These are narratives we gathered through conversations we had and books we read over the course of this project. Unless the person's story has been previously published, the names of our respondents have been changed to protect their confidentiality.
[Karen] [Marie] [C. Welton Gaddy] [Nancy] [Deb] [David] [Hannah]
Karen (not her real name) is the senior pastor of a conservative United Church of Christ. She describes the particular struggle she faces as a woman who wants to ask for help.
I feel overwhelmed by my responsibilities at church, but, as a woman, I donít want to ask for help. Women in ministry already have to prove themselves to a congregationóeven up here in the "liberal northeast." There are people just waiting to say, "see, women arenít supposed to be in the pulpitóthey donít have the capabilities to handle a full pastorate." I have a committee that is supposed to help me, listen to me complain and try to give me the help and support that they think I need. I want to tell them that I canít do it all, but every time I try to say something like that, they remind me that itís in my contract that I signed, and that itís my responsibility because of that. A couple of the people on my committee are also Deacons, which is the governing body of the church. I can never be completely honest, because Iím sure they would take the information back to the Deacons, or, if not, at least hold it against me in their minds. Thereís just no place I can be completely honest and receive help. Yes, I need help, but Iím getting it done. I might be overwhelmed and stressed at all times, I might die of a heart attack at 39, but Iím getting it all done. At this point, I guess thatís the best I can do.
[Return to Top]
(not her real name) is a third-year
seminarian, reflecting on her experience of two years earlier. Although not yet
a clergy woman, she expresses fear about what depression might mean for her in
her eventual role.
twenty-two, and in my second week of seminary when I heard that four hijacked
planes had crashed on American soil, killing nearly 5,000 people just a few
hours. All day, as my colleagues and I went about our classes, praying and
crying and hearing the news over the radio, I was numb. But when I got home that
night and saw for the first time the horrifying television footage, over and
over again, I was transfixed. I couldn't turn my head or shut off the
television. I couldn't erase from my mind the bodies falling from eighty
stories, the horrified screams of those watching.
and I donít even remember how. All I know is that one day I realized that
those around me had somehow moved on. They had mourned, and then carried on with
their lives. I had not. I could not. I don't think I even wanted to
because that would be to say in some way that I was not saddened by mass death,
by the images of Palestinian children--taught to hate us--cheering in the
streets, by the nightly reports of hate crimes against Muslim and other
non-white Americans. I was affected by these things, and I justified my grief by
saying that it was the only human response. But it was an extreme response.
When I realized
that I was depressed, that this situation had somehow broken me, I was thrown
into a despair and doubt about myself, my worth, and my calling to be God's
minister. How could I ever hope to be present for others in crisis when I
couldnít help myself? How would I minister to those in pain and despair when
my own despair so easily consumed me? I had thoughts at that time I have never
had before or since, thoughts about inflicting violence on my self.
was no help. He was my third try, and he was far more excited to make "discoveries"
about me than to make progress with me. I'd taken Intro to Counseling, I was in
touch with my emotions, yet he seemed to think he was leading me toward some
sort of breakthrough. I didnít want a breakthrough; I just wanted to feel
normal again. I eventually did, but not through any help he was able to provide.
[Return to Top]
C. Welton Gaddy, an author and Baptist Pastor, writes of his experience with depression in his book, A Soul under Siege: Surviving Clergy Depression. Overburdened and stressed, Gaddy admitted himself to the psychiatric ward of a nearby hospital. He reflects upon his experiences, his struggles with his therapist, and his initial unwillingness to discuss his depression.
Looking back on what caused the stress, Gaddy faults an unintentional (and perhaps unconscious) "messianic mindset":
I must help everybody in need. I am the only one who can minister effectively to most of these people; they want to see me, not someone else. I do not really have to have time for my family and myself. Serving is my purpose in living. If I donít take on more assignments, the important work of the church will not get done. I will respond positively to everyone who requests time with me. I must accept this one more speaking engagement; no one else can address this issue quite so effectively as I can. (Gaddy, 1991, 130)
Diagnosed with depression, Gaddy immediately wished he could hide it.
A diagnosis of depression hit me hard. Now I shudder as I remember the initial thoughts which at the time seemed so important: What will people say? What about my image of strength? Will parishioners lose confidence in me? I must hide this depression until I get over it, No one besides my wife needs to know. (Gaddy, 1991, 45)
He quickly became frustrated with the doctor who counseled him.
