Why Is There More Depression Among Clergy Members Than in the General Population?

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)

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.

  • Pastor’s wife

    Coming from someone who is married to a former pastor, I can assure you that there is a marked difference on the expectations and pressures experienced by a pastor and someone who works in a secular environment. Now that my husband is no longer a pastor, no one cares about what I wear, what video games my kids play or what our thoughts are on [insert Christian doctrine or issue of the day].There are pressures in every job, that is true. But for clergy, the added stress of your flocks eternal well being and the role that you and your family could play in it can be overwhelming.

    • josh

      I’m a preacher’s kid myself. This is very true. Both my brother and I felt that strongly. He ended up turning to drugs and ultimately going to jail. I ended up an atheist. On the other hand, my mom decided to enter the ministry herself, but she’s always been something of an outlier in our family.

      • MaireaineM

        I absolutely could not come out while my father was still a minister as it would have cost him his job. The pressure (and depression) became to much and my dad left the ministry, though not the faith. There is enormous pressure on the minister and his family to be perfect examples of the faith.

        • josh

          My brother got dad in trouble for mentioning sex in youth group. He was actually saying how you had to be safe and not even implying that he was having sex. He just said the word. That was enough to start an aggressive assault against my dad by several members of the church. What he said was supposed to have been in confidence, btw.

    • TCC

      Another PK here, and I fully agree with this. Pastors are also often held accountable (more often indirectly) for their family’s own private affairs. My dad resigned from one church because my brother had been in trouble with the law simply because he thought that the congregation would think him incapable of being in ministry if a child of his wasn’t on the straight and narrow. (IIRC, this is actually a Biblical concept as well.) It wasn’t the end of his ministry, but it was pretty significant given that there was no other question of his ability to minister.

  • kielc

    Maybe it’s just not healthy to base one’s entire existence, including all one’s professional activities, in a fantasy world?

    • Blacksheep

      However that doesn’t explain all of the happy Christians out there – clergy is a tiny % of the Christian population.
      A close friend of mine works in a pediatric cancer ward. She fights depression solely because of what she is faced with every day. Her life and work is rooted 100% in what you would agree is reality.

      • kielc

        There are plenty of people who are perfectly content in their denial of reality. Smokers who don’t worry about their health, for example. The less deeply one thinks about a given topic, the less likely it is that that topic will affect one’s weltanshau and/or psychological well-being (one way or another).

        • Blacksheep

          You’re assuming a lot – I’ve been a part of Christian communities in which the majority thinks very deeply about the topic – myself included. I’ve never met a smoker who says it’s not bad for them. That may have been true in the 50′s, but not anymore.

          • Pofarmer

            They think very deeply about the topic, but they never, ever, look at the topic from an alternate viewpoint. If you do that with an open mind, it unravels fairly quickly.

            • Blacksheep

              That’s not true at all – many, many Christians look at their faith from alternate viewpoints. (not all, but many). And many Christians in fact convert from other faiths.

              • Pofarmer

                “And many Christians in fact convert from other faiths.”

                Which proves what, exactly?

                “That’s not true at all – many, many Christians look at their faith from alternate viewpoints. ”

                Not any I’ve been involved with. How many, for instance, would look at the hermeneutics of a Bart Ehrman, or John Sponge?

                • Blacksheep

                  I would consider someone coming from non-faith or another faith to Christianity as “having looked at the topic from an alternate viewpoint.”

                  You must not be involved with many Christians then!

                  The fact that they haven’t read Ehrman or Sponge does not mean they haven’t looked at alternative viewpoints.

                  (Besides, Ehrman is just another smart guy with an opinion, based on his own “text forensics” as opposed to seeking to understand Christianity as a whole. Like trying to win an argument by saying, “But didn’t you once say…” No Christian would be swayed by his analysis).

                  What I like about Ehrman is that at least he admits that there was a historical Jesus:

                  “One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate.”

                  He also validates the historical lives of the disciples.

                  Sponge to me simply represents liberal theology – most Christians are exposed to that in one way or another throughout their lives.

                • Pofarmer

                  Someone coming from another faith to Christianity is just switching dieties.

                  Amd, I think there are more than you know who are swayed by Ehrman. I know I was. There are truths in his work, which, really, stretches back to the Germans of the 19 century, that just aren’t available elsewhere. Like the interesting tidbits like the Sermon on the Mount is based on the greek Septuagint. How many Christians say, ” y know, I wonder if this makes sense as myth” and try that approach? Because an awful lot makes more sense as myth than trying to cram it in as historical fact. The Catholics are interesting here, because they deign to tell you what is myth and what is fact and exctly what you should beleive about it abd why.

                • Blacksheep

                  I said, “Non- faith” or another faith. What else is there?

                  “the Sermon on the Mount is based on the greek Septuagint.”

                  The greek Septuagint – you mean the greek translation of the Old testament? Why is that in any way odd?

