idea is that our healing should be instantaneous and our illness reconciled with one trip to the altar.
If there is one thing we know, it’s that there is a deep stigma among Christians in general about mental illness. As someone with anxiety, I have been told that the Bible commands me “not to be anxious about anything.” For those who have depression, they’re told to “rejoice in the Lord always.” Compounding the pain, many times folks are told to “pray for healing” and that “their faith will make them well.” The communicated idea is that our healing should be instantaneous and our illness reconciled with one trip to the altar. Countless pastors and Christians, though, have been left with haunting questions: What if that healing doesn’t come? What if, after years of prayer, our chemicals are still out of balance? Our hearts wounded and our pasts full of pain?
In these moments, holiness can become wholly other than it is intended to be. Instead of an optimistic experience that leads us into our fullest, most God-formed selves, we experience holiness as a test we’ve utterly failed, crashing against the wall of our imperfections and feeling more broken than before. This experience with holiness dysphoria is particularly painful for clergy. Charged with the holy task of shepherding the body of believers, pastors find themselves isolated and alone. After all, what good is a holiness pastor who doubts and struggles with their own holiness? Congregations have high expectations for their pastors, and pastors have even higher expectations for themselves.
As one pastor painfully wrote within the survey: “Most pastors function in isolation, which is extremely unhealthy and untenable. Expectations are also, often, not biblically inspired or consistent within the congregation. Pastors often end up chasing ghosts or denying biblical expectations in order to fulfill cultural/contextual expectations.”
Congregations have high expectations for their pastors, and pastors have even higher expectations for themselves.
Pastors—attempting to faithfully serve at the intersection of their own internal wounds, external expectation, and denominational theology—are being torn apart and don’t know how to find a way to make it end. It’s no wonder such a significant percentage of our pastors experience depression and anxiety or have considered suicide or self-harm. When combined: shame, isolation, and pain make a deadly cocktail.
It’s my deep belief that our district and general leadership have a heart to help pastors when we are in pain. It is their desire to ensure that pastors in our denomination are healthy and emotionally whole, and when we’re not, I believe our leadership would seek to find ways to help pastors receive the help they need, whether medically or emotionally, if they know of pastors under their leadership who do need help. I believe this because I’ve experienced it myself, and I’ve also borne witness to others who have experienced it.
However, while 66 percent of pastors feel safe to reach out for help, we must recognize that 34 percent do not, and that a staggering 49 percent feel they pastor within a culture that is not conducive to pastors receiving the help they need. A significant number of clergy are in deep pain and feel unsafe asking for the help they need. As a tribe, it behooves us to find a way to open the conversation wider, reducing the stigma attached to mental health, in order to create safe avenues for our clergy to find healing.
Already, we are seeing districts exploring what solutions look like. Some offer anonymous, subsidized, or free counseling for pastors to use as a means of confession and healing. Others, like my own district (Northern California), are using district-sanctioned events to talk openly about depression, anxiety, relational pain, addiction, and failure. It’s a great start for these districts who are choosing to use their corporate time together to remind pastors they are not alone and not beyond help.
The opportunities for our denomination to improve are numerous, and the impact these improvements will have is significant. The ways in which we can creatively combat silence are endless. However, in the midst of such opportunities, one thing is abundantly clear: our silence must end. Mental health is an issue of life and death. Pastors, their families, and by extension, communities of faith are suffering, and we must act—for the sake of the church but, more importantly, for the sake of the women and men who have given their lives to the call.