Recently, researchers from the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School decided to look into the mental health of members of the clergy. Using phone surveys and written questionnaires, they interviewed over 1,700 United Methodist pastors, and found that depression is about 1.6 times higher in that group compared to the general population (8.7% versus 5.5%).
Other estimates of the prevalence of poor mental health among clergy are wildly higher, with some sources claiming that 70% of U.S. pastors are depressed.
The results of the Duke Divinity team were published in the Journal of Primary Prevention and summarized in the Huffington Post, which quoted Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, the Clergy Health Initiative’s research director:
“It’s concerning that such a high percentage of clergy may be depressed while they are trying to inspire congregations, lead communities and social change ventures, even just trying to do counseling of their own parishioners. These are responsibilities that you would really want a mentally healthy person be engaged in, and yet it may be the challenges of those responsibilities that might be driving these high rates of depression.”
Proeschold-Bell hypothesizes that
… several factors are at work that make clergy more vulnerable to depression and anxiety. For one thing, pastors feel they’ve been called to their work by God and can perceive the stakes of their job as higher than other occupations as a result. “If I have a bad day doing research, I can go home and relax and start again tomorrow,” said Proeschold-Bell. “A clergy person goes home after a long and hard day and they are questioning themselves: ‘Did I take the right course of action? Did I do what God wanted me to do?‘”
Perhaps, but I’d wager that this is not so different for regular employees. More often than not, they too have demanding bosses, and the conscientious ones wonder daily if they performed their best or possibly screwed up.
Maybe it’s indeed scarier if you “work for God,” but how can you really go wrong if you have a direct line to the Man Upstairs, or at least possess special insights into His works that lesser mortals cannot readily access (the essential premise upon which clergydom is founded)?
In any given week, clergy are also likely to experience many more emotional highs and lows than the average person. “They’re literally holding the weddings and the funerals,” said Proeschold-Bell.
I take the point about funerals, and I wonder if people who deal with death day in and day out, such as funeral-home directors, also have higher-than-usual depression rates.
It’s hard to see how performing weddings would contribute to depression, though (unless perhaps for clergy members who are required to be celibate, which just isn’t the case with Methodist ministers).
On top of that, pastors can have high expectations of themselves, which can lead to pushing through work even if they’re sick or feeling down. Because congregants, too, have high expectations for those who lead their churches, the pressure on clergy ends up coming from multiple sources.
Come on now. Every serious leader makes high demands on him- or herself, and very few are nonchalant about taking time off when they’re feeling down. And by definition, managers and bosses are expected to take charge — and are subject to “high expectations” from “multiple sources.”
Just like Bell, I have my hunches about what’s driving the elevated rate of depression among clergy.
If I were on the research team, I’d look into the possibility that plenty of academically schooled pastors have enough intelligence and sufficient critical faculties that a sizable minority eventually either lose their Christian faith, or struggle with it. It must be hugely stressful (hence, depressing) to get locked into a life of doubt, for some to the point where they’re outright faking it for decades on end.
A second area of inquiry might focus on the link between poor mental health and the belief in a wrathful God. Earlier this year, psychologists led by Nava Silton of Marymount Manhattan College concluded
… that belief in a punitive God [is] significantly associated with an increase in social anxiety, paranoia, obsession, and compulsion.
Clergy members probably contemplate their relationship with God even more frequently than “regular” believers do, which makes them susceptible to mental problems if they view the Creator as a vengeful rage-a-holic.
Bell and her team might do better studying such factors, than continuing to tout the humblebrags that clergy members suffer because they are too empathetic, too hard-working, and too committed.
(Image via Shutterstock)