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.