For one thing, I was adept enough at masking emotions to look and sound fine even when I was in terrible shape. I knew the right words to speak and actions to discuss in order to demonstrate improvement and to document health. I wanted the doctor to call my bluff if necessary to draw from me the sickening depression as a dentist would extract a throbbing tooth with irreversible decay. Though weary with the costly charade, I was too stubbornly private and too well trained in cover-ups to come clean about my condition.
A second reason for my resentment toward the doctor related to his passivity and lack of specificity in counsel. Memory took me back to a much earlier visit to a school-sponsored medical clinic. After the doctor for the day asked me what was wrong and I described my sore throat, the physician declared authoritatively, "You have a sore throat." I paid to come here for that! I thought. (Gaddy, 1991, 62)
Even after his hospitalization and during his recovery, Gaddy found it difficult to admit to his struggle in his church community, because of the illusion of strength he initially felt he had to display.
Much of my life has been lived among persons who were almost offended by confessions of need, and so studiously silent regarding any kind of request for assistance. Images of strength and supposed evidences of spirituality were at stake. Couples would not participate in a marriage enrichment conference because their very involvement might suggest a weakness or a need in their relationship. Admissions of struggle were considered ugly tarnishes on faithÖ
I bought it, this incredible idiocy. Or at least the idea possessed me. What is incumbent upon any Christian must be even more profoundly important for a Christian minister, I surmised. Strength. Sufficiency. No chink in the armor, no reason to reach for help. Amazing. (Gaddy, 1991, 132-133).
[Return to Top]
Nancy (not her real name) is an interim pastor at a United Church of Christ, and is grateful that she does not "have to worry about dealing with a man."
Though I definitely deal with depression, I think it might be a little easier for me to manage because I donít have to worry about dealing with a man. [My partner] is very supportive. She understands that she has to take on some of the responsibilities for the house, in fact, she does most of them. We try to share, but her job affords her more time for housework and household duties. Iíve never dealt with a husband, but I canít imagine heíd be that supportive. But I still get busy and drop my share of the work, and [my partner] gets angry at me sometimes for that. I canít really blame her. She didnít sign on to my job, I did, and I should be able to manage it. I feel guilty about that, and then I get more depressed, but mostly she is a blessing, and she keeps me going and thankful, even when Iím stressed and feeling bad.
[Return to Top]
Deb (not her real name) is seminary student and an assistant pastor of a Unitarian church. She describes her overall "constant sadness" and stress, compounded by her inability to find anything to cut out of her schedule.
I live my life with a constant sadness looming large in the face of all I have to do. I always get my work done, be it studying, writing papers, church work, etc. But my personal life definitely suffers. My husband and I are just making ends meet [financially], so we canít very well hire anyone to help with the everyday things we have to tend to. And that makes both of us frustrated. Then I have to deal with the sadness of us being in a fight. Our relationshipóthe talks, the support, the emotional careóall these things suffer because Iím so stressed. Just this past year we started going to marriage counseling. Our counselor has been very supportive, but thinks I should try to cut down my hours at church. I just canít. Our church is in a budget crisis, and has had to let go of our church secretary. Volunteers are trying to fill that role, but Iím stuck doing much of the secretarial work of the congregation because of it. I think if I were a man, thereíd be a temp working in the officeóno one would ever expect a man, associate pastor or not, to take on a secretarial role. But anyway, I canít cut down my hours because they need me even more than Iím there now. I fear that if I donít do everything the church will fire me as well, and our family just canít afford that. I love the ministry and donít want to give it up, even if I have to work overly hard to keep this up. All these things swirl in my head and all I want to do is go on vacation or shut my office door and sleep, but I know it wonít be gone when I wake up, so whatís the point. Taking time for me just puts more pressure on me later. I can either type that paper now, or I can be up against a scary deadline. I just deal with it and go on. Hopefully it will get better once I get out of seminary.
[Return to Top]
Chris (not his real name) was fresh out of seminary and appointed part time to campus ministry and part time to an established congregation. At the end of his first year in ministry, he attended a workshop on Development of New Church Starts, and made a successful pitch to start a creative ministry among a community traditionally left out of "church growth" programs. Unfortunately, the new program did not include adequate support or clear supervision, forcing Chris into what he called an "administrative juggling act."
I was rapidly
reaching a point where I was frustrated and depressed about my inability to pull
off this vision for a new church start and the number of people I had to be
accountable to who did not give much support beyond saying they got my report
and wanted to know what I'd been doing. I
became increasingly bogged down in keeping up with administrative tasks and
invested in a project I felt no longer fit my gifts for ministryÖ I was on the
fast track to depression and not really seeing the depth of the trouble I was
things fell apart over the course of three years.