                • Pofarmer

                  It’s interesting, because Jesus wasn’t Greek, and the Sermon on the mount is based on Greek translation, which is different than the Torah in Hebrew, which means that it was originally written in Greek, and not written in Hebrew, actually based on the Greek Septuagint, and not the Hebrew.

          • kielc

            I’m assuming a lot? Let me walk you through this. First, my comment was specifically related to the the population in question, namely clergy (hence, “all one’s professional activities”). Then you decided to expand it to “all of the happy Christians” and complained that clergy are a small number of believers. I agree, they are. But that is what BOTH the study AND my comment were concerned with. Second, you made broad claims about non-clergy based on ONE person you happen to know. Third, you argue based on the Christian communities of which you’ve been a part — I’m guessing that’s not a representative sample of Christians around the world. Fourth, you go on to argue that you’ve “never met a smoker who says it’s not bad for them.” Unless you know a representative sample of smokers from around the world, this comment is utterly irrelevant. In summary: you have used nothing but one anecdote after another to try to argue some point against a comment about a population you’ve said NOTHING relevant to. Please stop wasting everyone else’s time with the sloppy rhetoric.

            • Blacksheep

              My point was pretty clear, and was not BASED on one anecdote, I simply used one anecdote to help illustrate the point. Your assertation was that the reason for depression in clergy is because they are basing their lives on what you percieve as fantasy.

              “Maybe it’s just not healthy to base one’s entire existence, including all one’s professional activities, in a fantasy world?”

              My point is that one can be just as depressed basing their career on stark reality.

      • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

        The congregation can live in denial because they don’t have to confront the hard questions on a daily basis.

        • 3lemenope

          That’s pretty much what a pastor is for. It’s a straight-up division of labor problem; thinking about religion to any sort of depth requires a heavy investment of time and effort, which most people don’t have because they’re busy dealing with concerns peculiar to their own vocations. So, the pastor thinks about the details so you don’t have to.

          The devil’s in those details, so to speak. The more you think about religion, and the closer you look at it, the harder it becomes to shut out the little lacunae of logic and sense that keep cropping up. Imagine if it were your job to deal with the details of religion all day, for others. Those little holes would eat at you after a while.

          • TCC

            Sort of reminds me of the book The Giver.

          • Blacksheep

            “…So, the pastor thinks about the details so you don’t have to.”

            You may not be giving enough attention to the notion that the core of Christianity for many is a transformational, emotional experience that falls into the metaphysical category. Think about the first disciples, Saul on the road to Damascus, the thief on the cross… none of these encounters and decisions to “walk with Jesus” were based on in-depth study, all were transformational.

            • 3lemenope

              There’s a difference between becoming a Christian, which can be described as an event, and being a Christian, which is an ongoing state of being with processes and practices and duties and purposes.

              The first can be a clean break, a transformational psychological experience, certainly, if not a metaphysical one (depending on one’s personal metaphysical prejudices). The second is a bit too nitty-gritty for that; there’s lots of picayune stuff that each tradition very clearly argues there is one right way and several wrong ways to “get” or practice. The kind of stuff that in a prior age would get a guy killed for demonstrating the slightest heterodoxy.

              • Blacksheep

                Excellent point – although even I am surprised at the degree to which the emotional part can quicken one’s faith – long after becoming a Christian, sometimes for a lifetime.

                • Pofarmer

                  Hell, it’s ALL emotional stuff.

            • Pofarmer

              “the thief on the cross…”

              That story varies depending on the Gospel, and Pauls story also varies.

        • Blacksheep

          What hard questions? Are you saying that everyone outside of churches “Confronts the hard problems on a daily basis”?

      • Goape

        The adage: “Ignorance is bliss” could explain happy christians.

  • TheG

    I’m going to keep this study bookmarked for the next time some bigot at Salon or HuffPo starts going on about how religious people are happier and live longer than atheists.

    • joey_in_NC

      How does this study refute that claim? It doesn’t, unless you take “clergy” to mean “all religious people”, and “general population” to mean “atheists”, which of course are incorrect.

      • Blacksheep

        Right – some of the happiest people I know are regular, middle class Christians.

        • bamcintyre

          Right.. they never have to deal with conflict between their own non-christian beliefs and what they believe their bible tells them.. Easier if they never actually read the darn thing.

          • 3lemenope

            They believe that they believe the Bible is true.

            Which is sharply distinct from simply believing the Bible is true. Main difference being the second (and far rarer) group actually know what it says, while the first just assume it contains what it may well contain if the universe was belched into existence by a being strangely alike themselves, only bigger and with a deeper voice.

            Not a coincidence the second is the much smaller group.

