A study conducted by the Clergy Health Initiative found that pastors are at a much higher risk for depression than the general population.
In a survey that reached over 95 percent of United Methodist clergy members in North Carolina, 11.1 percent of pastors displayed signs of depression, compared to 5.5 percent of the general population nationally.
In light of these findings, the Duke Divinity School is focusing on equipping its graduates for the unique pressures of their chosen career path.
Putting others first
“[Pastors] give the inspirational message each week, they give out the support,” said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, research director of the Clergy Health Initiative. “The relationship is very much one way. That’s a very high burden for pastors to carry.”
The study, which examines the physical impact of leading a life in the clergy, was conducted via survey and telephone interviews in 2008 but continues to be ongoing.
“We still don’t know if pastors come in with bad health or if being a pastor creates poor health,” Proeschold-Bell said.
She said, however, that the findings point to the pressures of a career in the ministry as the cause of depression.
Highly active members of a congregation often find great comfort and unity in their religious community, but the situation is often reserved for pastors, Proeschold-Bell said.
In pursuing their calling to serve the Lord—who they view as a perfect being—some pastors feel they are not good enough to serve. She said that some pastors "hopelessly" pursue the perfection of God, as they believe they were made in His image.
“It is very common when people are depressed for them to feel like they are not worthy,” Proeschold-Bell said. “It is easy to feel criticized and down on yourself.”
Divinity School student government president Erik Greyson, who is preparing for ordination in the United Methodist Church, said that he felt a “strong, exciting calling” to serve the Lord through his church.
“This is a passion that in some ways consumes us. We are working on creating communities and working in communities that love God and love other people,” Greyson said.
He added that it is very easy to become overly committed to your work in the ministry.
“That is a great thing, but it also means that we have to work on having healthy boundaries—not just for ourselves but for the people we are going to serve,” Greyson said.
“Pastors’ entire identity is wrapped up in their work,” Proeschold-Bell said. “They worry that they are failing God.”
After receiving their degrees, pastors enter a career path filled with financial difficulties.
The median salary of pastors in North Carolina is $34,000, and many students leave divinity school with extremely high student debt, Proeschold-Bell said. Trying to pay off this debt while supporting their families and communities causes high levels of stress.
Over one third of pastors serve in multiple churches, Proeschold-Bell said. She added that the western half of the state sees 10 to 14 closed churches each year due to budget problems, which adds further to the financial pressure placed on pastors.
Assisting students with educational debt is one of Hays’ priorities as a dean.
”I have certainly made it a priority as Dean to put the raising of endowments for student scholarships at the top of our priority list for the current capital campaign,” Hays said.
Duke Forward will eventually provide these funds, but Hays added that the campaign is still in its infancy and has not raised them yet.
“If we could have students graduating with less indebtedness, it would pull some of the pressure off of them that they feel,” Hays said.
Solving the larger issue
Mentoring for Ministry and Field Education are unique aspects of the Duke Divinity educational process, said Susan Pendelton-Jones. These programs provide hands-on training to prepare students for the real social, emotional and financial demands of clergy life, she said.
“We have just, more or less, fairly recently begun getting the actual results of the study,” Hays said. He added that the school is planning to use the findings to create programs to aid divinity students in their transition to ministry work.
The Divinity School has also implemented a task force to continue reviewing the findings of the study, but because the review was so recently released, the task force has not had time to implement any changes to the curriculum yet.
The task force will look at student workload and stress levels to help prepare them for the future pressures of ministry work—including self-care, getting enough rest, drawing proper boundaries and eating healthy.
But the stress that accompanies the role as a pastor is not something that can be resolved on an individual basis, Hays noted. The larger structure of pastoring and the communities and congregations pastors devote themselves to are also to blame.
“Most of these issues are systemic issues,” Hays said. “Its not simply a matter of getting individual students to adopt a healthier lifestyle, but it is a question of how after they graduate they become part of institutions that may place pressures on them and may or may not provide adequate support structures."
Conflicts within the congregation often require pastors to be placed in the role of a mediator, Proeschold-Bell said. Simple actions such as a pastor selecting one dish at a potluck over another could lead to perceptions of favoritism among parishioners.
“If you are going to be a pastor, the church has to come first,” Proeschold-Bell said.
Even observing Sabbath—which Hays described as a period of structured rest—is often forgotten in the hectic life of a pastor, but it can be an important time for self-reflection and relaxation.
He added that the church as an organization should work to foster a sense of common responsibility between pastor and congregation.
"Ministry is not simply something that you just hire somebody to do, but ministry is the work of a congregation—a shared task," he said.
Greyson said that the education at Duke is some of the most rigorous in the county and must accommodate for its academic stressors.
“Some of what we are looking at doing in the student body is asking, 'What can we do to instill healthy habits in ourselves?’ It is one thing to receive rigorous academic training, but it is another to be sure we are accustomed to lives of prayer and reflection,” Greyson said.
Many students have trouble identifying when they need to ask for help, Greyson said. He added that pastors are often secluded away from others that they know when starting at a new church, lacking a strong support system, which can make these tasks harder to solidify.
“You have to accept hospitality. You have to accept help that others can give to you,” Greyson said.
Despite the potential challenges that face clergy members, the reward of following your calling makes it worth the struggles, Greyson said..
"All people are called to something, you were made for a purpose—you have passions, you have joys—you are on this Earth for a reason," Greyson said. “God doesn’t just call you, He equips you.”