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.
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