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It might be time to give your spiritual leader a hug

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The next time your pastor, rabbi or imam gives a fine sermon praise him or her. When a spiritual leader returns from a few days off, avoid adding guilt by saying he or she was missed when air-conditioning went kaput. Instead, say welcome back and say you hope the well-deserved time off was restful.

A new study says it’s good for their mental health.

A pastor may need more mental health support than his or her congregants, the research director of a new study by Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., said.

The study, released Tuesday, showed that clergy are more likely than those in other professions to suffer from depression and anxiety. Depression ranged from 9 percent of clerics questioned in a personal phone interview to 11 percent of clerics answering in writing or online. Were the latter more comfortable being candid without a person listening?

Questions were limited to the pastor’s state of mind in the two weeks prior to being polled, rather than over the range of their service. The phone, written and internet groups self-reported higher rates of depression than average Americans.

Anxiety rates among clergy polled were 13.5 percent. There are no general anxiety studies to compare that statistic, said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, research direct for Duke’s Clergy Health Initiative. More than 7 percent of clergy said they had simultaneously experienced depression and anxiety in the previous two weeks.  

Demands that clergy put on themselves as well as demands that congregants place on clergy, put pastors at far greater risk for depression than individuals with other occupations, the Clergy Health Initiative found. The study and some St. Louis experts on the topic said seminaries need to better prepare students on how to manage their time and balance their family life.

“While not everyone has given much thought to the mental health of their pastors, most people care about them and want to find ways to help them along the journey,” said Kate Rugani, Duke Divinity’s Clergy Health Initiative spokeswoman. She hopes that this new study will help people more thoughtfully support their religious leaders.

Job stress was the most powerful predictors of depression, the study found. Most congregation members have heard a pastor or rabbi agree to a future engagement with the proviso “if I don’t have a funeral or an emergency call.”

Grief counseling and navigating the competing demands of congregants trigger stress. Living in the public eye, especially giving sermons, adds to that stress. Sermons open them up to negative comments about their ideas. The strain of these roles is amplified by having to switch rapidly among such things as consoling a family at a deathbed, cheering on a Bible school class quiz winner or negotiating a fair price for a furnace repair. Other, wider studies have shown conflicting emotional roles exacerbate stressful experiences. 

“Even though pastors are around other people all the time, it’s a pretty isolated life,” the Rev. Dale R. Kuhn said. He’s a psychologist and ordained minister who is executive director of Care and Counseling, based in Creve Coeur. Twenty percent of the clients at his 45-yearold nonprofit agency are clergy and their families. He welcomed a spotlight on the issue of clergy mental health and anxiety that his agency deals with daily.

“The rule is a clergy person should not have best friends in the congregation, which can be a conflict of interest,” he said. “One of the biggest concerns I have is the isolation that goes with the profession.

“The clergy person cannot show nor share too much of his or her personal life with the congregation. It compromises his or her ability to provide pastoral care if the congregation and the pastor get too involved with each other. Congregations need to allow clergy persons plenty of time alone away from their congregations, time to be with their families, time to study.”

Guilt is another trigger of clergy depression and anxiety. The Duke Divinity’s study found that pastors’ sense of guilt about not doing enough was a top predictor of depression. Deeper self-doubts also predict anxiety and affect the pastor’s mental health, the study found. Unlike most other professions, clergy might wonder if they truly have “a call” to ministry. Pastors with less social support -- those who reported feeling socially isolated -- were at higher risk for depression.  

Night and Day

A pastor’s day and evening pastoral duties add to the stress,

“Pastors may have created a life for themselves that is so strongly intertwined with their ministry that their emotional health is dependent on the state of their ministry,” Proeschold-Bell said. “So, it’s possible that when pastors feel their ministry is going well, they experience positive emotions potent enough to buffer them from mental distress. Of course, the converse is also true.”

Given that the study asked about just the previous two weeks, she believes it is likely that a far higher percentage of clergy experience depression or anxiety at some point during a lifetime spent in ministry

While many public health professionals suggest pastors should offer health programming for their members, she said her study’s findings show that both sides of the pulpit need help.

