Clergy are often relied upon to guide others through difficult times, but a new study has found that the very nature of their work could put them at greater risk of developing depression and anxiety themselves.
Researchers from the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School interviewed over 1,700 United Methodist pastors by phone and through online surveys, and found that the instances of depression were 8.7 percent and 11.1 percent, respectively, compared to the average national rate of 5.5 percent.
"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," said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, the Clergy Health Initiative's research director. "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."
Other occupations that involve a strong focus on providing care for others, such as those in nursing and social work fields, have also been tied to above-average rates of depression.
According to Proeschold-Bell, 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?'"
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.
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.
Given the circumstances surrounding a life of work in ministry, Steven Scoggin, president of CareNet, a network of pastoral counseling centers based in North Carolina, said that the recent findings don't come as a surprise.
"There is a sense that they should be able to handle more because they're a person of faith," said Scoggin. "It's not really embraced well by congregations for clergy to be transparent and vulnerable with their struggles."
Scoggins's organization provided 40,000 hours of counseling last year, 15 percent of which went to helping clergy.
Oftentimes, Scoggins said, depression and anxiety are the result of clergy not being able to separate the success or failure of their church from their own identity. An important step in helping them cope, he argued, would be an increased focus on preparing for the mental struggles they are likely to face before they actually take on the role of leading a church.
"We could do more for them early in their development, in their seminary education, to have better boundaries emotionally and psychologically," Scoggin said. "I think it is very much a self-care issue."
Proeschold-Bell noted that parishioners can play a role in helping to ease the stresses on their pastors by remembering that clergy take negative feedback very personally.
"I think that parishioners should be very thoughtful about their criticisms," she said.
"Shout unto the LORD, all the earth; break forth and sing for joy, yea, sing praises. Sing praises unto the LORD with the harp; with the harp and the voice of melody. With trumpets and sound of the horn shout ye before the King, the LORD. Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein; Let the floods clap their hands; let the mountains sing for joy together." (Psalm 98:4-8)
Judges 5:3 (MSG) Hear O kings! Listen O princes! To God, yes to God, I'll sing, Make music to God, to the God of Israel.
" Sing unto God, sing praises to His name ... Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth; O sing praises unto the Lord." (Psalm 68:5, 33)
1 Chronicles 15:19 (MSG) The members of the choir and marching band were: Heman, Asaph, and Ethan with bronze cymbals; Zechariah, Aziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Unni, Eliab, Maaseiah, and Benaiah with lyres carrying the melody; Mattithiah, Eliphelehu, Mikneiah, Obed-Edom, Jeiel, and Azaziah with harps filling in the harmony; Kenaniah, the Levite in charge of music, a very gifted musician, was music director.
"I will sing unto the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have any being." (Psalm 104:33)
1 Corinthians 14:7 (MSG) Think, friends: If I come to you and all I do is pray privately to God in a way only he can understand, what are you going to get out of that? If I don't address you plainly with some insight or truth or proclamation or teaching, what help am I to you? If musical instruments--flutes, say, or harps--aren't played so that each note is distinct and in tune, how will anyone be able to catch the melody and enjoy the music? If the trumpet call can't be distinguished, will anyone show up for the battle?
"Serve the LORD with gladness; come before His presence with singing." (Psalm 100:2)
Jeremiah 9:17 (MSG) A Message from God-of-the-Angel-Armies: "Look over the trouble we're in and call for help. Send for some singers who can help us mourn our loss. Tell them to hurry-- to help us express our loss and lament, Help us get our tears flowing, make tearful music of our crying. Listen to it! Listen to that torrent of tears out of Zion: 'We're a ruined people, we're a shamed people! We've been driven from our homes and must leave our land!'"
"O God, I will sing a new song unto Thee, upon a psaltery of ten strings will I sing praises unto Thee." (Psalm 144:9)
Psalm 27:6 (MSG) God holds me head and shoulders above all who try to pull me down. I'm headed for his place to offer anthems that will raise the roof! Already I'm singing God-songs; I'm making music to God.
"Hallelujah. Sing unto the LORD a new song, and His praise in the assembly of the saints. Let Israel rejoice in his Maker; let the children of Zion be joyful in their King. Let them praise His name in the dance; let them sing praises unto Him with the timbrel and harp. For the LORD taketh pleasure in His people; He adorneth the humble with salvation. Let the saints exult in glory; let them sing for joy upon their beds." (Psalm 149:1-5)
Isaiah 30:30 (MSG) But you will sing, sing through an all-night holy feast! Your hearts will burst with song, make music like the sound of flutes on parade, En route to the mountain of God, on the way to the Rock of Israel.
"Sing praise unto the LORD, O ye His godly ones, and give thanks to His holy name." (Psalm 30:5)
Isaiah 14:11 (MSG) This is where your pomp and fine music led you, Babylon, to your underworld private chambers, A king-size mattress of maggots for repose and a quilt of crawling worms for warmth.
"Sing praises unto the glory of His name; make His praise glorious. Say unto God: 'How tremendous is Thy work! Through the greatness of Thy power shall Thine enemies dwindle away before Thee. All the earth shall worship Thee, and shall sing praises unto Thee; they shall sing praises to Thy name.'" (Psalm 66:2-4)
Song of Solomon 1:4 (MSG) Take me away with you! Let's run off together! An elopement with my King-Lover! We'll celebrate, we'll sing, we'll make great music. Yes! For your love is better than vintage wine. Everyone loves you--of course! And why not?
"O clap your hands, all ye peoples; shout unto God with the voice of triumph. ... God is gone up amidst shouting, the LORD amidst the sound of the horn. Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises unto our King, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth; sing ye praises in a skilful song." (Psalm 47:2, 6-8)
1 Samuel 16:16 (MSG) Saul's advisors said, "This awful tormenting depression from God is making your life miserable. O Master, let us help. Let us look for someone who can play the harp. When the black mood from God moves in, he'll play his music and you'll feel better."
"O sing unto the LORD a new song; sing unto the LORD, all the earth. Sing unto the LORD, bless His name; proclaim His salvation from day to day." (Psalm 96:1-2)
Psalm 66:17 (MSG) All believers, come here and listen, let me tell you what God did for me. I called out to him with my mouth, my tongue shaped the sounds of music. If I had been cozy with evil, the Lord would never have listened. But he most surely did listen, he came on the double when he heard my prayer. Blessed be God: he didn't turn a deaf ear, he stayed with me, loyal in his love.
"It is a good thing to give thanks unto the LORD, and to sing praises unto Thy name, O Most High." (Psalm 92:2)
"Give thanks unto the LORD with harp, sing praises unto Him with the psaltery of ten strings. Sing unto Him a new song; play skilfully amid shouts of joy." (Psalm 33:2-3)