      • TheG

        You’ve never argued with the average religious person in the US, have you? Their twisted logic allows them to take a study, say, about church attendance correlating with lifespan and makes it into “Christians live longer!”
        it would nice to throw it back in their faces, showing that church attendance (assuming clergy attend church regularly) is not causative for increasing lifespan.
        Unless you are assuming that “all religious people” does not include clergy…

  • AtlantaAtheist

    My father is actually a Southern Baptist pastor, and he has written a book on this very subject. He talks about the silent hurt and struggles that pastor’s face, but can’t express to anyone. I think that may be a source of much of the distress, discouragement, and even depression.

    It’s true that most secular leaders also feel stress, insecurities, and turmoil. And, they even face personal struggles. But, in the secular world, it isn’t difficult for them to find people in which they can confide. For pastor’s, especially in more fundamentalist denominations like Southern Baptists, finding confidants who you can share your struggles and hurts with can be a challenge.

    While he isn’t expected to be perfect and free of stress, he is seen as the spiritual and moral leader of the church. Being able to confide in someone when you fail in that role can be difficult for them, especially when they believe there are serious, eternal consequences in doing so.

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      So is mine. Fundamentalists have the added burden of never being able to express any doubt or admit to any flaw. It leads to hypocrisy which is rampant in those denominations. I have known people who quit going to their church because it came out that one of their children had trouble with the law or a substance abuse problem.

    • Monika Jankun-Kelly

      Just thought that what clergy could use is some secular friends. We won’t do any of the stuff their congregation does to give them such stress. We won’t see them as leaders on a pedestal nor as our counselors. We’d be friends on an equal footing with them. Of course, their congregation might toss them out for associating closely with us, so it’s not a perfect plan.

  • Gov’t contractor scum

    So far, I haven’t seen the obvious question. Does the clergy attract people with depression? Did they join the clergy looking for comfort because they were depressed? It seems the study didn’t investigate causes.

    The same issue arises in the mental health profession. Studies show that people with mental health issues gravitate to the study of psychology/psychiatry to understand their own issues.
    The profession doesn’t necessarily cause the problem.

    • josh

      I’d guess there’s an element of both. I think depressed or downtrodden people get into this line of work thinking they can use their positive experience with God to change the world for the better and then get depressed when they realize they are basically leaders of a social club, not an organization intent on changing both themselves and the world for the better.

      I do know a lot of ministers who were abused, addicted, etc, and found strength through religion.

    • Goape

      Good point. This research can only, at best, provide a correlation—upon which the experimenters are forced to assert opinions in order to make the results seem relevant.

      It’s also possible that clergy members feel that their words carry more weight than those who don’t represent god, which could compel them to give what they perceive as thoughtfully-compelling answers that seem depressed to the social scientists.

      Personally, I think it’s fairly obvious that someone who devotes his life to an entity that, through total indifference, allows hardship and evil to plague mankind would be depressed.

  • Pofarmer

    “and they are questioning themselves: ‘Did I take the right course of action? Did I do what God wanted me to do?‘””

    Doesn’t it seem like, if there were a God, and we could pray to him and get answers, that this shouldn’t even be a question?

    • viaten

      You’d think. But there are probably some people who would say that clergy are to be “tested” as well and perhaps even more than lay people.

    • josh

      My dad struggles with this all the time. He wonders constantly if he could have done more good in another line of work. You have to remember, too, that there is Free Will included in many doctrines. So the question becomes did you become a minister because God was truly calling you, or did you listen to your own selfish heart and get blinded by the desire to feel important, or something along those lines. To my parents, God’s Will is revealed to them by what happens (i.e., basically in retrospect), not by an actual voice talking to them directly. I know its bonkers as well as you, but to them interpreting what happens to them and where they feel “called” to go and do is very much a part of their reality.

      • Pofarmer

        Well, I considered myself a Christian until very recently. I had figured out that praying for something to happen doesn’t make it happen, so I prayed “thy will be done.” Then I realized that the only thing getting done was whatever I was doing, and the voice in the head sounded like the same one when I read a book. Funny that. So, anyway, here I am still muddling through, except I realize who’s responsible. BTW, there’s a new Mark Twain book out called “Letters from Earth” that’s really good on this.

        • josh

          My wife and I have the same discussion all the time. Once you get on the outside, you can only shake your head. Being religious, in my experience, requires a whole lot of active selection bias.

          • Pofarmer

            So, here’s a question, if you don’t mind. My wife is still religious(Roman Catholic). The Catholic Church’s batshit crazy is what really drove me to start searching for answers. Did you and your wife deconvert at the same time? I’m having my boys listen to Laurence Krauss, and read some Thomas Paine as a primer. I really don’t want them handicapped the way I was, or the way she is. In a way, my deconversion has made her MORE religious. She’s the kind that just gets completely mad if you question anything about the Church.

