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Depression Among Church Leaders - A Problem For Us All

Mal Fletcher
Posted 07 September 2018
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In the US recently, news media carried the story of a young church minister in California who committed suicide. His wife, though aware that he suffered from depression and anxiety, was in no way prepared for this outcome.

"Never in a million years would I have imagined this would be the end of his story," said Kayla Stoecklein of her beloved husband, Andrew. He left behind three young children. His death has inspired many other pastors to write online about their struggles with mental health.

Until now, little has been said or written about the issue of church leadership and depression. Yet there is no reason to believe or expect that religious leaders should not be impacted by an issue which, according to the World Health Organisation, now affects 300 million people worldwide.

In the UK, there is little data on the scope of mental health problems among church leaders. Yet levels of depression among the wider population suggest that more than a few will suffer from it.

In 2013, the Office of National Statistics said that nearly one-fifth of British adults suffer from either anxiety or depression. In the US, the National Institute of Mental Health estimated that 16 million adults had at least one major depressive episode during 2015. No matter how strong their personal faith, church and other religious leaders cannot hope to be immunised from the effects of such a global problem. 

Social media have helped to spread the success stories of a relatively small number of rapidly growing mega-churches. (I’m referring here mainly to churches in which more than 10,000 people gather on a Sunday.) Leaders of these churches, at home and abroad, are often seen as role models for pastors of much smaller groups.

The scope of their success is viewed as a realistic goal, despite the fact that their growth represents a statistical exception rather than the norm.

Like leaders of any stripe, in any sector, church and other religious leaders need benchmarks and heroes from whom they can learn and whose example inspires them to reach for more. Sometimes, however, the glittering prize proves to be perennially out of reach.

Faced with the resulting frustration, most people adjust their expectations. However, for individuals already struggling with identity or anxiety, this can prove harmful.

The fact that religious leaders will suffer in this way is not just a problem for churches. It poses a challenge for the wider society because religious groups - especially churches - carry a huge load in terms of helping to alleviate suffering among the deprived and dispossessed in society. 

Yes, only 11 per cent of adults living in England take part in the activities of a religious group and just two per cent of the English population attends church each week. However, when it comes to social welfare programmes, local churches, synagogues, other religious bodies and their affiliated charities punch well above their weight.

When David Cameron introduced his (now somewhat maligned) Big Society idea, he looked in the private sector to religious groups, among others, to help make it a reality. 

Churches and other religious organisations boast higher levels of volunteer participation than business or other groups can usually engage. Indeed, some people who rarely go to church will align themselves with a local church-run charity in order to help reduce suffering.

The Salvation Army alone has 700 centres across the UK, which deliver services to individuals and communities every day of the year. A good part of its support, at least financially, has traditionally come from outside of the Christian community.

Many smaller charities are directly linked to local churches. Moreover, some of the biggest and most famous British charities have historically owed their existence to churches, though they may now play down the connection.

Mental health problems among religious leaders do not represent a problem for their various denominational groups alone. In many cases, they represent a problem for society.

For many church leaders, the problem of depression or anxiety will be exacerbated by the psychological and emotional burden inadvertently placed upon them by parishioners and peers. A part of this is the expectation that they should somehow have their lives completely "together".

This is especially true in those wings of the modern church where leadership has taken on a more corporate or even "tribal" and less collegiate form. By “tribal”, I do not mean primitive in any sense. I certainly do not mean dictatorial, though that danger always exists.

I mean that in some churches leaders are expected to represent everything other people aspire to be. They are expected to be at least a little more patient, tolerant, accepting of criticism, culturally aware and compassionate than the average citizen.

In some quarters, church leadership has also become more corporate, in the sense that senior leaders are expected - by governments as much as anyone else - to be as business savvy as CEOs of large companies.   

Some are encouraged by the weight of peer pressure to engage with an audience beyond their congregations via electronic media. (This is especially a problem in parts of the United States.)  Of course, not everyone is gifted for this particular brand of communication. More than a few leaders become frustrated with their inability to break into media in any significant way.

Meanwhile, church leaders are sometimes expected to be as naturally charismatic as prominent figures in politics or entertainment. Celebrity has become so much part of the fabric of everyday life, that it can't help but influence the attitudes of some parishioners to the gifted men and women who stand before them each Sunday.

This weight of expectation is both unrealistic and dangerous. For one thing, it can be harmful to self-esteem. It can set church leaders up for an eventual fall, be that moral or financial, by encouraging in them a lack of accountability; a sense that their choices will be above reproach by virtue of their position.

In some religious leaders, unrealistic expectations lead to strained familial ties. A pastor cannot possibly be a perfect marriage partner or parent. Yet many, consciously or inadvertently, place that expectation upon themselves. Some find that their partners or children expect from them what they cannot deliver.

No individual who seeks to expound biblical truth should be expected to, completely and at all times, live up to the standards it presents. They should be expected to try - but that should be the expectation of every believer. If teachers and preachers held off speaking until they'd personally mastered every part of their message, nothing would ever be preached.

In recent times, a trend has developed in which leaders of churches large and small take sabbaticals after a lengthy period in ministry. In previous generations, this was considered unusual.  

Neither churches nor their ministers had levels of income to support this. And there was little or no tolerance of this notion within the local or wider church, especially where most congregations were comprised predominantly of working-class people.

Arguably, too, there was little need for the sabbatical, except perhaps in relatively rare cases where ministers suffered from diagnosed clinical depression or other anxiety disorders. The trend for sabbaticals is a modern one; it demonstrates the pressures placed upon many church leaders.

It is time for churches and other religious groups to take seriously the potential for mental health issues among their leaders.

It is time for all of us, religious or not, to offer at least moral and, if we can, practical support to those leaders whose efforts, directly and indirectly, promote the common good.  

What’s your view?

Are church leaders in danger of mental health problems?

Yes

No

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