In this week’s episode of ChurchPulse Weekly, Carey Nieuwhof and Alyce Youngblood (Barna’s Vice President, Editorial) are joined by Juli Wilson and Kayla Stoecklein. Together, Wilson and Stoecklein share about the suicides of their husbands–both of whom had served as church pastors–and how they desire to see the Church’s conversations surrounding mental health change in years to come.
On False Stereotypes of Mental Health
Youngblood opens the conversation by sharing Barna data that looks at the wellbeing of pastors in this past year. As per a study conducted in late 2020, roughly three in five pastors (59%) say that they have struggled with depression during their tenure of ministry, a number that has grown significantly—thirteen percentage points—since this same question was last asked in Barna’s State of Pastors (2016) study.
As these numbers continue to rise, Wilson notes that mental health battles might look different from the stereotypes churchgoers often hold in their mind.
Wilson describes the goodness of the season before her husband’s death, noting “Jarrid and I were honestly in the best place we ever had been when it came to ministry and in the goals we had been after […] Jarrid was in his dream position, and he was doing what he felt called to do and loved to do. We had our boys. We were settled. We were a family.”
Wilson says that unfortunately the “pressure of maintaining this perfect state” often added to her husband’s anxiety. “The pressures of good things can sometimes outweigh the bad things going on in life,” she notes. “It was usually when everything was going okay that he felt that pressure to keep things in that spot.”
On the Pressures of Ministry
Stoecklein opens up about the ways that working in ministry takes a toll on leaders and builds a pressure that can push them to a breaking point.
She reflects, “The thing about ministry and life is that there’s no pause button. I remember Andrew saying that the Sundays just keep coming and keep coming. It’s like you get off the stage and deliver the last of three or four messages you’ve given that weekend, and you’re already thinking about the next [Sunday].”
Stoecklein notes how difficult it is to take intentional time to rest, especially when leaders are driven to prove themselves. She describes her husband’s fear of losing momentum and the pressure of holding everything together, adding “He felt like he was the linchpin […] it’s that pressure of, ‘The church needs me. I’m the person. I’m the one holding it all together. They’re going to fall apart without me.’”
As a pastor’s wife, Stoecklein also experienced the effects of this tremendous pressure and loneliness herself. “It’s so much more of a glass house than I thought it was going to be,” she notes. “Privacy goes out the window, and you’re put on this pedestal. […] There was a pressure to look a certain way, to carry myself a certain way and to be this put together presence that was standing next to their pastor. It was super lonely.”
On Asking for Help (Even in the Church)
Another finding offered by Youngblood shows that 39 percent of pastors say they seldom or never talk to someone about their mental health, while a far greater percentage (75%) say they have seldom or never met with a counselor.
While Wilson and her husband were quite open about discussing mental health publicly, she found it more difficult to have direct conversations about the impact it had on her home life. She says, “I had gotten to the point where I thought that [walking on eggshells] was the loving thing to do—but anytime you’re losing yourself to save someone else, it’s going to end badly.” For others living with someone facing mental health battles, she advises, “Allow yourself the freedom to know that you cannot save them. It’s not your job to make them happy or make their day perfect. You can’t do those things. You can love them through it.”
At an organizational level, Stoecklein and Wilson both note changes the Church could make to alleviate some of the pressures that come with ministry leadership and instead promote healthier practices for mental health.
Stoecklein desires to see ministry teams restructured in a way that shares the burden of leadership, giving pastors the ability to voice their strengths and pass off their weaknesses. She offers, “I think it’s an impossible job to be the CEO of an organization, the visionary of the organization, the mouthpiece of the organization and come up with compelling messages every single weekend.”
Wilson suggests that the Church should give a bigger priority to time off and rest for staff members, noting, “Don’t wait for people to come to you burnt out before they get a sabbatical, before they get the rest […] A lot of times people do finally get a sabbatical or time off, but it’s usually right before a breaking point.”
About the Research
This data was collected via an online survey of 408 U.S. Protestant pastors, conducted September 16–October 8, 2020. The sample error is plus or minus 4.8 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.
The State of Pastors data: This research was conducted on behalf of Pepperdine University. A total of 900 Protestant senior pastors were interviewed by telephone and online from April through December 2015. Pastors were recruited from publicly available church listings covering 90 percent of U.S. churches that have a physical address and a listed phone number or email address. Churches selected for inclusion were called up to five times at different times of the day to increase the probably of successful contact. The sample error for this study is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, at the 95% confidence level.
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2021