            • josh

              My wife never really believed it. She was a step ahead of me on that. Her mom and grandmother were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and to her that whole ideology just seemed silly. I was devout (if one can use that term for a Presbyterian) until high school, but just didn’t really do much in college. I stopped being able to justify even progressive religions’ mistrust of evolution and other issues. I claimed I was spiritual, not religious and so forth. After we got married, we went to a few of my parent’s services, which she would always ask me questions about afterward (e.g., Why does your mom make it sound like Jesus and God are the same person [JW's don't believe the Trinity]?). I tried explaining, but realized it sounded just as silly to me as it did to her. We just didn’t really talk or think about it until a few years later when I read The God Delusion.

              It’s funny, I have a friend who converted to Catholicism around the same time I was deciding church was not for me in any form. He went from Southern Baptist to Catholic. Anyway, he is no longer active, but he still works hard to cling to certain notions of God and the soul. I think it’s just more difficult for some people to let go than others, either by training or something in the way the brain is wired. My wife never bought it, I tried as hard as I could but failed, and my friend can’t let it go for anything. He gets horribly depressed even considering the possibility that there isn’t “something more.”

              • Pofarmer

                I feel sorry for your friend. It isn’t the “something more” I’m worried about. That will take care of itself. The thing I don’t like about the Catholic Church is that they teach you that you are nothing without the Church. The have a prayer they end with “Our sins, our sins, our grevious sins”. I don’t personally think it’s good being around something all the time that teaches you how horrible you are. I am fighting this right now with my kids who are still going to Catholic School. The new priest has them going to church EVERY day, and, of course, they must still go on Sunday to fulfill their “obligation” to the Church. Catholicism is all about obligations. If they had been doing this in the “School” when the kids were starting out, I wouldn’t have allowed them to go there, even though I was still pretty Christian at the time. Like you, I grew up Presbyterian and drifted off in college. I met my wife and something about her grounding in the church appealed to me. Then, the further you get into it, the more you realize how pervasive and controlling it is. I really wish for the Catholic Church to go the way of the dodo. I am now working with my kids every day so they are aware of the brainwashing that the church is attempting on them. Anyway, thanks for humoring my questions.

                • josh

                  Sounds like you’re doing the right thing. I was always turned off by the Catholic mass as well, though I’ve been to a few that were much more mild and almost Protestant in nature. My friend used to tell me that he took most of the crazier stuff (transsubstantiation) as metaphor.

                • Pofarmer

                  This new generation of Priests has been taught to be much more conservative than the older generation of Priests was. It’s a bad deal, IMHO, BUT, I think it is actually driving church attendance down, which, shouldn’t be a surprise, but is. The Catholic church very strongly believes that what’s really need is more Catholic!!! to get people to attend again. I don’t think they can really stomach the thought that maybe they are a tad bit out of touch, and getting further. When we first got married, Mass was tolerable, as you say, not much different than a protestant service. Now, they are really stressing the sacrifice of the Eucharist, really stressing transubstantiation, strongly stressing miracles in religion classes. It’s gotten to the point the Mass is almost performance art. I really should go again just to critique what is going on, but, I just hate it soooooo, much. Miss the fellowship, though.

                • 3lemenope

                  The Catholic church very strongly believes that what’s really need is more Catholic!!! to get people to attend again. I don’t think they can really stomach the thought that maybe they are a tad bit out of touch, and getting further.

                  From the perspective of a person sitting atop the world in a postindustrial western nation, the RCC’s strategy seems daft and tone-deaf, the petulant thrashing of an essentially vestigial organization. But the strategy makes more sense, and plays better, in the rest of the wide world, where the church is more completely integrated with social services and is viewed as a more encompassing authority than it tends to be by wealthier Catholics.

                • Pofarmer

                  Yes. Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of superstitious people out there for them to prey on. I think it’s especially true in Africa and parts of South America. It’s interesting, looking at Ireland a bit, that the church STILL, after years of scandal, controls 90 some percent of PUBLIC education. They just can’t figure out how to get rid of it, it seems.

                • Brian Anthony

                  First off, the prayer is “my fault, my fault my most grievous fault” if you look around the world, you will see awesome examples of human fault.

                  Second: The obligation is not to the Church , its to God, who is worshipped not for his own need but becasue the human soul desires connection to the supernatural, and the worship is an “obligation of nature”, rather than religion

                  Thirdly:The catholic school has every right to teach as it sees fit. And i find it funny that you say you are teaching the opposite to your kids at home, yet if the reverse situation were true (i.e, public secularist school with liberal agenda and a christian teaching at home) you would cry “indoctrination” Teaching a child anyhting about anyhting is indoctrination, from religion to politics, to brushing your teeth its all indoctrination. so continue to “indoctrinate” your children and us religious folk will continue to do so with ours.

                • Pofarmer

                  I have a semantics troll now? This is new.

