Pastors Grapple With Mental Illness

By Kelly Russell, September 11, 2019

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 18.5% of the U.S. population experiences mental illness. Suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and the third leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 24. Barna Group’s “The State of Pastors” reports that almost half of U.S. pastors suffer from depression. Two young megachurch pastors in Southern California recently committed suicide within a few months of each other—Andrew Stoecklein in August 2018, Jim Howard in January 2019 and Jarrid Wilson in September 2019.

If an attendee doesn’t experience mental illness herself, chances are she leads or serves someone who does. Church leaders report five core issues:

  • Loneliness
  • Relational problems
  • Pressure
  • Navigating new territory
  • Burnout

It’s Lonely at the Top

Church leaders may struggle with loneliness and isolation because they lack people with whom they can be truly open. Low Norris, a field shepherd with Costa Mesa, California-based Standing Stone Ministry, has provided pastoral care for at-risk church leaders for three years. He estimates that of the more than 100 pastors he’s worked with, 70 to 80% would say they don’t have any genuine friends.

“Church leaders can’t vent or process with their spouses because what’s weighing on them is confidential,” says Norris. “That’s why a neutral listening ear is key.” Planners can offer pastoral care at events by arranging to have counselors, coaches or one of Standing Stone’s 75 field shepherds available for one-on-one appointments.

Trouble in Paradise

“The State of Pastors” reports that nearly half of U.S. pastors face relational risks in their marriages, families and friendships. Norris adds, “Marital trouble is especially difficult for pastors to admit for fear that they’ll be ‘benched from ministry’ when others find out they are struggling.”

Norris found Standing Stone Ministry when he was going through his marriage crisis. He called two seasoned pastor friends, asking them what to do. When both mentioned the ministry, he knew he had to “use a lifeline.” Within hours, he was meeting with a field shepherd in his town.

Support attendees by booking speakers to share their vulnerable stories of navigating ministry, marriage and family. Produce marriage- and family-friendly events by adding segments specifically for spouses and offering child care to make it a refreshing getaway for couples.

Under Pressure

The challenges of pastoring in the 21st century are significant. Church leaders are expected to be gifted leaders, communicators, visionaries, CEOs, CFOs and theologians—all with excellent bedside manner when they visit people in the hospital. Offer workshops and breakout sessions on practical topics like self-care and sustainable ministry. Lead attendees through exercises to help them discover what fills them up spiritually and emotionally so they can continue to pour out to those they serve.

The Changing of the Guard

Younger pastors report experiencing a frustrating dynamic in which they feel ready to take the lead, but the older generation refuses to relinquish control. “The younger guard is coming in eager, craving encouragement and affirmation by the older generation; but they are met with silence,” says Norris.

Offer a panel of seasoned church leaders willing to encourage and equip the next generation. Challenge experienced church leaders to share vulnerable stories of their successes and failures, as well as practical tips for navigating all five of the issues church leaders experience the most. For a powerful close to an event, end with the older church leaders commissioning the younger ones.

Burnout

One in three pastors is at risk for burnout according to “The State of Pastors.” “Stress leads to burnout, which leads to moral lapses,” says Norris. “There is a lot of addiction among pastors—drugs, alcohol and, most commonly, pornography.” Throw attendees a life preserver by talking freely about these sensitive issues as well as the causes of burnout and practical ways to prevent it. Standing Stone Ministry is available to present custom workshops or breakout sessions.

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