I'd been hinting that I wanted out of the new church start project
because it wasn't working, but since a new staff person had just taken the
directorship of the conference office that oversaw new church starts, he didn't
want to let me out right away. This was
not the deal that the previous staff person had always extended in saying,
"If you need out of this, we'll get you out without trouble." When it
finally became obvious that it wasn't going to work because I had become so
unmotivated that I hadn't really even met with any prospective new members for
this ministry, the project was declared closed. I
wrote up a report explaining what we'd learned about how to do these sorts of
programs and included my frustrations about support, accountability structures,
trying to do it on a part time basis, etc. This
was sent to my District Superintendent as well who was supposed to take the
issues of my appointment to the cabinet and find me another half time position.
In the meantime, I was to focus on the campus ministry.
Now, at the
campus ministry the year we closed the new church start project, there were two
murders on campus. This led to a great
deal of pastoral work there and an increase of my visibility as a minister on
campus. I was eventually offered an
opportunity to teach one course through the Religion and Philosophy department
on the life of Christ. I discussed this
with my advisory board and my district superintendent who approved of this
opportunity and agreed to teach it framing it as part of my ministry to the
campus. In a week, I had been called into
the conference center for a meeting with the three conference staff directors
and told in no uncertain terms that I had violated their trust by attempting to
take this teaching job without their approval. It
made no difference to them that I had cleared it with my district superintendent
as in their view, as the directors of the budget areas that supported my salary;
I should have approved it with them first. They
did not see it as part of my ministry to the campus but as "outside
employment" which circumvented the authority of the cabinet in making my
It was as this
point, I'd had enough and I had several friends and other ministers telling me I
was clearly depressed and needed to get some help.
I resisted it if only out of a stubborn self image that "things
weren't really that bad." However,
the more of my personal time I spent sitting there doing nothing much, the more
I was feeling like I was "wasted talent" or "a brilliant failure."
This is what motivated me to use my counseling benefit and get into some
sought out someone unconnected with church or campus life in order to remove
myself from the expectations on me by other and myself.
I was fortunate to find someone on the first try who I was able to relate
with. I really don't remember much of what
he said to me in our time of therapy but I can remember what I told myself
through the process. Since then, in
reflecting on my experience as I look back and have taken some courses that deal
with psychoanalytic theory, I can see how he was leading me through a process to
where I could voice my gifts and say, "so what that the new ministry start
didn't take off?" Before therapy, had
reached a point where someone could ask me, "well what do you want to do in
ministry?" and I couldn't come up with an answer.
I also had come to a point where I could do a full day of really good
work, helping advocate for people, leading religious education classes, worship,
preaching, and all the things that ministers do and deriving no joy from it at
all. I could sit down at the end of the
day and say, "I did a whole lot of good for a good number of people today"
and it still felt like it was just a job. I
had lost my confidence in the skills I knew I had.
Therapy helped me identify those moments in ministry that did feel alive
and rewarding. Those turned out to be
times when I was teaching or in international mission trips.
I had some of the same friends who had warned me of my depression go with
me on those mission trips and come back to tell others, "wow, he's an
entirely different person in ministry when he's on those trips."
I saw the same pattern in my teaching experiences.
the idea began forming in my head that my "way out" was to go back to
school and refocus my ministry on teaching and international missions.
This was a gradual road as I found myself struggling with expectations
and subtle expressions of doubt from others. One
of the conference staff directors had more or less expressed that she had seen a
lot of ministers abandon people in need right here in our conference to go off
on their own. I took that very personally
and had a very strong reaction to that comment. Although
I wisely held my tongue at that point, when talking with my therapist about it,
I was able to see that she might have not meant it as personally as I took it.
Also I found my own voice in saying that I was called to the work I was
going to pursue and staying where I was would be ultimately destructive to those
who needed help here. I was able to see
that she doesn't really know me and doesn't really take the time to know the
work that I did and will do as a minister in whatever form I will.
So her lack of support became less of a personal injury and just
something that was a given that I could work around.
I also found
support from other ministers and ultimately a new District Superintendent for
second local congregation I was minister of for one and a half years before
returning to school. With their support, I
learned how to articulate where I felt God calling me and the gifts God had
given me as well as being forthright about the gifts that God had not given me.
In a church environment where there is often an expectation that the
pastor will be "all things for all people" I found it very liberating
to be able to say that I just wasn't good at some things and that I just wasn't
the one being called to certain tasks. Although
that caused anxiety for some church members and staff people, regarding who
would take my place and that they were "losing a gifted minister."
