Pastors facing additional stress, depression, anxiety during pandemic

David Burke

6/16/2020

A survey by the Duke University Clergy Health Initiative in 2019 has shown that 11% of pastors reported symptoms consistent with having moderate or severe depression. 

And that was before the coronavirus pandemic. 

Rev. Ashlee Alley Crawford

“Those numbers are higher normally than the average population,” said the Rev. Ashlee Alley Crawford, clergy recruitment and development coordinator for the Great Plains Conference. “My sense is that clergy are feeling a greater sense of responsibility, a heavier toll, a higher cost if they get it ‘wrong,’ so to speak, than the average person is in their normal day-to-day.  

“The pangs of anxiety and depression, which are normally higher anyway, are higher even yet,” she added. 

The Rev. Bill Selby, creator of the Center for Pastoral Effectiveness of the Rockies, agrees. 

“They’re absorbing the anxiety of the system a lot more,” he said. “There’s not the usual ways for them to do things that would distract them and get them off of it.” 

Some clergy have found it difficult to cope with the heightened anxiety, said the Rev. Shelly Petz, clergy health and wellness specialist with the conference. 

“When clergy are dealing with an entire congregation, an entire community, an entire global system, all of that anxiety has been raised to a very extreme level,” she said. “Oftentimes when clergy are dealing with their own congregations, they aren’t in the midst of their own as they try to do life in a new situation. Clergy are in situations of dealing with their own anxiety as well as their congregations. That just ramps it up to very difficult levels for some people.” 

Everyone has their own coping mechanisms, said the Rev. Dr. Anne Gatobu, Kansas City District superintendent as well as founder and CEO of a self-care, coaching and creativity ministry. She is also a trained life coach. 

Rev. Bill Selby

Some of those coping mechanisms are healthy “self-care” methods, such as exercise, baking, cooking and gardening, Gatobu said.  

“But when anxieties are overwhelming, sometimes we’ll turn to coping resources that are unhealthy, because it is familiar, and it offers the comfort at that point,” she said. “When our coping resources fail, we find ourselves moving from a critical situation to a crisis in anxiety and we begin to respond and react to every small thing we’re doing, including in our ministry,” she added. 

Those coping resources, she said, may include the potential for addictions. 

“Part of it may be if we look at our histories, maybe before we became clergy, we may have behaviors or habits that are less-than-desirable,” Gatobu said. “When people are faced with critical situations, their default is to go back to what we used to be. That becomes a source of comfort, what we are familiar with.” 

Crawford said cooking and baking are “the socially acceptable and moderately appropriate coping mechanisms.” 

“The real challenge in that is for people to stay aware of what they’re doing and recognizing when something goes from being a coping mechanism that’s healthy and OK, to where does it become escapism,” she said. 

Why is there additional stress on pastors? 

Like many others in the past few months, they have had to adjust their work and lifestyles.  

Technophobes have had to quickly learn the ins and outs of livestreaming their church services. 

As many church buildings closed, home and work now may become one and the same. 

Rev. Dr. Anne Gatobu

“There’s no boundary of ‘that was work and this is home,’” Gatobu said. “People tend to react instead of responding to situations. I have heard clergy that have felt very overwhelmed. They feel totally overwhelmed by everything, and it’s not just about church but about family responsibilities. It’s very, very important for people to be aware of the sense of how they feel they are off-kilter, so they can be more proactive and pay more attention to the coping resources.” 

Gatobu said the person newly working from home must be able to draw a line. 

“It’s been very difficult for one who is not used to that to draw the boundaries of when does my work start, and when does it stop,” she said. “At home, there’s also added responsibilities for those with young children. You’re now trying to take care of children who are usually at school or in day care.” 

Crawford said the stress comes with new territory. 

“The thing I hear the most is in a crisis or challenging circumstance that clergy know what their role is, and most of the time people are in those roles, they’re not in personal crisis,” she said. “Each of us have found ourselves trying to navigate for ourselves or our loved ones or all the ripples of that, and then lead in a crisis. It could send people into a tailspin.” 

Selby said that, prior to the pandemic, pastors would perform a duty such as going to the hospital to visit patients as a way to clear their minds. 

“Their attention goes to something other than where they are, and it smooths them out,” he said. “Now, they’re at home, they’re hunkered down. … Before, we could at least get out of our house or at least leave the office. Now, it’s difficult to do.” 