                  First off, if you look around the world you will see awesome examples of human good. Heck, I even had a gentleman submit a letter to the editor about a simple good deed my boys and I did. But, the Church never focuses on that. The entire mass focuses on how horrible and in need of redemption we are. You don’t even get the obligatory, “You have received the Good news, now go and rejoice” at the end, like a lot of Protestant services have. Nope, you have to remain silent and reverent because some folks are up front praying to the communion leftovers.

                  Second. Catholics see this as a distinction without a difference. You know this.

                  Third. Indoctrination implies that the subject of said teaching is not allowed to form their own opinions. In my experience, children are strongly discouraged from forming opinions contrary to the wishes of the Church. There’s a whole thread over on Longeneckers blog about it. Heck, they even have levels, Apostasy, Heresy, well, I forget the rest. The school doesn’t particularly have the power to indoctrinate, at least in the U.S., because they are aren’t tying their teachings into the salvation of the everlasting soul. That’s a pretty powerful lever.

        • ImRike

          “Letters from the Earth” kindle-edition at Amazon right now for $2.51.

      • Blacksheep

        Reminds me of a Quaker saying that was related to me once:

        “Do not stoop to be a preacher if God has called you to be a farmer.”

        • Blacksheep

          (I mean “relayed”, I was not related to the Quaker saying:)

          • Green_Sapphire

            (You can edit your comments if you go to your dashboard as disqus.com)

          • C.L. Honeycutt

            Both are correct in usage, you’re good.

  • Blacksheep

    I wonder what the comparison is between a pastor’s level of depression and other creative and/or thoughtful, sensitive people – for example writers, philosophers, artists, etc. In my work I’m often around visual and performance artists and creatives, and I absolutely see a higher level of depression among that group as compared to those who can “leave their work at the office.”

    • josh

      Good point.

    • TCC

      It’s probably also true to a degree of people in social service jobs: social workers, teachers, nurses, EMTs, etc.

  • viaten

    In addition to their own problems, many clergy probably have to listen to other people’s problems where a clergy member might well be the first person consulted and might feel obligated to provide “biblical” advice and consolation which the clergy member might feel isn’t helping all that much. And I would expect from time to time they have to deal with more serious issues their parishioners come to them with.

  • josh

    Both my parents are ministers. My dad struggles with depression and has his whole life. The difference in the pressure of being a minister v. being a leader in other areas is that there is no off-time. You and your family are expected to behave certain ways. My dad is rather idealistic and progressive in his Christianity, and the fact is that most of his parishioners are quite conservative. He has gotten berated and basically run out of town for trying to help the poor and downtrodden and for inviting people to church that the members found undesirable (including bikers, ex-prisoners and college students). It’s not so much about doubt, though I am sure my dad as an intelligent person has some, as it is disappointment and constant nagging pressure to be something you are not. Also, it is all but impossible to make friends when you are a minister. I have observed this with both of my parents, but my Dad more so. Most of their friends are other ministers who live towns or even states away. There is a separation between them and the members of their church, a formality that seems to preclude anyone letting their guard down. It doesn’t help that they are also stuck in little tiny towns in the midwest, when they would prefer to live elsewhere, because that’s where the need for their service is highest.

    My dad also has gotten in numerous power struggles with aggressive parishioners. They bring him in because they supposedly like his vision for how a ministry should operate, then fight him tooth and nail every step of the way. Add to that my brother, who was in and out of prison after high school. It really is a thankless, very high profile, high pressure job. I honestly wouldn’t wish it on anyone. For the record, doing funerals and comforting the dying, from what I’ve seen, are in some ways the best parts of the job. You know what you have to do and what is expected. They both like giving people comfort and feeling useful, even if it is sad.

    • josh

      My parents are both very empathetic and committed (it’s not a fantasy world to them, as one commenter suggested). Their vision for living a life in Christ includes directly helping people who need it, such as the homeless. This often conflicts directly with their parishioners conservative ideology. I would also agree that to some degree pastors I’ve met are somewhat depressed people. I’ve met many pastors, my parents included, who are recovered addicts and suffered abuse as children.

      • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

        People who can see the world as it could be (or should be) in contrast to how it is, must be depressed a lot. Reality is kind of a bummer. I have great respect for social workers and people who do charity work. it must seem like whatever they do is never going to be enough.

        • josh

          My mom worked with women who were suffering from domestic violence, as well as high risk youth. She found both to be too depressing.

        • TCC

          Definitely. The inner pressure to sustain idealism and optimism in dire situations has got to be intense. (I know something of that as a teacher, thinking about the situations that a lot of my students come from and trying to do my best to help educate them despite all of the possible obstacles.)

        • Monika Jankun-Kelly

          Social workers and mental health counselors immediately came to mind when I read the title of the blog post. They all deal daily with other people’s troubles and it takes a toll.

    • Blacksheep

      Great post…

      Sorry, I had to laugh when I read the list of who the congregation saw as”undesirables”: “bikers, ex-prisoners and college students.”

      • josh

        Absolutely true. They said, slightly paraphrasing, that they didn’t want college students because they didn’t bring in any tithe money.

