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Clergy Burnout and Depression: Who should I tell?

Who should I tell?

When you are a pastor with depression this can be a serious question.  This often becomes a difficult trap. Let me set it up for you.

If I tell my congregation it shows weakness and the gossips will ruin me. It is not the right example. It would be like a doctor going to his/her patient for counsel. If I trust another pastor how far can I really trust him/her?  He/she may feel an obligation to tell another pastor higher up on the chain and then it may get out and ruin me. Another problem in telling a colleague is that most of them are married and spouses often tell things they shouldn’t. I could tell my wife but I have come to realize that a spouse should not carry all of my worries along with her own. She is not built for it and I need to be careful what role I use her in.  My wife knew I was struggling but she could not be my counselor. I have also had experience with boards and they often just don’t get it. One of my boards thought I was being lazy when I was facing radiation treatments for cancer because I was staying home more (they knew about the treatments). It just never entered their mind that I might be depressed too! I actually had to bring a note from my doctor declaring that I had cancer and depression and needed to be excused from work for a period of time. It was a humiliating experience that left me no privacy.

Then I had to contemplate the big decision. What if I tell my district and ask for help. My district had a counseling hotline and people in place to help. However, previous experience with church officials had left me wary. Could I trust anyone? I doubted it and for a long time this is what kept me from getting help. I figured if I told the district I had depression they would have to do an investigation and would want all the details.  I decided in my mind that this could ruin my career. If I was right then how would I support my family in the future? What further embarrassment and humiliation would I have to go through as well? Have you noticed how many times I have used the word ruin? This is the ploy of the enemy as well as our own self deception that keeps us from getting help.

Anyone who is a pastor would understand the last paragraph and could probably add some other features to this trap in one’s mind. I was there but am I ever glad I didn’t stay in the trap. I finally called the hotline (Most church districts have one). They gave me a phone counselor and helped me find a local one as well. The phone counselor asked me if he could tell my district just enough to get more help. This is where my fear rose up but I was in such distress I finally agreed to let him tell my district. That was pretty scary! Now listen to what happened.

The district never pried into my affairs but they did pray for me. The counselor was able to keep confidentiality and the district paid for most of the bill! I know not all districts are set up to do this but mine was! I was floored!  None of the scare scenarios in my mind had come to pass. I was still free to pastor in my church and allowed to candidate at any church with an opening. I would not have believed it was possible. Yet the most important fact was I finally got professional help for my depression.

Even if everything had not gone as smooth as it had I was still in need of help. That’s the most important point in this blog. When you are depressed for a long season you need professional help! No excuses! I have come to the understanding that all those scenarios were false and amounted to little more than excuses for not getting help. Yes, I am admitting that pastors, like all people, have many defense mechanisms in place. These must be broken down. I am not going to fool you, it takes some true humility and a swallowing of one’s pride but it is worth it. It is also biblical.Pride brings a person low, but the lowly in spirit gain honor” (Proverbs 29:2 NIV).

Interestingly, I now have changed careers (to counseling) so this experience all became a springboard for finding my passion in work. If I had not trusted someone I don’t think it would have happened. I shudder to think of what my inaction might have led me to. Pastor,  if this sounds like anything you are going through then send me a note on this blog. Let’s get you some help!

How to Identify Depression in Pastors

It can be tough for pastors to recognize their own burnout and depression. Often the symptoms go unnoticed or ignored.  After all, a pastor with depression is not in keeping with the degree of spirituality that is expected of him or her. If a pastor has enough faith, depression should not even enter into the picture. Yet, as of 2005 it has been reported that 9.5 percent of Americans deal with depression in one form or another (as cited in NIMH, 2007). That’s over 20 million people, and some of those people are pastors and their family members.

I was one of those statistics. Read More…

Clergy Burnout and Depression

I have been a pastor for over 23 years. I know the price that pastors and their families pay to fulfill the calling of God on their life. I have experienced burnout and depression first hand; it is the dirty little secret that many pastors are afraid to admit.

One pastor might be afraid to let his congregation know that he is often feeling depressed, lonely and isolated. A pastor can be amongst people all the time and still feel this way.  Another pastor might legitimately feel that any revelation of his problems, or his family’s problem, could endanger his career and income. There are many more fears that pastors have. Some of these fears are legitimate while others are just misconceptions that end up keeping pastors in the cycle of burnout and depression.

In future blogs, I hope to write about some of the misconceptions that keep pastors from getting professional help when it is needed. I have run into pastors who were dealing with such things as chronic and potentially life threatening illnesses, marriage problems, and even suicidal thoughts and tendencies. This may be hard to believe but let me assure you it is out there and more prevalent than you might think. I became so convinced of the clergy need, after my own experience,  that I became a professional counselor so I could help pastors and others who struggle with such things as burnout and depression. Please feel free to read my story as well as the article I wrote concerning burnout and depression among clergy. I hope it helps some one out there who has just about given up. Believe me, if I got help you can too! I am praying for you!!

Burnout and Depression on Clergy: A research paper

Burnout and depression among clergy is a common occurrence across denominations. This paper presents clergy as candidates for burnout, causes, stressors, emotional exhaustion, and treatment of burnout and depression in clergy. The clergy member’s reticence to reveal personal depression including suggestions for future research is also discussed. Read More…

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