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Why Are Pastors Depressed? A Look at the Research

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As the evangelical church has become painfully aware recently, pastors struggle with mental illness, including depression and thoughts of suicide. In light of recent events, many are wondering: Why are pastors depressed?

A survey of protestant clergy in Canada conducted in 2003 showed that 20 percent of respondents had been diagnosed with an emotional condition; specifically, 16 percent said they had been diagnosed with depression. “This is double the Health Canada findings which states that approximately eight percent of Canadian adults will experience major depression in their lives,” the study authors write. 

A 2014 LifeWay study among pastors in the U.S. found that these numbers don’t seem to have changed much in the almost decade that has transpired between the two studies. LifeWay’s study indicated more than one in five pastors have personally struggled with mental illness of some kind. It should be noted this number mirrors the national average of people in the U.S. who struggle with mental illness, according to research from 2018.

Why Are Pastors Depressed?

In light of these statistics, the question arises: Why do pastors seem to struggle with mental illnesses such as depression at rates equal to or greater than the societal norm? This is an issue the Canadian study, entitled “Clergy Well-Being: Seeking Wholeness with Integrity” attempted to tackle. Even though it was conducted several years ago, the insight from the study is useful for our present-day discussions. 

The study, conducted by Rev. Andrew Irvine of Knox College, University of Toronto, began in conversation with ministers, who met in focus groups to help form a questionnaire. Ministers then helped interpret the 338 responses the survey garnered. Respondents represented a handful of Protestant denominations, including Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, and Pentecostal. 

Among its more discouraging findings, the study found:

70 percent moderately or strongly disagreed with the statement, “I feel fulfilled in ministry.”
67 percent agreed to strongly agreed with the statement, “I sometimes project my job frustration on the family.”
62 percent agreed to strongly agreed with the statement, “Sometimes my outward appearance seems happy and content while inside I am emotionally distressed.”
75 percent agreed to strongly agreed with the statement, “I am afraid to let my parishioners know how I really feel.”
80 percent agreed to strongly agreed with the statement, “I feel guilty if people see me taking time off during the week.”
50 percent moderately to strongly disagreed with the statement, “I am consistent between who I am and how I appear to others.”

In the interpretation of the responses, the study authors articulated five things that contribute to stress and, one could argue, be correlated to mental illness in clergy. 

Lack of Rest or a Day Off

The majority of pastors surveyed said their contracts allowed them to take two days off a week, but most do not utilize those two days. Respondents work an average of 50 hours per week, with nearly 25 percent working more than 55 hours a week. The majority of ministers (80 percent) also indicated they feel guilty if people see them taking time off during the week

While ministry can be very demanding, the study points to another factor present in the problem of overwork, having more to do with a clergy member’s sense of self-worth than the demands of their position. “Ministers felt that to be constantly busy (or so to appear) and to show an appointment book full of activity, demonstrated self-worth and that they were an essential part of the church and community. There was indication that ‘not having time off’ was viewed by some as an indicator of their value and worth and actually became, for some, a point of boasting.” 

Lack of Support From Fellow Clergy and a Sense of Competition 

Adding to the sense of isolation among clergy members is a feeling of not being able to draw support from the very people who would be able to sympathize with their struggles. There is a crippling sense of competition among pastors, which doesn’t help those who are struggling. Only four percent of respondents say they went to their denomination’s staff when facing a personal crisis. When struggling, most pastors choose to look for help outside their own church. In the following order, pastors said they looked from help from “another minister, spouse/life partner, lay friend, a family (other than partner) member, a person of another profession.”

A full 80 percent admitted to being jealous of the success of other pastors. Additionally, only 40 percent of clergy said they had someone they considered a personal pastor, while only 16 percent said they had a spiritual director. In other words, few pastors feel they have a pastor for themselves as individuals.