You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you,” wrote the prophet Isaiah—and some jumped to the conclusion that those who do not experience peace do so because they lack a sound mind or faith.

Peace or, in a broader sense, emotional welfare, relies on a support system in which reason and faith are complementary. But these two don’t tell the whole story. And this is nowhere easier to observe than in the emotional pain that God’s servants experience.

The vocation of pastor doesn’t shield a person from emotional disorders. In fact, (American) research shows that God’s servants suffer from depression just like any other member of the general population. Pastors are even more exposed to certain stressors the general population isn’t forced to cope with.

A new study was recently released by AdventHealth University in partnership with the Adventist hospital Altamonte Springs. This research gives clerical employees belonging to any Christian denomination the opportunity to participate in a regional study focusing on the emotional state of clergy in the southeastern state of Florida.

Inside and outside places of worship, religious leaders play a significant part in the lives of many people. They are a shoulder to cry on and a source of inspiration,” said Orlando Jay Perez, vice president of the health network AdventHealth. “This is why it’s important that also their mental, spiritual and emotional needs are met, and our desire regarding this study is for it to increase understanding of these needs.”

Conditions of mental and emotional despair are on the rise and touch so many people,” said Martin Shaw, the study’s lead researcher. “While clergy is a somewhat understudied group, it is critical that we gain greater insight about their mental and emotional well-being and ways to mitigate issues where present. Our ultimate goal is to better understand how best to care for and support our clergy and the communities they serve.”

The researcher also said that he and his team anticipate results that will reveal pastors/priests as a category in need of interventions related to health and general well-being.

Pastors and mental pain

A LifeWay Research study pointed out the fact that the mental health of pastors across the United States has not improved at all, statistically, over a period of 10 years, until 2014 when the research was published. According to this study, more than 1 in 5 pastors back then were dealing with a mental disorder of some sort.

Another study, conducted by reverend Andrew Irvine at Knox College in Toronto, Canada, surveyed the opinions of several Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist and Pentecostal clergymen. More than 1,250 surveys were sent out to cover 30% of Canadian clergymen belonging to the above-mentioned denominations. The researchers received around 338 answers and the results were far from positive.

Most respondents said they feel lonely, unfulfilled and exhausted by the long working hours. Some even referred to a genuine “identity crisis,” saying they feel like directors rather than pastors.

Most survey respondents said they had two days off in their employment contract but that they mostly spent those days working. Lack of free time was associated in the study with some pastors’ belief that “they are indispensable and that the church would collapse in their absence.”

Another study published a few years ago, conducted on 1,726 Methodist pastors from the U.S. state of North Carolina, filled in the image described above: the anxiety rate of pastors reaches 13,5%, out of which 7% of the pastors suffer from depression as well as anxiety — a possible cause of these results being the fact that “pastors have created a lifestyle which is so profoundly connected to their ministry that their emotional state depends on the health of their ministry.”

It is disquieting that such a large percentage of the clergy suffers from depression while they attempt to inspire their churches and believers, leading communities and social change programs or even trying to provide counselling for the members within their parishes,” said research coordinator, Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell. “We’d rather entrust these kinds of responsibilities to a mentally sane person, though it is very possible that the very challenge these responsibilities entail may be the cause of these high depression rates,” concluded the researcher.

Nobody is ashamed of catching a cold

Shouldn’t religion protect both pastors and believers from depression?

One of the most reputed researchers studying the relationship between religion and mental health, Kenneth Pargament, argues that religion can enable people to discover themselves as being stronger after going through a stressful or even traumatic event. But the same scientist, who is a professor emeritus of psychology at Bowling Green University in the state of Ohio, warns that not any kind of religious approach to stress is beneficial.

Pargament identified three types of strategies in which believers use religion to cope with difficult situations. The first strategy delegates the whole responsibility of solving the problem to God (deferring); the second strategy places all responsibility on the individual, who may choose to use the power God gave him to solve the problem on his own (self-directing); and the third strategy is the collaborative one, where the individual and God partner in solving the problem.

According to studies, the greatest psychological benefits are brought about by the adoption of the third strategy. This has been correlated with a higher level of self-esteem and a lower level of depression, probably also because it involves a positive interaction with religion, emphasizing the beneficial (rather than punitive) power of God, who forgives and helps.

The number of studies showing that religion can be an ally in coping with life’s problems is continually growing. However, due to the lack of a nuanced understanding of this benefit, many come to think religion is or should be enough for treating any kind of health issue.

Identifying physiological causes of depression helps tone down this disorder. Even if psychiatry is still far from unequivocally establishing measurements for mental disorders, still, the progress made so far eloquently pleads for an unashamed acknowledgment of depression as an illness that does not depend on one’s will—and not even on chemical imbalances, as it has been believed for decades now. “The idea of a chemical imbalance belongs to thought patterns from the last century,” said neurologist Joseph Coyle, from Harvard Medical School. “Things are much more complex than this.”

It is very probable that depression is influenced by other type of abnormalities than those of the neurotransmitters,” noted Hal Arkowitz and Scott Lilienfeld for Scientifc American. “Among the problems associated with the illness are irregularities of the brain structure and functioning, disorders of the neural circuit and numerous psychological factors, such as daily stressors.” 

Of course, all these influences ultimately operate at a physiological level. However, in order to understand them we need to look at the problem from different angles,” said the authors.

This is why, as fewer and fewer people today are ready to ignore medical advice and rely exclusively on faith for healing, as far as mental pain goes, believers should be more willing to consider, without any shame or fear, that there is no competition between scientific treatment (psychotherapy ± medication ± changing one’s lifestyle) and religious help; religion must not only come out victorious, but must be part of a very appropriate collaboration.

Strong, but not always enough

There are therefore structural, functional, chemical, social, and lifestyle factors, and, in addition to those, spiritual factors which may play a role in the prevention as well as in the development of a mental disorder. Blaming the emergence of depression on spiritual factors may, in many cases, lead to ignoring other factors which science has already proved can have a decisive influence.

This has a double negative effect. On one hand, it involves cruelly blaming the victim when he/she does not seek counselling to see whether he/she adopted destructive religious thought patterns and when this victim is not helped to deconstruct them. On the other hand, an exclusive focus on religion denies the suffering one access to viable solutions which might come from other sources, if the source of depression proves to be other than spiritual mistakes.

If the source of depression a believer experiences is, for instance, a lack of social support, it would be cynical for someone to suggest that the person should rather pray more intensely and faithfully. It’s like going to a village affected by poverty and starvation and telling people to pray for God to miraculously fill their stomachs. While waiting, with as much faith as possible, that He manifests His power, let’s not forget a common-sensical spiritual aspect: not even Jesus fed Himself through a miracle when He was hungry.

Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Signs of the Times Romania.