Mal Fletcher comments on the recent suicide of a young church minister from California.
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Many smaller charities are directly linked to local churches. Moreover, some of the biggest and most famous British charities have historically owed their existence to churches, though they may now play down the connection.
Mental health problems among religious leaders do not represent a problem for their various denominational groups alone. In many cases, they represent a problem for society.
For many church leaders, the problem of depression or anxiety will be exacerbated by the psychological and emotional burden inadvertently placed upon them by parishioners and peers. A part of this is the expectation that they should somehow have their lives completely "together".
This is especially true in those wings of the modern church where leadership has taken on a more corporate or even "tribal" and less collegiate form. By "tribal", I do not mean primitive in any sense. I certainly do not mean dictatorial, though that danger always exists.
I mean that in some churches leaders are expected to represent everything other people aspire to be. They are expected to be at least a little more patient, tolerant, accepting of criticism, culturally aware and compassionate than the average citizen.
In some quarters, church leadership has also become more corporate, in the sense that senior leaders are expected - by governments as much as anyone else - to be as business savvy as CEOs of large companies.
Some are encouraged by the weight of peer pressure to engage with an audience beyond their congregations via electronic media. (This is especially a problem in parts of the United States.) Of course, not everyone is gifted for this particular brand of communication. More than a few leaders become frustrated with their inability to break into media in any significant way.
Meanwhile, church leaders are sometimes expected to be as naturally charismatic as prominent figures in politics or entertainment. Celebrity has become so much part of the fabric of everyday life, that it can't help but influence the attitudes of some parishioners to the gifted men and women who stand before them each Sunday.
This weight of expectation is both unrealistic and dangerous. For one thing, it can be harmful to self-esteem. It can set church leaders up for an eventual fall, be that moral or financial, by encouraging in them a lack of accountability; a sense that their choices will be above reproach by virtue of their position.
In some religious leaders, unrealistic expectations lead to strained familial ties. A pastor cannot possibly be a perfect marriage partner or parent. Yet many, consciously or inadvertently, place that expectation upon themselves. Some find that their partners or children expect from them what they cannot deliver.
No individual who seeks to expound biblical truth should be expected to, completely and at all times, live up to the standards it presents. They should be expected to try - but that should be the expectation of every believer. If teachers and preachers held off speaking until they'd personally mastered every part of their message, nothing would ever be preached.
In recent times, a trend has developed in which leaders of churches large and small take sabbaticals after a lengthy period in ministry. In previous generations, this was considered unusual.
Neither churches nor their ministers had levels of income to support this. And there was little or no tolerance of this notion within the local or wider church, especially where most congregations were comprised predominantly of working-class people.
Arguably, too, there was little need for the sabbatical, except perhaps in relatively rare cases where ministers suffered from diagnosed clinical depression or other anxiety disorders. The trend for sabbaticals is a modern one; it demonstrates the pressures placed upon many church leaders.
It is time for churches and other religious groups to take seriously the potential for mental health issues among their leaders.
It is time for all of us, religious or not, to offer at least moral and, if we can, practical support to those leaders whose efforts, directly and indirectly, promote the common good.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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