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Pulpit burnout: Why some pastors have considered leaving ministry

Two pastors speak about mental illness amongst clergy and how that encouraged them to speak openly about it and the pressures that come with ministry.
Pulpit burnout: Why some pastors have considered leaving ministry
Posted at 5:42 PM, Feb 14, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-15 12:17:02-05

For Pastor Mike Walrond Jr., opening up about mental illness was a sermon years in the making. He tells Scripps News he first experienced suicidal thoughts in 2010.

"The voice simply said, 'You know, if you jump, you can survive.' That's all I heard. I heard it repeated. 'If you jump you can survive,'" he recalled.

He'd battled depression and anxiety for decades, stemming from a lifetime of chronic illnesses and hospitalizations. He says he eventually confided in a member of his New York City church who encouraged therapy.

"It was difficult because you know, I'm battling what I perceive at that point is probably depression. But I'm preaching every week. I'm teaching. I'm counseling people. I was still battling through my own struggles," he said.

He began to open up to the church and something happened.

"My being honest, freed other people up to be honest," he said.

The church hired a part-time therapist for members and built a reputation for its focus on mental well being. He says he eventually realized the need for a separate location dedicated to the church and surrounding community, eventually opening the Hope Center, a free mental health facility a few blocks away.

Since then he's traveled the country speaking on mental illness and the church, finding many pastors are afraid to speak out.

"I never felt this, but I know from friends you feel like somehow the legitimacy of your leadership will be questioned because you're talking about mental health issues. You're wondering if people actually trust you because if you believe in God and you're a spiritual leader, why is it just suffering like this?" he said.

Barna Group researcher Ashley Ekmay says half of pastors they surveyed report experiencing depression at some point.

Younger pastors with children are dealing with burnout and older pastors with feelings of isolation.

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"When you work in the medical field and you make a mistake, it could be life or death. For a pastor, their job isn't just life or death — it's eternal life, " said Ekmay.

Barna Group has been studying the well-being of pastors for a while through its Resilient Pastors Initiative. According to the Christian polling organization, 33% of pastors surveyed have considered leaving the profession, a number that peaked during the pandemic.

Many find themselves dealing with political divisions and unexpected administrative duties, on top of the day to day human experience.

A study from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research showed even higher numbers, with 53% of pastors saying they considered leaving the profession as of the Fall of 2023.

"Even on pastors who don't want to leave, it's the same thing. It's responses to COVID political polarization, feeling like they don't have time to rest. You know, administrative burdens, conflict resolution," Ekmay said.

"COVID was a huge thing. Not just the pandemic, but the responses to it. And so things like having a mask mandate at your church or social distancing at your church, those are things pastors really couldn't put a middle ground on," she continued.

Author and religion professor Justin Barringer agrees. 

"Folks often in my experience don't see pastors as people," he told Scripps News. 

Barringer says 20 years in the ministry came with high pressure and few boundaries.

"Some of those expectations are just unfair and they're really not healthy, like expecting pastors, for example, to be able to be on call 24/7," he recalled.

He says some of the pressure comes from the church, other times from within.

"One of the best pieces of advice I got in seminary, she said that pastors should get up every morning and say to themselves three times 'I am not the Messiah' because we often think we can fix a whole lot more than we can really fix," he said.

He opened up twice over the years about his battle with depression and anxiety; met with mixed reactions from two different churches.

"'Do you need a somebody to accompany the appointments? You need somebody just to come sit with you?' Like immediately that was their response. Another church that I worked for had the opposite response , 'Ok, well, you're sick, who cares?'" he recalled.

Barringer has since left traditional ministry but found new ways to fulfill his calling, working with the city's unhoused and opening his home to the community.

He is also using his experience to speak out about pastors and mental illness and lend a listening ear to those who can't.

"I got about a dozen messages just in that first week or so (of speaking out) from pastors or people who wanted to be pastors saying 'I'm dealing with all this and I can't talk about it because it could affect my entire career,'" said Barringer.

His biggest hope is that churches and staff see mental illness as they would other illnesses.

"If you're a church member or a church leader of any sort, encourage your leaders to know that at the very least that they're safe to come talk to you about their mental health stuff, even if they're not safe to say it to the whole congregation yet," he said.

It's also about challenging norms and delegating responsibilities. 

Pastor Mike says he sees change coming, at least in the fact that more churches are discussing mental health at all and asking tough questions. 

"What happens when the healer needs healing, right? What happens with the one who is viewed as a conduit or connection to God is in need?," he said..

"They cannot be all things to all people. they can't be a political advisor, a doctor, a medical professional, you know, an epidemiologist like this. They can't be that," warned Ekmay.

If you need to talk to someone, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988 or text "HOME" to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.


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