But found I had to be true to what I had learned through all of my
experiences and trust that God would call someone forward to replace me and it
was not my task to be concerned about who would replace me.
Ultimately, someone was called by God to take my place in the campus and
another person in the local congregation, both ministries are doing just fine
without me as I tried to assure them they would. I
had to avoid getting caught in the trap of expectations in my own mind as well
having their anxieties about transitions intrude upon my articulation of my
I've found telling this story to be therapeutic. There's something about not keeping Ďdark nights of the soulí entirely to oneself that is helpful.
[Return to Top]
Hannah (not her real name) is an ordained Senior Pastor in the United Church of Christ, in her third year in the pastorate of a mid- to large-sized New England Church. She is married to a pastor who serves a different congregation, and has two children.
I feel it is difficult to [fulfill all my responsibilities], even if I had no other role but pastor, the expectations are so unreasonable. I think itís difficult for anyone to fulfill. The expectations for any pastor are so unreasonable that you can only take it one call at a time, one visit at a time. Iím doing this as a middle aged woman with two children and a demanding husband, and a desire to do my vocation in a way to serve God and celebrate the gifts God gave me. But who cares [if I donít fulfill every expectation], because I operate on the assumption of Grace, and if. . . wait, of course I care, I have many, many, many moments that theyíll find me out, all my secrets will be found outóthat Iím not fulfilling all my rolesóand Iíll fail, but the more experience I have, the less those moments come and the shorter they last...
I think as a woman in my case, I canít separate being a woman from being a mother because theyíre wrapped up together... For all the wellness that I own, I have some dis-ease that manifests itself in using food as a tool for nurture, and I certainly feel the pressure of being overweight. Iím concerned of what that means for me as a professional, as a mother, a woman. Certainly. The mother part of it: I recognize that Iím an out of the ordinary kind of mother, in general. I have hired a sort of ďwifeĒ to take care of my children, because of my husbandís business and pastorate, and because heís not Mr. mom, I donít expect his help. But he does have big expectations of what the house should look like, how I should have meals on the table and such, so, weíve hired a nanny that takes care of the house and children, and even nurtures me a bit. Itís made a huge difference...
a pastor all of these things . . . I remember thinking this year at [a church
event], I was a little upset when the former pastor was in the kitchen at the
supper. The upset was that because I
am a senior pastor with small kids and a husband in tow, I canít do some of
the things that my predecessor has made the church expect.
I bring my family to an event, I have to worry about my children killing
each other, making sure the babyís safe. I
presume that the congregationís going to do those things like be in the
kitchen. Being a woman as a senior
pastor, Iím not going to move that furniture, not going to pick up a shovel,
and those expectations on the part of the church are challenging. The expectations about how many hours you give, those things are
a very different thing to work a normal, 40 hour a week job because you can get
up and walk out, and a pastor never gets to get up and walk out. I think in our denomination thereís this presumption that most pastors
work about 50 hours a week. The
conference doesnít necessarily think thatís a good thing. Clergy compensation guidelines say specify not only the compensation but
also the vacation and hours worked. As
a pastor, youíre expected to show up to every social event that happens; I get
invited to every single event. I
know that they donít actually expect you to be there, but just imagine how
many invitations that is, and I canít keep from feeling bad that I donít get
to them all...
I have a supportive Pastor Parish Relations Committee]
thereís still stuff that I couldnít take there.
Maybe thatís okay. Part of
the success is knowing where that line is. As
leaders, we should know where to get the help we need.
I have a therapist that I call my supervisor.
Iím not being counseled as an emotional problem, but as an objective
support for the heavy stuff...
I think at this point, if I were in need of mental health help, would tell the PPRC that I was in trouble, and I would ask them for support. When I can process at an intellectual level, I go to the PPRC. I wouldnít go into the details with them. I do share fears, anxieties, stressors, and even personal things that complicate. Thereís a line. I donít talk about the details of my marriage. The places where my vocation cross over into my personal life is the line that I draw. For example, three-fourths of my first year at this church I started having anxiety attacks, and I knew I needed medical support. I started taking anti-depression [medication]. I discussed that situation with them... If I was in a place were I thought I was really in trouble, and needed to take another step in mental health support, I think Iíd go to them and be confident that between the Holy Spirit, my church support systems, and my personal support systems, we would together discern what was most important for me and for the church...
and congregations should be building into expectations and compensations and
schedules for pastors the time, resources, and expectation that self care
happen; and not just by putting a line in the contract, but demanding PPRC
making sure the self-care is happening as much as the visitation or good
[Return to Top]