In recent years, there has been a spike in mental health struggles among pastors and church leaders. Dr. Mark Dance, director of pastoral wellness for Guidestone Financial Resources, has long been involved behind the scenes in what is often an unseen health epidemic. In this interview, he discusses what he has witnessed through his work and sheds lights on why mental health matters for pastors.
Elizabeth Bristow: Have you witnessed a rise in pastors struggling with mental health issues? If so, what are some of the contributing factors?
Mark Dance: I was surprised when I started serving pastors with Guidestone to find out that mental health claims have gone up 40% in the last three years. That is tangible and empirical evidence. COVID exposed some issues everyone’s familiar with, but as pastors age out and retire, younger ministers and ministry spouses are much less reluctant to talk about mental health struggles and are more willing to receive help than their predecessors.
Mental health is a comprehensive part of who we are. We are called to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength, so I’m encouraged, honestly, that more are getting help in this area. I’m also encouraged by organizations like the ERLC that will say, “Hey, we’re gonna talk about mental health,” because it’s important.
EB: How can a pastor’s family recognize his mental health struggle? What are some specific warning signs they should pay attention to?
MD: I can share from my own experience of pastoring for almost 30 years. Halfway through that season of pastoring churches, I found myself different and I didn’t understand why. I was in the middle of a historic relocation of a church in Arkansas, and the church was growing and thriving. But, I was avoiding people. I had lost a lot of weight. I could not make decisions. I could not sleep well, and my insomnia led to paranoia. And I did something very radical for a pastor. I asked for help. After trying self-diagnosis, I went to my family practitioner and was diagnosed with clinical depression. He told me this was a chemical issue, not a character issue.
To answer your question, pastors have an “on button,” and we can hide things really well. I could turn that smile on, and as soon as people left, I could turn it back off and could hide from even the closest people in my life. Thankfully, my doctor and therapist led me to get the help I needed.
The church should be a safe place to talk about mental health challenges. Pastors are often reluctant to get help because they’re helpers. Caregivers don’t like to be cared for. But it’s important to note that Paul told Timothy twice to take care of himself. The first time was in Acts 20:28, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood.” This is a very intimate father-son conversation.
In 1 Timothy 4:16, Paul wrote to Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
Self-care is not selfish, it’s strategic. Paying attention to your life means that you’re going to care for yourself. And in doing so, you care for others. And if you don’t do so, neglecting yourself will eventually lead to neglecting others. It’s important to your family and to your ministry that you be as healthy as you can be, and that you let people who are proficient in their profession help you with yours.
EB: How can we do a better job of cultivating a church culture that’s more transparent about struggles? What keeps us from doing that?
MD: I think what keeps us from doing it is pride. Pride is really what keeps me from getting help with anything. If my marriage is in trouble, what keeps me from getting help? Pride. If I’m financially upside down or just don’t know how to do something, which most pastors don’t, pride keeps us from asking for help. We get help with our physical challenges, so why not with mental health challenges? For mental health challenges in particular, remind yourself that there are people who will help you. And the biggest opportunity is there are more and more channels for help, because the stigma is blowing away.
The greatest commandment is to love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength. We would like to make four points out of that, as if one doesn’t affect the other. Heart and soul are used interchangeably all throughout the Old and New Testaments. These spiritual decisions that we’re making are holistic. So pastors, don’t just focus on your spiritual health. Make room in your events for other parts and components of discipleship other than the traditional ones. This is a stewardship and a discipleship issue. As we model that to others, they will see that it’s not just okay to talk about mental health, but it’s advantageous to better myself, my family, and my ministry.
EB: What encourages you most right now when it comes to mental health and the church?
MD: I’m encouraged that I get to write and speak in places I never would’ve guessed. I’m encouraged by the fact that there’s an eagerness to talk about this. These are things we avoided for so long—physical health, financial health, and mental health. Nobody wants to talk about that stuff because they aren’t fun things. And yet we all have friends who are no longer in the ministry. It’s not usually because of doctrinal issues. It’s usually because of life issues such as marriage and parenting. These things matter. So the appetite to talk about this has moved from reluctance to acceptance to eagerness.