        • josh

          I’ve never seen my dad so upset and dumbfounded.

          • Blacksheep

            As he should have been!

        • IDP

          Let me guess…mainline protestant, full of old people? That mentality is one of the many reasons I’m no longer Christian.

          • josh

            Nailed it.

            I would say it was one of the reasons I quit going to church. That and a horrible group of people in New Mexico, who said and did some really nasty things to my family (these are church members we’re talking about). That church was actually relatively young, but also hated the idea of newcomers.

            Anyway, it was that and science class.

        • Sweetredtele

          Isn’t college when many lose the faith? So some churches help in this and then complain when faith is lost? Also, how about declining attendance? Keep people away that would make contributions later doesn’t seem like a good business plan.

          • josh

            Yeah, but you know those kids come in there with their newfangled thoughts and science baloney and their marijuana. Next thing you know its nothing but hippies.

            But seriously, what you said is basically what my dad said. It was mind-boggling. I had to laugh. Part of it was they were hard up for money (I guess) and criticized him for not bringing in paying customers.

            • David Kopp

              “Part of it was they were hard up for money (I guess) and criticized him for not bringing in paying customers.”

              Because that’s what Jesus would do. I love how it seems like 90% of the “Christians” in this country are such only nominally.

            • Sweetredtele

              Interestingly enough, the University Methodist Church in Duluth, MN (right across the street from UMD) was so empty that they took to placing life-sized stuffed dolls (scarecrows is what I call them) in the pews. The church was basically kept afloat by a handful of older patrons.

              Also, is this new christian math? So its either 25 college students donating 10-25 dollars a month plus youth, vigor, possible volunteer hours and maybe some upbeat christian rock music vs maybe a few families donating the same amount of money and probably less volunteer hours? Uff Da.

              Edit: I forgot christian math already exists where 3=1.

      • Monika Jankun-Kelly

        Right after kicking out the undesirables, the parishioners probably listen to sermons about their Jesus doing outreach to the undesirables, and don’t even blink.

    • cary_w

      “… and college students.” and then they wonder why millennials are leaving the church in droves!

      • josh

        I know. I feel bad for my parents, but I can’t help but be amused.

    • KMR

      This. I’ve been in churches my whole life some small, some rather large and in fact still attend a more liberal one in the area I live in despite being agnostic. It is a thankless job. Everyone is your boss and there is no downtime and someone somewhere in your congregation will always think you suck and have no problem expressing it out loud sometimes even in your face. The conservative pastors of small churches tend to have it better since the congregants are conditioned to view their pastors as their superiors. But the intelligent clergy can really struggle depending on the makeup of the congregation, their own internal battles with cognitive dissonance and salary (intelligent ones tend to have higher level degrees which sometimes means hefty student loans).
      I don’t feel a ton of sympathy though because I think the position is an age old crock that the Christian church has concocted in order to keep people under control. But I do try to keep in mind the challenges that pastors face when interacting with them. I have no desire to add stress to their lives.

      • josh

        I’m sympathetic because they’re my parents. There are certain benefits as well. Most of the people I’ve met who are ministers really do want to help people. I’m sympathetic to that desire, if not the means.

        I wish my parents had chosen better lines of work. I think my dad would have been a good novelist or journalist in another life. His ability to tell a story is why I’m a writer myself. My mom probably should have been a teacher. You know how it is, it’s rare that you get to make your parents’ life decisions for them :)

        • KMR

          LOL ;)
          Personally it’s nice to read your support of your parents although you do not share their religious beliefs. Ministry is tough. Being religious sucks for those capable of critical thinking. I don’t envy your parents. But it sounds like they have a good relationship with you which I’m sure adds much to their lives

    • IDP

      I’ve been told the same by a progressive female pastor. She’s never “off duty” she can’t just go to a bar and unwind after work like a normal person. If she gets a divorce, has she “failed” at her marriage? Every decision she makes is under scrutiny. I’ve also seen the parishioners who fight every change, and wanted everything tailored to suit their personal tastes before I left my church many years ago.

      • josh

        My parents have encountered the shock of their parishioners should they try to enjoy a beer in public, for sure. I’ve also known preachers who were closeted homosexuals in conservative small towns. If that doesn’t give you depression, you’re undepressable.

        • IDP

          Oh, this pastor also had people come to her and ask if she could “fix” gay relatives. She declined, which is why I consider her one of the good ones.

        • allein

          I have a friend whose sister is a minister – she’s divorced with a young son, and remarried now to a woman…who is also a minister (Presbyterian and UCC, respectively). And still in her church in rural Pennsylvania. From what I understand, some people left the church but for the most part they have been pretty accepting. I wonder if she dealt with depression before she was able to come out.

