Why does mental health matter for pastors?

October 26, 2023

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.

Elizabeth Bristow

Elizabeth Bristow serves as the press secretary for the ERLC. Elizabeth oversees public relations and media operations for the organization. She received a B.A. in Public Relations and Marketing from Union University in 2010. She is a native of Tennessee and resides in Lebanon, Tennessee, with her husband and two … 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