Rev. Shelly Petz

Gatobu said the stress may be greater among pastors in smaller churches. 

“It is more so the pastors who do not have an extensive staff, where the anxiety is spread to a wider spectrum,” she said. “When you’re the only person who has to make the calls and do everything and figure all these out for all these people, that becomes a source of anxiety.” 

Selby said the pandemic may bring on feelings that clergy may not have faced before. 

“They’re all feeling anxious while feeling the system’s anxious. Anxiety’s a scared feeling. When, in our survival processes, we feel scared and we get angry. It’s a way of surviving,” he said. “It depends whether or not they have an avenue for some honest, confidential conversation.” 

Selby has brought together alumni of his Center for Pastoral Effectiveness for online check-ins and group conversation where they can help each other over the hurdles. 

“No one’s taken Pandemic 101 in seminary,” he said. “But they could teach it now.” 

Gatobu said she has seen a support system develop for clergy through the network format that the Great Plains put into effect in the past few years. 

“It has become a lifesaver in my district,” she said. “The networks have become more like social support during this time. The exchange of ideas, pastors checking in with one another with what’s going on with their life and how we can help. 

“They not only enjoyed it, it was a space where they could come to pray,” Gatobu added. “It kind of shut off everything else. They felt like they were at the feet of Christ, and that became kind of a source of comfort.” 

Crawford and Petz have turned their biweekly conversations with clergy and interviews with experts into a podcast, “At the Threshold: Ministry in Liminal Time.” 

“I’m finding more clergy needing a place to talk, whether it’s with a spiritual director or a covenant group or another clergyperson so they have that place,” Petz said. “It’s a healthy way that some people have been able to name, ‘I need help.’” 

“My sense is that people are using their Zoom accounts for some personal connection as well, in a professional covenant,” Crawford said. “It means they’re able to have a check with their extended family, and that nurtures their sense of connection.” 

When a pastor needs more help than their colleagues can provide, the conference has an Employee Assistance Program available to three-fourths to full-time pastors and their families. 

Peggy Mihoover, conference benefits officer, said the EAP, conducted through New Directions Behavioral Health, provides eight free sessions for each episode or situation the client may face. 

“They also have a lot of tools on their website,” Mihoover said. “If they’re not sure they want counseling yet or to talk to anyone, they can at least look at all the tools that are out there. There’s a lot of information for them to work on themselves if they want, and not need to see anyone.” 

What can those in the congregation do to help their pastors? 

“What I’ve seen that’s been amazing is how laity have offered their gifts in incredible ways to be the body of Christ and how we need to see the gifts of the person in the pew to navigate the wilderness journey,” Petz said. “How can they bring their best selves before the Lord and before one another?” 

Gatobu said a spirit of volunteerism should rise in clergy during the time of separation. 

“Because we’re not in physical proximity with laypeople, we are not asking them to step to the plate as much as they would,” she said. “Yet we have loads of professionals sitting in our pews, people who could record a message or help in some other way. Part of it is the anxiety of not knowing what you’re doing.” 

Crawford said she hoped members of congregations still felt like they were a part of the church. 

“The pastor has a unique role, but the pastor’s role is not so important that other parts aren’t prized as well,” she said. “We’re all valued, and we all have a place.” 

“I think this season has illuminated a different set of gifts that had been prized or valued in the past. I hope that what laypeople do is recognize that whatever gift they have can be used for the kingdom of God,” Crawford added. “There’s a place for it.” 

Selby said congregations should be able to take on tasks themselves rather than funneling them all through their pastor. 

“At least when we met, there were other people in the conversation. When we met at church, whatever was going on, there could be other people in the conversation,” he said. “Now all the conversations go to the pastor.” 

The final advice to pastors is that they’re only human. 

“Clergy always need to be reminded that we are human like everyone else,” Gatobu said. “Sometimes we forget that, and we have this God-like mentality, like I’m ‘God Junior’ or something.” 

“There’s more freedom to fail than they have ever experienced before,” Crawford said. “They always feel like they have to get it right, or that they can fail but only so much. Now, there’s almost total permission to fail. That, to me, feels like a posture they can take with them, and I hope that they do.” 

Said Petz: “People are going to have the opportunity to confront things that weren’t working in the first place. They’re going to come through this with some new tools and some new clarity on the other side of this. That’s my hope and my prayer.” 

 

Contact David Burke, conference content specialist, at dburke@greatplainsumc.org.  


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