Caring for Pastors’ Mental Health

October 15, 2021

To help give thanks for and to celebrate the good work of pastors during Clergy Appreciation Month, Prairie View reached out to two individuals with close professional and denominational ties to Prairie View and asked for their thoughts on mental health as it relates to ministry: Heidi Regier Kreider, conference minister of the Western District Conference (Mennonite Church USA), and Joanna Davidson Smith, an ordained minister and certified spiritual director in the Western Plains District Conference (Church of the Brethren).

Pastors are human beings, too
As is the case with any other profession, it is important to recognize and remember that pastors are human beings, too, and with their professional responsibilities comes a possible increased risk of vicarious trauma.

“As leaders of faith communities, pastors face multiple (and often conflicting) priorities, high expectations and standards, and are often present to the suffering, pain and conflict of others around them,” says Regier Kreider.

Davidson Smith agrees and sees the same in her denomination.

“A minister tends to take on the spiritual, emotional, mental and even physical cares of his/her faith community,” says Davidson Smith. “This in itself is a reason to care for one’s mental wellbeing.”

If one’s mental health is left unchecked, pastors can begin to experience lingering feelings of anger, rage and sadness, become overly involved emotionally with an individual, experience bystander guilt, shame, feelings of self-doubt, or be pre-occupied with thoughts of the individual outside of the work day and situation. If these symptoms occur, says Bryant Miller, LCMFT, RPT, director of community and rehabilitation services at Prairie View, pastors themselves may experience a mental health injury.

Talking about mental health
“It is important for pastors to understand and be able to talk about mental health as part of their overall health as a leader, and how it is integrated into their spiritual life. This builds self-awareness and models an honest, authentic and wholistic approach to faith and life,” says Regier Kreider. “At the same time, pastors need to be discerning about appropriate ways and times to talk about their own mental health, and to maintain healthy boundaries between their personal needs and their ministry priorities.”

Because the focus of a pastor’s ministry is ministering to their congregation or community, if his or her personal needs are getting in the way of ministry, or they are not mentally healthy, talking to someone, including a professional therapist, may be beneficial.

Miller encourages pastors to listen to their gut. “If your gut is telling you to reach out, do it now, because we have tons of chances to talk ourselves out of it.” 

A pastor may already be receiving therapy and visiting with a mental health professional to meet his or her own personal goals, but if it’s not going in the right direction, individuals can request a different therapist.

“Therapy is not ‘one size fits all,’” says Miller. “Chances are, if you engage in therapy and it doesn’t feel like a good fit, your therapist is thinking similar thoughts. As a therapist, I often tell my clients, ‘I want what’s best for you, even if that isn’t me.’ Don’t hesitate to bring this up and consider finding a better fit if you are feeling stuck.”

Self-care is also crucial. Miller provides examples that anyone can use. Spiritual acts of self-care may include prayer, Bible study, solitude, silence and meditation. Mental activities may include reading and discussing non-work related topics with a peer group. Practicing emotional self-care includes identifying and acknowledging feelings and engaging in activities that cultivate happiness, laughter, peace and joy. Finally, physical self-care includes addressing one’s diet, sleep, exercise and active schedule shifts to reduce frequency of stressful events if needed.

How can congregations help care for their pastors’ mental health?
First of all, recognizing that it takes faith to live into the unknown and that it is completely normal to experience anxiety and depression at times needs to be normalized, says Davidson Smith. Simply beginning a conversation can help.

Other action steps include:

  • Providing clear position descriptions and mutually agreed-upon expectations for the pastors’ ministry
  • Offering adequate financial support and health benefits for pastors and their families
  • Encouraging paid Sabbath time away from the community
  • Developing healthy congregational leaders and structures to work effectively with pastors, so as not to isolate pastors in their leadership role
  • Collaborating with denominational/conference resources and credentialing structures that provide support and accountability for pastors
  • Volunteering to help with tasks
  • Encouraging the minister in his or her work
  • Developing an overall congregational culture of awareness about mental health, by promoting mental health resource and education within the congregation, and referral to mental health services in the community

It is vitally important for the faith community and clergy to understand how the physical, emotional and spiritual health of an individual and the community is all intricately woven together. Together, we can care for one another, make a difference, and reduce the stigma around mental health.