“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
~2 Corinthians 12:9
Pastors are meant to be leaders for the church, they are seen as the backbone of church ministry, and a paragon of biblical truth. But what if this isn’t meant to be? Pastors are called to be leaders, champions of ministry, and uphold biblical truth, however it can be difficult to maintain the full responsibilities that we as a church demand of a pastor. Pastors are often held to standards of biblical perfection that the majority of believers cannot meet. What makes us believe that in taking on religious leadership, humanity is forfeited and grace no longer needed? The clergical calling is an emotionally demanding one, and can cause a strain on mental health. In this episode of ANN InDepth, host Sam Neves speaks with Dr. Dee Knight, a doctor of clinical neuropsychology, and Chaplain Paul Anderson, Director of Adventist Chaplain Ministries for the North American Division, to discuss how pastors can address mental health issues, and how congregants can help them in the healing.
There is a stigma surrounding pastors with mental illness. Chaplain Anderson admits, “A lot of [pastors] will never admit to ourselves, our spouses, our children, or even the world around us that we are depressed because somehow acceding to that moniker erases our superman ‘S’ off of our chest.” According to the World Health Organization, 264 million people suffer from depression, yet somehow, we believe our pastors are exempt from such struggles. Dr. Knight confirms through her experience in counselling clergy that they are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety due to their profession, as well as the everyday burdens that plague all of us. Unfortunately, pastors are the least likely to seek help due to the fear that their ability as spiritual leaders will be called into question. Both guests acknowledge that the herculean standards not only cause the problem, but prevent them from seeking a solution.
When those in spiritual leadership do share their struggles with mental illness, the common response is to pray more, read more scripture, and trust God, as though their mental illness is the result of a lack of faith and not a chemical imbalance. When asked if issues like depression can be prayed away, both the neuroscientist and the chaplain give a resounding “no”. Trust in God and Word are crucial foundations in overcoming mental illness, without God as the anchor we will forever drift, however we as Christ believers must also surrender our damaging stigmas surrounding how mental illness affects our leaders. Rather than seeing the need for therapy and, in some cases, medication, as a sign of spiritual failure, recognize that the LORD has allowed tools for healing to be available for those who are struggling. None of us are untouched in a sinful world, and our pastors are no different. The need for support in times of mental and emotional turmoil is human, and in fact our spiritual calling. To think our pastors should not have the same need is to ignore both their humanity, and our responsibility to extend grace and compassion.
To be a pastor is to be available for others' heartache; they are who we call for council, guidance and prayer. Pastorship is an empathic profession. However, to be an empath is a double edged sword. Availing yourself to the constant emotional needs of hundreds of different people, bearing the load alone, is overwhelming at the best of times, yet for those whose heart travels to the highs and lows of human experience it can have immense consequences. To experience emotional exhaustion is difficult, to experience it alone is yet another layer of difficulty, but worst of all is to experience such raw emotional baggage and then have your trials be used against you by the very people you devote your life to. As stated by Sam Neves, when called to shepherd the flock “at some point pastors realize that sheep
have teeth.” It is a disappointing reality that the relationship with our pastors has become a one sided transaction in which we believe that pastors should have complete availability and grace for our struggles and yet condemn them for their own. To do so is to not only hold them to a standard, we ourselves cannot maintain, but fail to understand the nature of church dynamics. A pastor is not meant to ignore, neglect, or conceal their mental illness for the sake of our unbiblical standards.
Therefore, how can we support our pastors? Knight encourages congregants to create a safe space for pastors to thrive, extending grace and support in their struggles to defuse the misconception that they must suffer alone to uphold a fragile veneer of spiritual perfection. Checking in on spiritual leaders and letting them be supported and loved for more than what they provide, but for who they are is another major step for growth. Pastors, do not be afraid to seek council and learn how and when to prioritize mental wellness. Knight recounts the advice of a pastor who spent decades in ministry
“He said the number one indicator of longevity in ministry is a rest period. The number one thing that will let me know whether or not you are going to make it from here to being retired as a pastor is whether or not you take rest seriously, whether or not you actually take time away and replenish. If you are not replenishing what you are pouring from, that's how you burn out, pouring from an empty cup.”
To be a perfect christian does not mean that mental illness does not affect us, or does not need to be dealt with, it merely means that it is another dimension through which God’s strength and goodness may shine.