          • josh

            It really would depend on the church, I think. Maybe she had been able to confide in some of them. There was a crapstorm in my mom’s small town Nebraska Presbyterian church when the PCUSA decided to ordain open gays and lesbians. She basically told them it didn’t affect them (they are still free to discriminate), which I thought was a disappointing way to handle it. But, again, if she had spoken up then either people leave the church or basically run her out of town. It’s definitely one of the more progressive churches in terms of leadership, but in the pews it’s still mostly older, small town people.

  • tyler

    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)?

    technically speaking this is incorrect. the whole point of protestantism is that everybody has a direct line to god and pastors are supposed to be no more special in this regard than everybody else. of course, i can’t say it actually works like this in practice, and some pastors are more equal than others… but it was a point that was stressed in my methodist church, at least.

    • josh

      Maybe some of the charismatic churches consider their minister to have received some kind of special revelation, but I think you’re right on the money in terms of churches that require an educated minister, even the modern Catholic church behaves this way in many respects, though the still maintain the window dressing of formality.

  • Gus

    I’d say cognitive dissonance or knowing you’re lying every day on the job can do that to you.

    Seriously, I expect most of the smarter clergy really aren’t the kind of true believers they may encourage their flocks to be or think they are, and that probably leads to a lot of stress, depression, and other problems.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    I’m not surprised. I wonder how this compares to other professions where one must constantly listen to other people’s (often dire) problems and stay confidential. A good member of the clergy takes on a lot and has nowhere to unload that burden.

  • ZeldasCrown

    I would also imagine that the expectation that a member of the clergy has special insight into whatever flavor of God they follow could lead to a high level of stress if they find that they don’t really have any extra insight (i.e. God isn’t speaking directly to them). Expecting to get an inside line to God before joining the clergy, and then realizing that nothing’s actually changed after could make a person feel very much like a charlatan.

  • Victor Bogado

    I think that dealing with bad things alone is easier than to have to deal with happy and bad intermixed. You can get used to bad things, but the constant contrast between marriages and funerals could make it worse.

  • JT Rager

    So what was this now about religious people being healthier than atheists? That was a statistic being thrown around a while ago. I guess for regular theists they are happier because they don’t work in this everyday, while the Clergy are much more invested in this thing that isn’t really there.

  • Jim Farmelant

    How do rates of depression among clergy compare with those suffered by members of other helping professions like social workers, psychotherapists, psychiatrists etc.?

  • Jack_Ma

    Here’s my speculation. Clergy, more than most, view feeling guilt as virtuous.

  • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

    Controlling for celibacy seems a basic factor that any serious study would consider. From my own past experiences with depression, while it’s certainly no panacea, getting laid regularly seems more effective than Paxil or Prozac.

  • Beet LeRace

    I got a lot more out of the comments than the actual post! Thanks for sharing, everyone.

    Some days I am just so overwhelmingly grateful for this tiny community of commenters on Friendly Atheist. You go, Glen Cocos.

    • Monika Jankun-Kelly

      The comments on this piece were wonderful! I was so moved to see such an outpouring of empathy and understanding in the comments. The article, not so much.

  • Mick

    A preacher spends his whole life preparing for the day when Jesus returns to Earth and the harder he works the more distant that day seems to get.

    Of course he gets depressed. He wants to live in La-La land and he’s stuck here forever in reality.

  • ShoeUnited

    Personal experience, so take it as you will.

    But Funeral Directors are generally a happy bunch. I’ve worked alongside and with quite a lot of them. Some a little more stern than others, but for the most part they’re happier than I see most people. They’re also a little more weird. You have some that take their work when preparing the body really seriously. Like sneezing would get you dagger eyed. Others will hold up grandma’s hand while they’re pumping the fluids out and wave you over. But after the body’s in the ground and the family’s gone they’re cracking jokes, making gossip about the families or general town gossip, and all that. Of course their jokes tend to be a bit more morbid (which I rather liked), but it’s still positive.

    From my own collective experience of about 16 years in and around the business, they’re quite the collection of weirdos who are either doing it because they believe it’s for God or they do it for the profit margins (divide any funeral cost by at least half and that’s their out of pocket expense). Before a person can get certified to be a director (and I know a couple people who sit on the national board for testing), you have to put in a year or two of apprenticeship (depending on local laws). That weeds out those who can’t take dressing, draining, filling, cleaning, and putting makeup on dead bodies for the most part.

  • Damon Icke

    It can’t be easy when children walking into Sunday school can tear down your whole belief system and worldview with just a few questions. When the youngsters look down on you as intellectually inferior and as someone who may want to touch them inappropriately, you may experience melancholia. No doubt.

  • mikespeir

    I wish they would’ve included some others than just United Methodist ministers. This gives people from Evangelical/Fundamentalist type churches too much of an out. “Well, of course, they have problems! They’re all bunch of backslidden has-beens.”

    • Blacksheep

      I agree- but we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about what those results would be.

  • http://www.secularview.com/ Dirty_Nerdy

    “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).”

