The job of a ministry is heavy and complex.
Caring for the grieving, offering marital advice, praying for the worried and anxious is challenging. Toss a global pandemic in the mix and things get even more stressful and overwhelming.
The pandemic has caused widespread anxiety, depression, isolation, grief and fear in congregations.
According to an article in The Washington Post, the number of Americans reporting depression and anxiety has more than tripled since the start of the pandemic.
Ministers are searching for ways to help, but constant caregiving takes a toll.
I spoke with several Baptist ministers in North Carolina who are looking for ways to care for their flock without neglecting their own emotional and mental health.
Each shared that a majority of their congregations are struggling with mental health in this pandemic season.
Lawrence Powers, senior pastor of Benson Baptist Church in Benson, said: “We’re in the midst of a continuing pandemic and questions around the future of the church are driving the uncertainty that has led to mental health concerns for many… fear around the virus, apprehension on who/what to trust, and varied responses to mandates and guidelines have all been a part of driving heightened mental health concerns.”
How much of this struggle congregants are willing to share varies. Everyone is still not comfortable talking openly about their pain or easily able to name what is going on with them.
Kristen Muse, senior associate pastor at Hayes Barton Baptist Church in Raleigh, shared, “I think people are a lot more fearful and anxious, but aren’t really sure how to express these emotions. [For some, it] almost seems as if it is okay to say it’s been hard, but still not okay to really talk openly about it.”
While the pandemic has directly caused mental health struggles for many, it may also be pulling pre-existing issues to the surface.
Amy McClure, associate pastor for children, senior adults and pastoral care at First on Fifth in Winston-Salem, said the pandemic seems to have raised awareness of mental health in her congregation.
“All of a sudden, many found themselves alone and were faced with thinking about their thoughts and feelings,” she observed. “Many realized they were struggling with depression and for so long the busyness of life kept them from coming face-to-face with it.”
The absence of that normalcy in the pandemic shined a light on anxiety and grief that may always have been lingering.
The Wall Street Journal suggests that one in four people with mental health concerns turn to a clergy person before they seek clinical professional help.
While these Baptist ministers all seek to normalize and encourage therapy, they do not take lightly their role in supporting congregants through mental health struggles.
Muse highlighted the importance of churches talking openly about mental health and not treating it like something to be ashamed of.
“I hope that we continue to talk about these issues, [instead of people] hiding themselves or believing that, as Christians, we should have it all together,” she said.
Powers noted that “the church must remind people that struggles related to mental health concerns are not a sign of a lack of faith or trust in Christ.”
“I believe that the church must remind all of their value in the eyes of Christ and that Christ uses medicine, therapy, and medical help to aid us in moving forward,” he said.
The theological idea that Christ cares for the whole person – physical, emotional, spiritual and mental – leads these ministers to care deeply about mental health.
And they want the actions of their church, and themselves, to match this theology by being more open about their own mental health, encouraging congregants to seek professional help, and talking about mental health in group settings or one-on-one counseling sessions.
First on Fifth has started a mental health counseling endowment fund to connect congregants with mental health professionals. The fund has kickstarted more conversations surrounding mental health, and they hope to keep that momentum going in the future.
Meditation, pastoral care, church community and prayer can go a long way in aiding the spiritual and mental health of individuals. Ministers want to offer people this kind of aid, encouraging them to be their full selves, struggles and all.
“As a minister, I believe that the church is the place where people bring their full selves to the table,” McClure said. “It’s a safe, open and affirming place where people should feel permitted to share all of who they are.”
Offering emotional care for others takes a toll on clergy. When church members join in on these efforts, mental health becomes a priority for that congregation and the heavy emotional weight doesn’t fall solely on the ministers.
The Barna Group found that 20% of clergy said their mental health is below average or poor in August 2020, an 18-point increase since 2016.
All three ministers spoke openly about the difficulty of balancing self-care with care for parishioners.
“I cannot shepherd others if I don’t listen to the call to care for myself,” Powers said, while Muse shared that this year reminded her of the value of having a safe space to talk about what she is feeling.
She reflected, “I have to remind myself multiple times about the need to breathe, step away and refill my own tank more than ever before.”
A North Carolina native with degrees from the University of North Carolina (BA in English and Psychology) and Campbell University Divinity School (MDiv), Gordon currently works with youth, college students and young adults at a church in Raleigh, North Carolina. She was an Ernest C. Hynds Intern at Good Faith Media in the fall of 2020.