Mental health challenges are more personal than ever before because of the collision of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial unrest, political unrest, and economic uncertainty. Now pastors are navigating not only the mental wellness of members of their congregations but also daily stressors that put their own mental wellbeing in jeopardy. Pastors in America today are in danger of emotional collapse. Pastors are at increased risk for suicide. More than ever before, we need to focus on how to help save pastors’ lives.
Here are 5 ways congregations can help save pastors’ lives:
1. Reduce the stress of preparing weekly sermons. Change expectations for worship: change the worship service so that the pastor is preaching less. Consider every other week instead of a sermon, providing questions for reflection following the scripture. Sample questions: What speaks to you in the scripture passage? What does this passage tell you about God? How can this scripture help us to better love one another? Tip: the weeks when the pastor is not preaching, the pastor can use this time for spiritual renewal, rest, and sabbath, which are all essential activities to ensure the resilience of the pastor’s Spirit. Being spiritually healthy is suicide prevention.
2. Reduce the stress of increasing church membership. Change expectations for church growth: change the focus from numeric growth to spiritual growth. Pastors are always thinking about numbers. Pastors want to reach more people with God’s love. Pastors want more people tuning into worship, coming to Bible study, being baptized and confirmed, and reading church newsletters. When membership numbers remain flat or decrease, pastors often feel inadequate and can feel like failures. Yes, it is God who brings the growth, yet, pastors carry tremendous weight and responsibility for building the kin-dom. By focusing on spiritual growth, pastors can focus on going more in-depth with whoever is participating, instead of worrying about who is not showing up. Tip: Numbers don’t lie. Feeling like a failure and feeling like a fake is real for pastors. During this time, removing all expectations for growth in numbers helps to take the toxic pressure off. Being realistic about expectations is suicide prevention.
3. Reduce the stress of performance evaluations. Change the expectations for performing all of the pastor’s job responsibilities: change the pastor’s current job description to match what needs to be done at a minimum. Any job description for a pastor created before April 2020 is not realistic and is not a reflection of current and emerging realities. Instead of meeting to evaluate the pastor’s performance for 2020, meet to revise the job description. Add more time off, decrease the weekly hours of work, and keep all compensation the same or increase it (if possible). Tip: The pastor’s job was already impossible. Now it is just absurd. By forgoing the evaluation and revising the job description for pastors, the church can demonstrate support, partnership, and adjusted expectations. Being gracious with unnecessary critique and toxic feedback is suicide prevention.
4. Reduce the stress of working 24/7. Change the expectations of the pastor’s availability: change the hours and days that the pastor is on call. Organize volunteers to be on call for pastoral emergencies to allow pastors two, 24-hour cycles a week for time off. Pastors faithfully make themselves available to their congregation, and the knowledge that at any moment of any day a member could reach out in need puts pastors on a higher level of alertness, not allowing for any downtime. During the pandemic, pastors need at least two, 24-hour cycles of downtime a week to decompress. Tip: Protecting the pastors’ days off will help create healthy rhythms of rest and play. Self-care is suicide prevention.
5. Reduce the stress of being Jesus. Change the expectation that the pastor is Jesus: change the way you might be tempted to expect the pastor to be perfect. Holding pastors up as perfect models of Jesus and placing them on pedestals only leads to disappointment. Pastors also need to let go of their own perfectionism. Pastors are not Jesus. We need God to help us. We need the Spirit to intercede for us. We need Jesus to love us. Pastors will make mistakes, pastors will be wrong, and pastors will fail hard and fast. This is all okay. Treat pastors as humans with flaws, foibles, and personal needs of their own. Tip: Embracing the humanity of pastors will help churches direct their most profound needs to the only One who can truly meet them: God. Honoring the full humanity of pastors is suicide prevention.
Rev. Dr. Sarah Lund (she/her/hers)
Rev. Dr. Sarah Lund (she/her/hers) serves on the national staff of the United Church of Christ as Minister for Disabilities and Mental Health Justice. She also serves as senior pastor of First Congregational UCC of Indianapolis, IN. Sarah is the author of the acclaimed and best selling books “Blessed Are The Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family and the Church“ (Chalice Press, 2014) and “Blessed Union: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness and Marriage (Chalice Press, 2021). She blogs at www.sarahgriffithlund.com.