(K-LOVE Closer Look) – Providing spiritual comfort to a congregation is hard enough in normal times – but add a deadly global pandemic to the job and overworked pastors suffer immeasurable stress. “Mental health is a topic we are all thinking about,” says Savannah Kimberlin of Barna Group which researches and tracks trends in Christian ministries nationwide. “A lot of times, churchgoers might assume, ‘oh yeah my pastor’s doing great,’ or ‘my pastor’s really healthy,’ or ‘my pastor has a great marriage,’ and we have learned over the years that is not always true.”
In fact, Barna surveys in 2021 found a sharp rise in the number of church leaders who have seriously considered leaving full-time ministry, citing debilitating stress, anxiety or depression. Nearly 40% rate their emotional well-being as just ‘meh’ or even poor.
Pastor Randy works as a member of the Pastoral Care Team for K-LOVE and Air1 Radio Networks, answering heartbreaking calls every day from radio listeners facing debilitating life issues. He is not at all surprised by the Barna findings on pastor burnout. “We are more apt to struggle with mental health issues like anxiety and depression,” he confirms, “because of the wear and tear of what ministry demands are.”
Pastors and other church leaders with any time on the job are keenly aware of their vocational hazards, but recent world events have taken an increased toll on the humans dedicated to caring for others. “Reflection, meditation, exercise, diet, personal relationships, accountability...these are things that pastors are used to having,” he explains, “but the pandemic has certainly changed how we are taking care of ourselves.”
Kimberlin says “what we recommend as Barna is that pastors find healthy safe places -- whether it be professional counselors, spiritual mentors, even other pastors within someone’s local community -- safe places where leaders can process things like isolation, marital struggles and parenting stuff.”
“Our research does suggest that leaders who prioritize doing that are more whole in their ministry as a result.”
The Barna research also uncovered some very specific ways churchgoers can spot trouble before a leader reaches their point of no return. “Look and see if your pastors are pulling away from relationships, or if they are needing to take a break…and if that’s the case then maybe they are struggling with stress or feelings of loneliness or isolation to a big degree.”
“Take some time to care for your pastor’s soul,” Kimberlin urges, which could include writing a kind note, taking them out to lunch just to chat about sports, babysitting their kids for free or making it possible for them to take an extended sabbatical.
Pastor Randy affirms that physical rest and other self-care should be a cherished and guilt-free part of your life as a spiritual leader. Self-care should also include regular visits to doctors who care for the mind and body.
“Let’s be honest, and very transparent,” he says. “Pastors are not immune from mental health issues; but understand that as pastors, as first line workers we have the opportunity to lead the way in health and wellness counseling – in other words what we put into practice will be much easier to teach and share.”