“We need to consider how to attend to the mental health of pastors themselves,” Proeschold-Bell said.

While pastors can take preventative steps to bolster their mental health -- by taking vacation and sabbatical time, fostering friendships outside the church and seeking counseling -- others can provide support, Proeschold-Bell said. 

Seminaries need to train their students to anticipate competing demands on their time and negotiate conflict. Denominational officials can praise clergy for their efforts, particularly when those pastors are serving churches roiled in conflict. The people in the pews can step up and support their pastors by volunteering for tasks and following through on commitments making it possible for pastors to take time off.

The Duke study confirms what counselors see weekly at Care and Counseling. The agency was formed 45 years ago by combining several faith-based counseling centers in an era when psychotherapy was suspect among some Christians. Many religious congregations put their pastors and their whole families on a pedestal and would have called it worst that controversial if they saw them slipping into the office of a mental health professional.

Today the Creve Coeur-based agency provides about 1,200 hours of counseling a year to area clergy and their families. Each client typically goes for 10 sessions. The majority of the Creve Coeur’s agency’s clients are referred by faith-based groups. These visits may compliment clergy pastoral efforts to help congregants. Care and Counseling psychotherapists also trains clergy and lay ministers in their professional pastoral outreach out to others.

“Many of the pastors and rabbis help people who are dysfunctional and even whole congregations that are dysfunctional,” said Julia Muller, board chairman of Care and Counseling and a retired university administrator. Many clerics have had only a few hours in seminary learning to work with people who have mental health issues, she said. “Still you read in advice columns all the time, ‘talk to your pastor about that’.”   

Her agency also helps clergy improve their grief counseling and their own emotional reaction to it. With additional training, many have set up parish group therapy session led by mental health professionals, nurses and others. These enhance a pastor’s effectiveness and can relieve some of anxiety, Muller said.  

Coping Skills

In his years of experience with local clergy, Kuhn has learned that congregations should guard their pastor, rabbi or imam’s time so the leader has at least a day and a half off each week. When an emergency pastoral duty intrudes on that day off, the clergy person needs to take compensating time off soon, within a couple days that week Kuhn said.

“Too many are remiss in not taking that time off,” he said. He’s been impressed with other studies that show that pastors who get a couple weeks off for study, prayer or writing – in addition to a regular vacation are more resilient, and better able to manage stress.

Another thing Kuhn notes is clergy scheduling all congregational evening meetings on the same night each week. Then, the pastor or rabbi rotates through each meeting leading in prayer and update reports without having to return to the campus night after night for meetings.

Families of religious leaders can also help manage their  anxiety by attending a nearby church some Sundays each month. There they are not a family on a pedestal with extra expectations but just another family in a congregation.

“They can talk freely and not have others looking over their shoulder,” Kuhn said. He stops short of saying they should become members of the neighboring congregation.

About the study

Duke scholars compared the mental health of 95 percent of the United Methodist clergy in North Carolina, a total of 1,726 pastors, to a representative sample of Americans who were not ordained clergy and identified key factors that predict depression and anxiety. The study was limited to Methodists because of the interests of their funder, the Duke Endowment established by the Duke Tobacco family, Rugani said.

Duke researchers believe that clergy responses in the study are not peculiar to Methodists, Southerners or clergy who lead smaller churches, Rugani said. Most Methodist churches in North Carolina have fewer than 200 members. In working with clergy in the wider interfaith community Duke Divinity’s leaders have found similar issues with depression, isolation and anxiety among many faith groups, Rugani said. The mean age was 52, and 75 percent were male and 91 percent were white.

The study is being published in The Journal of Primary Prevention.

The Duke Divinity research is part of a longitudinal study conducted in 2008, 2010 and 2012 and scheduled to continue in 2014 and 2016. The study is part of a $12 million grant for The Duke Clergy Health Initiative.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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