    The researcher didn’t say that merely performing a wedding contributed to depression. The researcher used that as an example of the fact that many clergy members experience extreme emotional highs and lows on almost a weekly basis.

    • David Kopp

      Came here to say that. It’s not that it’s not good, it’s that the peaks and troughs of emotions are larger than what most people deal with daily.

      • http://www.secularview.com/ Dirty_Nerdy

        Exactly. Experiencing “peaks and troughs” as you so nicely put it, is actually a warning sing (I don’t necessarily want to say cause here) of mental illness such as depression and anxiety disorders.

  • Anna

    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.

    Quite true, but United Methodists don’t fit the bill. I could see this being much more of a problem for clergy in “eternal torture” churches.

  • ZenDruid

    From the outsider’s perspective, it looks like the serious people who are ‘called’ to make society a little better must be perpetually disappointed. The conservatives in their congregations appear to be simply looking for some holy justification to continue in their uncharitable and bigoted behavior.

  • Smiles

    Welcome to the “Face-palm Blog”! Where every piece of news results in a face-palm… :-D

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      Hemant should switch in that image of Captain Picard for himself in the banner occasionally.

  • Jenn

    As another former PK – I watched while the members of churches DESTROYED my father. There are many great points down here in the comments, which deserve your attention. I think narrowing causes of depression in clergy down to ‘believing in a wrathful deity’ and ‘doubt’, are actually pretty far off. At least in my experience, being the pastor of a church is a very lonely position. Especially in smaller evangelical communities, I found the separation between clergy and ‘lay-people’ astonishing. On one hand members of a church would act like the pastor was some kind of minor-celebrity, sucking-up and generally being self-righteous, insincere humans when interacting with clergy. On the other hand, would be hard-pressed to find a member of a congregation who actually had a substantial friendship with him. The out-spoken members of a congregation nearly always found judging our family openly, fair-play. What I found was that my father had nearly no one he trusted, nor felt safe enough around to be himself. Yes, I am aware that many pastors put themselves on a pedestal and expect members of their church to nearly worship them – are unapproachable and respond to inquiry with rage. I don’t think it’s common for them to have ‘friends’ outside their own congregation… can you imagine that in a secular setting? Being expected to only interact with humans you work with? Or only interacting with the people who live on the north side of your street? It’s insane. As an unbeliever, I completely understand how all these nuances seem ridiculous from the outside, but from the inside of religion, the politics and unspoken-rules are crippling and yes, depressing. (not to mention how many times congregants would call or drop-by just to leave my father with their problems… )

  • PstrDean

    If you don’t know how presiding at weddings can be depressing then you’ve never presided at a modern wedding where, on a list of what the bride holds as important, the religious significance of the service is way at the bottom of the list. Ask ANY minister and 90 percent they would rather do a funeral than a wedding, any day. At least, at a funeral, our input is usually valued and appreciated.

  • ecolt

    I can totally buy the idea that many clergy members have depression because of the demands of their jobs. You said you can’t imagine weddings adding to those feelings. Now imagine performing marriages year after year, witnessing so many of them fall apart (roughly half in this country) and still getting up to do it over and over. Seeing couples so optimistic and happy and knowing in the back of your head that, even if the marriage lasts, that joy isn’t always going to be there. Having your own problems at home, problems you can’t let other people see because you’re supposed to be their model, and then putting on a happy face for everyone else’s wedding day. Officiating the funerals for the same people you married or baptized or counselled in the past. I can imagine that after a while it would start to wear on even the most faithful ministers.

  • Mike435

    Perhaps it is the low pay. I am not saying they are envious of other similarly educated professionals, just that financial stress is associated with depression.

    • MollyDeed

      Yep. Wondering how we’ll continue to pay for college makes for sleepless nights.

  • Robster

    Naw, she’s wrong. The clergy have little to worry about, excepting stage fright. Apart from the theatre of weddings and funerals, which if you’re not getting hitched or ditched is pretty benign, what on earth do they have to worry about? Perhaps some of them are actually honest people, hard to believe I know but just perhaps and they’re freaking out about selling nonsense and perpetuating the fraud. They have to live with this 24 hours a day, playing let’s pretend all the time, that would be demeaning and depressing.

  • FlyingFree333

    For all those claiming being a pastor is more stressful than secular leadership roles, you are full of shit. You think politicians don’t have their lives splashed in the media and their personal lives picked apart? Stop whining about how hard your job of lying for tax free cash is. Pastors have a higher rate of mental illness because more people with mental illness are interested in becoming pastors.

  • ggacre99

    If you have the ‘calling,’ how could you be depressed? What most of these comments are about is people worried about their job.

  • closetatheist

    ….or it could have something to do with the fact that pastors may believe that seeking professional help for their anxiety or depression is the mark of spiritual failure of a lack of adequate faith in their gods abilities.


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