February 5, 2020

Adventist Ministers Deal With Mental Illness Too, Mental Health Expert Says

Libna Stevens, Inter-American Division, and Adventist Review

Because mental illness among ministers in non-Adventist denominations has been well documented, it’s reasonable to assume that Adventist pastors also suffer from a variety of mental illnesses. This was the issue raised by Carlos Fayard, associate professor of psychiatry at Loma Linda University in California, United States, at the recent Inter-American Division (IAD) Health Summit held in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, January 22-26, 2020.

“Is there a profile of the minister in regards to mental health?” Fayard asked. “There is not.” Based on his consultations with Catholic dioceses, reading mental health surveys of ministers, and speaking with Adventist pastors, he said that the Seventh-day Adventist Church should have a program in place to address the problem of mental illness among members of its clergy.

“Pastors have so many difficulties, so many challenges, like any other person, but as far as mental health, there are certain elements that are unique in the work of pastoring congregations,” Fayard said.

There is not much research on the subject in the Adventist Church, Fayard said. He quoted a 2019 survey conducted in the Methodist Church with the support of Duke University, which provided a snapshot of the well-being of the 1,200 ministers it surveyed.

In regard to emotional well-being, the study found that in 2019, 8 percent of the clergy suffered from depression, and 29 percent felt “down” and without hope — higher percentages than the roughly 5 percent of the general population in the United States that suffers from depression. The Methodist study showed in 2008 that 11 percent of its clergy admitted to suffering from depression and showed that the number rose to 13 percent in 2010.

Many of the causes of mental illness and depression revealed in the study included external demands, which include stress related to their work, difficulty in predicting life, and social isolation. The internal demands included feelings of guilt for not accomplishing more in the ministry or being able to complete something, as well as doubting their call to the ministry.

Additional Findings

The clergy mental health study also concluded that 45 percent of the pastors surveyed had sought the advice of their family doctors regarding anxiety and stress issues; nearly one-fourth of all pastors (23 percent) acknowledged having struggled with mental illness, and half of those pastors said the illness had been diagnosed.

“If one does not prevent this state of burnout among ministers a burning fire can develop,” Fayard said. Some of the findings included, for instance, that pastors accede to their own and to their congregations’ demands to perform, neglecting time for self-care and their personal faith nurture. Also, pastors surveyed said they are working 50 hours, and a quarter of them work more than 55 hours. The survey also found that nearly 40 percent took less than three days off per month and that many ministers neglect exercise, personal devotions, and relaxation to find more time to serve to avoid feeling guilty. Finally, 94 percent said even though they read the Bible to prepare for sermons, it rarely nourishes them personally.

Emotional and Internal Challenges

Fayard reviewed some of the emotional challenges pastors face during their ministry work. External challenges include conflict of authority with their employers; polarization among the congregation; and exhaustion from being in the spotlight. On a more personal level, he mentioned a crisis in the marriage and children dealing with eating disorders, promiscuous behavior, and abortions. He also mentioned domestic violence and infidelity.

Among the internal challenges pastors face, Fayard mentioned these feelings: that they chose the wrong vocation; loneliness; bad temper; post-traumatic stress; anxiety; and severe mental illness.

There isn’t a specific profile for a minister because mental illness manifests itself in different ways, according to Fayard. “Sometimes it’s about external and internal demands, and sometimes they have bad experiences; or it could be genetic.”

A Healthy Marriage Is Key

Fayard believes that what is important among ministers in the Seventh-day Adventist Church is to enjoy “a healthy marriage that provides a better chance of having a positive mental outlook so that they can function with much more success in the pastoral ministry.” He quoted another survey called “Why Marriage Matters in America.” The study emphasized that in a healthy marriage context, social health will result, which will lead to better physical and mental health and longer life. In turn, children born into a healthy marriage are more likely to be healthier mentally, more successful in school and social situations, have a better relationship with their parents, and have a lower rate of teen pregnancy.

“Marital tension is linked to an increase in cardiac diseases, diabetes, hormonal stress, wounds could take longer to heal, the immune system weakens, pressures increase, mood swings, and more,” Fayard said as he went over studies on effects of marital discord.

Adventist leaders must ensure that pastors are motivated to achieve a healthy balance in their work and family lives, he said.

To heal those ministers dealing with mental illness, Fayard suggested having a system of prevention in place, looking out for them, and understanding how pastors view the cup either half empty, half full, or full. He also said that identifying the issues they are dealing with has proven to be useful.

Preventing Anxiety and Burnout

Fayard said there are things pastors can do to avoid extreme anxiety and burnout. He mentioned praying privately each day, affirming one’s vocation by remembering the One who called, and being clear in one’s purpose and calling.

Nurturing healthy relationships can also help, Fayard said.

“Perhaps seminary classmates are the best ones to understand someone who is in the minister’s shoes,” Fayard said as he advised pastors. “Know your profile, what gets you going, what drains you. Take care of your needs. Learn to say ‘no,’ and ‘yes’ to the things that you need. Have an accountability partner, and participate in meetings with pastors.” He also advised participating in professional development activities, keeping fit physically, and remembering that family is one’s first calling.

“Our church needs to be about restoring people,” Fayard said. “Pastors that need support need not be afraid to seek help.”

The original version of this story was posted on the Inter-American Division news site.