Check on Your Pastors: Reflections on the Mental Health of Ministry Staff

My name is Marcus Carlson and I am a pastor.

For more than two decades I have served in a variety of church and other ministry settings in intern, interim, part and full time capacities. At the end of 2019, I left full-time church ministry work. I felt God calling me to use my gifts in a broader way, to build and revitalize the church and to train, support and care for pastors and ministry leaders. I also left for my health and the health of my family. The toll my particular setting was taking on my kids was devastating.

I love being a pastor, and I love people. I find great honor and joy in caring for people. I am a happy, optimistic person who can usually find the good in anyone and anything. It is a joy to get to do the work that I have and continue to do. I would not have it any other way.

Like all work, the work of a pastor is not easy. The physical, spiritual, mental and emotional toll is far more than most people realize. Over my two decades of being a pastor, I have had times of deep discouragement. I have been attacked personally and professionally. I have had deeply hateful things said about and to me. I have borne the pain of others as if it were my own. My wife and children have made personal sacrifices, and they too have had terrible things said and done to them. 

The church can be a vicious place. 

The irony is not lost on me.

It’s a double-edge sword really. The church should be a safe place to wrestle with our pain, anger and hurt. Yet, pastors and church staff are people too, and we do not have the same consequences for bad behavior in churches that we do at other work places and at home. We should remember that. 

I have been caring for pastors for more than a decade. They seem drawn to me, and knowing what they face, I want to care for them in any way I can. At least weekly I speak with a pastor who is facing deep discouragement, hurt or depression. At least monthly I talk with a pastor who wants to leave the vocation. I, like many other pastors I know, have battled deep depression and suicidal thoughts. More times than I care to count I have spent time with a pastor and listened to their pain as they wept deeply about the toll and cost of ministry. I have had pastors weeping and in the fetal position on my office floor more than once. These men and women are some of the best people I will ever know. Though imperfect, they strive to care for others and will sacrifice most anything to do so, including their own health and well-being.

We often fail to realize that pastors are people too.

Pastors are people too.

Pastors are people too.

Pastors are people too.

Caring for people is a joy, but it is the most draining work we do as human beings. We are drained more by expending emotional energy than physical or mental effort. Those who are good at caring for others generally struggle with two things:

  1. Caring for themselves
  2. Asking for help

Guilty as charged. 

Jesus, God in the flesh, felt the pain of being a pastor. His followers sold him out, abandoned him. Jesus got angry. He killed trees and tossed tables. Jesus wept at the loss of a friend and sweat blood and the burden he was to bear in his death. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

Over the last several years we have heard stories of famous pastors dying by suicide. For every well-known pastor who has lost their life this way, there are countless others we do not know and hear about. Many of these pastors have been huge advocates for mental health and have overcome periods of failure, sin and depression. Most of them have seemed happy and full of joy. 

Behind the joy, behind the public persona there is often something much darker.

Broken marriages. Addiction. Deep self-hatred. Loneliness and isolation. A lack of meaningful and safe relationships. Constant anger and criticism. A fear they will never measure up, never be able to do enough. There is constant need, hurt, suffering around them. Saying no is near impossible. 

Sometimes pastors take the risk to trust others inside and outside of their church. Often that risk, especially with those who are a part of their churches, leads to even deeper disappointment and pain. Pastors often face deep, painful and unwarranted rejection from those they lead. 

Pastors feel they have to appear to have it together for others, to be strong. They assume (wrongly) that to share their struggle is a sign of weaknesses and is not something professionally they should do. Asking for help is often out of the question. They feel guilty doing so. It’s a sign of weakness. 

Even when they ask for help, pastors struggle to find it. People are too busy. They don’t think they are capable of providing support. They don’t know what to do. It’s understandable, but it only deepens the pain. For me, this is something I experienced recently and the memories are fresh. It was the worst month of my life. It makes the challenges of Covid-19 look like a vacation. 

The stigma around mental health in our society is destroying us. This stigma is even deeper amongst pastors and church staff. 

I am writing this in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic where some of the restrictions for social distancing, quarantine and isolation are just starting to lift. Isolation is hard for everyone. We are meant to be with one another. We are created for relational connection. Technology can help, but it cannot completely replace face to face connection. 

Isolation has been especially hard on pastors. They are people people (yes, even the introverts). They have been working hard to adjust while facing the same struggles that the people in their congregation face. They desperately want to be with and help their people, and they hurt deeply for not being able to do so in the ways they want and are needed. Idle time can be very hard and dark, especially for those who serve as pastors and ministry staff. 

It’s hard to be a pastor and be healthy.

Yet, health is essential to leadership. As Patrick Lencioni notes in his book, The Advantage, “health trumps everything.”

It’s hard to be a pastor and be healthy. 

Pastors love caring for others and even in the midst of the challenges they face, they do all that they can and do their very best to check in on and care for the needs of their people.

There is not a single pastor I know who would trade their work for anything in the world. Yet, the burden they carry is far heavier than most realize. While they are called and equipped by God to serve and lead in this way, pastors are people too.

They struggle. They hurt. They suffer. They face discouragement, depression, despair and yes, even thoughts of suicide.

Check in on your pastors. 

They need it. They need you.

As it turns out, pastors are people too.

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