The truth about pastors and mental health challenges

October 25, 2023

Pastors bear a great number of burdens but are often expected to do so without having any burdens of their own. The truth is: pastors are struggling, especially with their mental health. While we should have anticipated such a reality due to the spiritual nature of their work and the pressures of ministry, Dr. Kristen Kansiewicz, a licensed mental health counselor and professor, has been shedding light on churches and mental health for years.

Kansiewicz received her Ph.D. in Counselor Education from Regent University and is an assistant professor at Evangel University. Her research interests include pastors’ mental health, stigma around mental illness in the church, barriers to treatment amongst evangelical Christians, and development of Christian-specific therapeutic interventions. She developed the Church Therapy model, bringing clinical mental health services into church settings, and has provided clinical counseling services in church settings since 2005.

Below, Kansiewicz answers questions about pastors, mental health, and how we can help them thrive.

Miles Mullin: Have the number of pastors suffering from mental health challenges increased? If so, why is that?

Kristen Kansiewicz: It’s a little hard to say if the mental health challenges have increased, but in short, it’s likely that the depression rates of pastors have increased since the pandemic. Earlier studies of Methodist pastors by Duke University in 2012-2018 showed that about 40% of pastors experienced mild or worse depression (about 12-14% moderate or higher). A study I conducted on Assemblies of God pastors in 2020 had nearly identical results. 

In data collected by myself and the research team through the Charis Institute at Regent University showed that 53% of Baptist pastors were experiencing mild or worse depression, with 17.5% at moderate or moderately-severe levels. When isolating just the question on suicidal thoughts, 9.6% of the Baptist pastors had at least “several days” of thoughts of harming themselves or wishing for death. It is unclear if there are differences between these groups of pastors, or if the depression rates are increasing. Regardless, many studies have demonstrated that pastors experience high rates of depression, stress, and burnout.

MM: Are there specific types of mental health challenges common among pastors? If so, what are they? 

KK: It’s well-established that pastors experience depression, occupational stress, and burnout in high rates. There are a variety of reasons for this, some unique to pastors and some that they share with other professions. Stressors like financial strain and a lack of social support contribute to depression and burnout. In addition, congregational demands, challenges in maintaining interpersonal relationships, and confusion about job roles also contribute to pastoral well-being.

MM: How many pastors are in danger of suffering from a mental health crisis or burnout?

KK: Estimates of how many pastors there are in the United States vary, but there are an estimated 350,000 Christian churches in the U.S. and as many as 600,000 clergy members. If 14-17% of them are experiencing moderate or worse depression, then 84,000 to 102,000 are actively struggling. Keep in mind that an additional 25-35% are experience mild symptoms of depression, which expands the problem even further. 

Additionally, burnout is an experience of chronic stress and adds to the layers of complexity about what pastors are dealing with and how many are struggling. In short, it’s a significant problem.

MM: Who is in danger of pastoral burnout? What factors contribute to it? 

KK: Solo pastors are at greater risk for negative mental health outcomes, along with those who have limited social support. In my study of AG pastors, one’s number of close friends was significantly linked to both well-being and help-seeking. Those pastors who had no close friends or only one close friend were worse off and less likely to see help when compared to those who had two, three, or four+ close friends. For each friend, the numbers increase (well-being goes up, as does willingness to seek help when needed). 

In addition, those who have greater financial strain have been shown in other Duke University studies to have worse mental health outcomes. Obviously, things like family genetics and predisposition to anxiety and depression are factors as well. Pastors need to pay attention to chronic stress and social support in order to prevent burnout and/or depression.

MM: Which pastors are most poised to be resilient? And why?

KK: When we think about the things that contribute to depression and burnout, we can use those to paint a picture of the resilient pastor. A pastor with three or more close friends, who is paid a sustainable wage, and who has congregational support is going to be more resilient than those without those factors. 

Additionally, maintaining positive spiritual disciplines that are personal (not just job-related spiritual duties), keeping a weekly Sabbath, connecting with deeper purpose in the work of ministry, and using positive religious coping (i.e., deriving strength and purpose from God rather than seeing him as disapproving or disappointed in you) are all ways that pastors can increase resilience.

MM: What are pastors willing to do to address their mental health needs? What are they not willing to do?

KK: Based on my sample of 874 Assemblies of God pastors, they indicated they were most willing to use Christian self-help books, an accountability partner, professional counseling, retreats, and personal Sabbaticals in order to work on their mental health. Surprisingly, more pastors were willing to rely on secular self-help books than psychiatric medication (like an anti-depressant). 

We need to do more to help pastors decrease stigma around the use of medication for mental health needs. Modern anti-depressants are not a “quick fix” or way out of dealing with the real issues. Rather, they address the physical chemistry of the brain that is off-balance when someone is experiencing symptoms of depression. Combined with professional counseling, it is the most effective strategy for treating these symptoms. 

MM: Practically, what can be done in order to help pastors have good mental health and resilience?

KK: Denominations and ministry networks can do more to encourage and promote social engagement for their pastors. Helping pastors identify and invest in three close friends might be the single most helpful intervention to decrease depression rates. Denominations can also create podcasts, articles, and trainings on the importance of self-care and destigmatize counseling and medication. Finally, churches/church boards can ensure that their pastors are paid an adequate wage, take a dedicated day off, and have options for Sabbatical every five to seven years. 

Lindsay Nicolet

Lindsay Nicolet serves as the editorial director for the ERLC. She oversees the day-to-day management of all content and resources from the Nashville office. Lindsay completed her Master of Divinity at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is married to Justin and they have a daughter and a son. Read More by this Author

Miles Mullin

Miles S. Mullin II, Ph.D., serves as vice president and chief of staff for the ERLC, having previously served at the Missouri Baptist Convention, Hannibal-LaGrange University, and Southwestern Seminary, as well as a trustee for the ERLC. Miles was educated at the University of Virginia (B.A.), Southeastern Seminary (M.Div.) and … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24