Ministers and Mental Health
The state of AG pastors today
During a district council meeting in 2019, I spoke with General Superintendent Doug Clay about the state of mental health in the Assemblies of God and asked what he thought was the greatest need.
“I love this question!” he exclaimed.
Clay talked about the progress the Fellowship has made toward reducing the stigma of mental illness and counseling in churches. He then shared his concern for the well-being of pastors.
That conversation led to a study several months later on pastoral mental health. By that time, the topic was even more urgent as church leaders navigated a global pandemic.
Our research team surveyed 874 AG pastors in the U.S., seeking insights into their well-being and attitudes toward mental health care. Following are some of the key takeaways.
The good news is approximately 60% of AG pastors do not have symptoms of depression. Considering this data was collected from June–December 2020, that’s a positive sign.
Although we don’t know whether ongoing pandemic stress since that time has increased rates of depression among ministers, our results suggest there are a lot of resilient pastors.
Unfortunately, nearly 4 in 10 pastors from this study did have symptoms pointing to at least a mild level of depression, which is enough to meet the diagnostic criteria for a depressive disorder.
A quarter of those surveyed showed signs of mild depression, while 14% exhibited symptoms of moderate, moderately severe, or severe depression. About 5% of the sample reported having suicidal thoughts several days or more in a two-week period.
Perhaps you or pastors you know are dealing with depression. It is important not to ignore even mild symptoms of depression, such as low energy, unusual weight loss or gain, difficulty concentrating, or lack of enjoyment in activities that were once meaningful.
One factor that influences depression is occupational stress, a term that encompasses a variety of work-related pressures.
Many pastors juggle multiple roles, deal with blurry work-life boundaries, and receive a salary that does not align with the educational requirements or work expectations of their roles.
In our study, occupational stress was highly predictive of depression symptoms. About 20% of the study’s sample had high occupational stress, while an additional 58% had moderate stress.
Compared to previous findings from similar studies, these levels were surprisingly high. For example, a 2013 survey of Protestant clergy members found about 8% in high occupational stress.
The pandemic likely played a large role in elevating pastoral stress.
We measured spiritual well-being using a scale developed by the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School.
The results indicated 1 in 5 AG pastors are not experiencing a sense of God’s power and presence in their ministries. This should concern all of us.
The number of close friends pastors had was significantly related to both overall well-being and attitudes toward seeking professional counseling for themselves.
We asked pastors to identify the number of close friends with whom they could talk honestly. Choices ranged from none to four or more.
Those who reported no close friends had the highest depression scores. With each close friend, the depression score decreased. Composite well-being scores showed the same trend.
A quarter of those surveyed showed signs of mild depression, while 14% exhibited symptoms of moderate, moderately severe, or severe depression.
In addition, those who had no close friends (about 9% of the total sample) were least likely to seek counseling for themselves. Positive attitudes toward counseling increased with the addition of each close friend.
Views on Medication
Another finding of interest was the pastors’ views on taking medication for psychiatric issues. Ten percent of the pastors surveyed indicated past or current use of psychiatric medications. This finding was in line with other studies on medication use by clergy and by the general population.
However, about one-third of AG pastors said they would never use psychiatric medications. This suggests a significant stigma remains around the use of such treatment.
Considering that 40% of the sample showed signs of depression, negative perceptions of medication may be a barrier to treatment.
There are a few next steps pastors can take in light of these findings.
First, consider doing a personal checkup on your mental well-being. A number of free screening assessments are available on the Mental Health America website (screening.mhanational.org/screening-tools). Click on “Depression” to take the same test we used in our study of AG pastors. (You can skip over the additional questions on the second page and go to “View Results.”)
If your results indicate any level of depression, follow up with your primary care physician or a counselor. This is not a diagnostic tool, however. If you feel you are depressed or suffering from another mental health problem, talk with a doctor or mental health professional, regardless of your online screening results.
To learn about mental health resources in your area, visit MinisterFamilyCare.AG.org. To access free, on-demand mental health content, text “mentalhealth” to 49775. And for 24/7/365 crisis support, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
Also evaluate your occupational stressors. Pause and consider how you are feeling in ministry. Are you experiencing overwhelming congregational demands or conflicts? Have your roles changed significantly during the pandemic? Do you no longer sense the power and presence of God in your everyday life and ministry? Do you struggle to take a day off every week?
If your answers point to high levels of occupational stress, talk with a mentor or friend about what you are experiencing. You can also work with a leadership coach who can help determine whether there are changes you can make to reduce stress.
Discussing these issues with a trusted adviser can help you reconnect with your sense of purpose, calling and mission.
In addition to counseling services, Emerge Counseling Ministries offers coaching and has a long history of working with Assemblies of God ministers.
Given the importance of social connections, ask yourself how many friends you have with whom you can share your thoughts and feelings. If that number is low, talk with leaders in your district about networking opportunities. Set up a monthly lunch with pastors in your area. Consider joining a local club or affinity group for a hobby you enjoy.
Broadening your social circle can improve your overall well-being and make it easier to reach out for help when you need it.
Finally, examine your views concerning counseling and medication. Even as pastors have become more willing to refer their congregants to mental health resources, many personally resist seeking help for their own struggles. Are you recommending a resource to your parishioners you would be unwilling to try?
Some pastors feel a referral relationship with mental health providers limits their own access to these resources. With the expansion of telehealth services, you can broaden your search for mental health care. Remote options can also make it easier to fit professional counseling into your day.
Do not assume you can’t afford counseling. Ask whether your service provider accepts your insurance, and whether it uses a sliding fee scale or offers a clergy discount.
Investments in your mental health — including seeking help when you need it — are essential to long-term ministry success. As a pastor, caring for yourself helps ensure you can continue to care for others.
This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Influence magazine.
Influence Magazine & The Healthy Church Network
© 2023 Assemblies of God