Pastors are seen as strong spiritual leaders in the church. However, they are not immune to the stress or pressures of the job, which can lead to detrimental effects on their mental health.
In 2016, the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development conducted a study on pastors’ personal and church lives. They surveyed over 8,000 Evangelical or Reformed ministers and found that 43 per cent were overstressed and 35 per cent battled depression.
Hazel Mayhew, a Christian counsellor for Beracah Counselling, says pastors often work long hours, and even when they are not physically at the church, they are on-call throughout the day to provide personal guidance for members of the congregation.
Mayhew emphasizes that it is important for pastors to have a support network they can journey with as well as a balanced life so that they are not overworked.
“Particularly for people in any helping profession, I think we need to know what drives us. What's the healthy part of it, and what's unhealthy,” Mayhew says. “Are we driven to help other people because we see it as our calling or are we driven by a need of perfection, people-pleasing, needing to be everybody's saviour?”
Dan Kowalczyk, a pastor at Rocky Mountain Calvary Chapel in Calgary, adds that while all jobs have some degree of stress, pastoring is especially difficult when there are blurred lines between church, friends and work life.
Kowalczyk first began pastoring at a church he also helped start almost nine years ago. Though he believed it was where he was being called to, his new job also triggered a dark period of depression.
In a Q & A with the Calgary Journal, Kowalczyk shared his journey with mental health struggles and how he was able to heal.
What was your experience with mental health before you became a pastor?
I didn't understand it. Before I became a pastor I would see people get depressed and I would think, “Well cheer up. We are Christians, and we have something to be joyful about. Why are you so down all the time? You have so much to be thankful for.”
How did that experience change when you started working as a pastor?
For the first three years it was quite stressful because I was doing two jobs at once. I was full-time in insurance and then part-time as pastor, so it was a heavy load to carry, and at the time I had a young family.
2015 is when things started to get really bad for me with mental health, and the majority of it was due to a very unhealthy relationship with one of the other pastors I was working with … Our relationship just continued to deteriorate, and the stress just got heavier and heavier and heavier.
When did you hit your breaking point?
In November 2015 I was really burnt out. Joy was just not there. It was really dreary, and I really had lost hope that things were going to change or things could get better. I was going into work one day and for whatever reason I just couldn't stop crying. Everything just kind of broke at that point, and then I had to take three weeks off to kind of reset and get back to normal and just for my brain to heal.
I went to see my doctor at that time she said, “You have depression, and it's situational depression ... You can go on medication if you want, which will help with these feelings and these emotions, or you can put up boundaries and try to fix that relationship.” So, I tried to fix the relationship with this coworker, but eventually the relationship had to stop.
What was going through your mind when you were told you had depression?
It was a weird feeling. I didn't think that it was possible. The things that I was experiencing and feeling — like the dark thoughts of being alone and not feeling the presence of God — it felt like someone had turned a light switch off, and I could see the light switch on the wall but I couldn't actually get over there to turn it back on again. So, I just had to keep doing the right things, keep doing the good things to get to a better place for my mental health.
How did other people respond when you were struggling with mental health?
Certain people said that it was wrong for me to struggle like that. There's nothing really I could do about it. It's just like you were, and I couldn't change it if my life depended on it. I felt the pressure from other people that I shouldn't be feeling that, but at the same point, I didn't care because it's what God was bringing me through.
What was the healing process like for you?
I started doing a lot of physical activity. I read this book called The Depression Cure that talks about going back to a healthier lifestyle, getting exercise, meeting with people, getting some sunshine, taking omega-3 ... I did those things almost like my life depended on it and saw healing come through some of those things as well.
It's still ongoing. God takes you on a journey to help or to heal, and it's kind of incremental steps through the process. There's no cure-all. I think a Christian faith is a strong foundation to build off of when someone struggles with depression and mental health problems. However, you also need to add some other things to that to help yourself get better as well.
How did you handle going back to work?
Some days it was difficult to go into work and do your job because you just didn't feel like it, but I learned quickly that what you think about is how you're going to feel. If you start thinking about what God can do and what He actually thinks about you, it changes how you feel in that moment. Then, you continue moving forward in the job that God has called you to.
How have you opened up about your experience at church?
When it first happened for me, it was really confusing, you didn't really know what to do, where to turn, what to say, how to feel. You just didn't know what was right or wrong. Then over time, you begin to develop this openness to talk about it and share, because you see that it's going to help other people. You see that it opens doors for other people to talk about their own life.
What advice would you share with pastors who are struggling with mental health?
I would say keep pressing into God, even if you don't feel Him. Have people you can talk to, whether it's your spouse or close friend, or you can just be totally open and honest about it, and just share exactly what you're feeling with someone who's not going to judge you for feeling that way. I would say when the time comes, as you're led by God and as you feel like you're ready for it, talk to the congregation. Talk to people at church about it as well. Don't hide it.
Editor’s note: The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
- By Andrea Wong