Blame it on the cell phone, said Anniston Regional Medical Center Chaplain Jim Wilson of the reported increase in the rate of depression among ministers.
“As ministers, we are constantly connected to those in need,” he said. “It’s great that we can be comfort for them, but that also means we are never off the job.”
A 2008 study concluded that clergymen continue to play a crucial role in communication between psychiatrists and those with mental health issues, thus adding to the strain on the clergymen themselves. According to the study, 71 percent of clergy surveyed felt inadequately prepared to handle depression cases.
Ministers at Birmingham Theological Seminary are trained from the beginning to deal with heavy stress and depression in their calling, though. The students take a minimum of three classes in counseling while in seminary, said Dr. Howard Eyrich, a professor and president emeritus of the school.
“We give them the framework to deal with situations that they have the capacity to help in, and through that framework, they learn to deal with their own tendencies toward depression,” he said.
The training may be extensive, but many ministers do not realize how much they will be affected in the field. A 2011 study done by Lisa Unger at Walden University reported a depression rate of 68.7 percent among Baptist ministers. A 2013 North Carolina study for the Journal of Primary Prevention found that depression rates among Methodist ministers in the state was 8.7 percent compared to a national average of 5.5 percent.
Wilson said his personality is well suited to the profession, which decreases his own personal bouts of depression.
“I was born old, and have always enjoyed the company of elderly people,” Wilson said. “Death does not bother me because I accept that it is part of life.”
Wilson was once a chaplain for Marine fighter pilots. During his time serving them, he learned a way to deal with the depression and tragedy that often surrounded him.
“Fighter pilots are taught to leave any troubles or thoughts on the ground — when they are in the plane, the only thing they need to think about is operating the plane to the best of their abilities and get home,” Wilson said. “My job isn’t quite as dangerous, but I take the same mentality; when I leave work, I have to separate myself from it and leave it there.”
Wilson mentioned that “leaving work at the office” is easier said than done. Often, ministers are the heads of small churches in which they have little or no staff to help them.
Shane Suggs, pastor at the Journey Church in Oxford, is one such minister. Suggs said finding ways of escape is tantamount to staying healthy as a minister.
“Being a pastor can be a lonely occupation; the first thing I did when I relocated was find a network of pastors that I could meet with and discuss my current issues,” Suggs said.
Besides his network, Suggs said he tries to put aside at least one day every week free of minister-related activities.
“It’s often hard for us ministers to do that, because we are used to being out in the community, but it is so important that we do,” Suggs said. “It’s only reasonable that depression rates are up among ministers, if you look at the societal ills we have been dealing with lately.”
Both Suggs and Wilson recommended taking vacations often for renewal and relaxation. Separation and relaxation are not ideas synonymous with the position of clergyman, but pastors need solace just like anyone else, Wilson said.
The need for separation is one factor of clergy depression that has always been around, though. A new contributing influence, possibly, is the current state of organized religion, said Thomas Joyner, co-pastor at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville.
“Religious mainline churches are in decline,” Joyner said. “More than that, church members want clergy to bring in young members, but the members want the old traditions and values of the church to stay the same.”
This is virtually impossible, Joyner said. Ministers of all organized religion are facing the stress of placating established church members while trying to create programs and services that appeal to younger potential members. The best thing ministers can do for themselves and their church members is to learn to be a better listener, Joyner said.
“We can’t solve every problem,” Joyner said. “Recognizing our limits is the first step to continual happiness and contentedness.”
Staff Writer Elizabeth Manning: 256-235-3550. On Twitter @emanning_Star.