Anxiety and the pastor
- First time in a lead pastor role
- Labouring to coax a stiff church to lean outward, seek renewal and step up in faith
- Woman, pastor, wife and mom
- Younger than all the board members and reminded of it, frequently
- Life anxiety that just won’t end, even after prayer and a Bible verse
- Taking up a pastorate in a congregation that “has history”
- Serving, and suffering, under a bullying board or senior leader
It is quite likely that at least one, and perhaps several, of these situations sound familiar to you. Perhaps it was a time of life or ministry that was particularly challenging, stirring up an inner distress that you couldn’t shake. Perhaps it is that unwelcome, uninvited, but constant companion of anxiety that has long been part of your life.
At Kerith Retreats, and through Clergy Care, we hear a lot about the anxieties that besiege pastors and ministry workers. Sometimes it’s circumstantial in nature, induced by difficult situations miring a congregation in dissension, power posturing, or financial strains and crises. Other times anxiety stems from within, part of the pastor’s own temperament, a marred element in that unique, “fearfully and wonderfully made” neurobiochemistry by which we feel, think and perceive.
And sometimes anxiety weighs in from a source no one could have predicted. Social upheaval, a natural disaster, a pandemic. In such overwhelming circumstances, everyone is prone to heightened anxiety, and pastors are no exception. LifeWay Research recently learned from their clergy respondents of four significant areas of pressure and concern that are driving increased anxiety for them in this strange time of COVID-19 isolation:
- challenges involved in providing pastoral care from a distance
- complexities of planning returns to church sites, worship gatherings and congregational programs
- personal exhaustion
- disagreements and conflicts within the Church
Our own experience in providing clergy care confirms struggles in each of these areas and more.
If you are struggling with anxiety, whether because of the current global pandemic experience or as an unwelcome but ongoing part of your life and ministry, there are a few key truths to keep in mind.
We were created with the capacity for anxiety. Anxiety is an overactive abundance of caution or concern; an intrusive inflation of the gift of awareness that God intentionally placed within us. “Fight or flight” is a response spectrum inherent in all living creatures. In the presence of a predator, or the risk of something like a forest fire, anxiety of this sort is quite helpful. It moves us to seek safety. However, when no threat really exists but “fight, flight or freeze” remains engaged or heightened, anxiety is experienced. It is persistent and excessive worry about something that generates a mentally paralyzing fear. Anxiety of that level, whether or not it is clinically diagnosed, whether traumatic or physiological in origin, leaves the person stuck in the place of “freeze.” In this moment, mounting anxiety generates a lie that the problem cannot be resolved. The truth is, it can!
Anxiety is not a sin! While Scripture clearly speaks to issues of worry and anxiety, it is not to condemn it as sin, an intentional evil choice or act. On the contrary, Scripture specifically calls us to take our anxious thoughts to the Lord (Psalm 139:23; Matthew 6:25-34; Philippians 4:6; 1 Peter 5:7), knowing that we are in need of his gracious healing, not punishment for it!
Feelings are transient, and your present anxiety is not forever. That’s not to say it doesn’t feel that way right now, but it is true. Our emotions ebb and flow depending upon a lot of factors: physiology, circumstances, relationships, our perceptions of available resources and more. We can be moved to experience multiple emotions, of varying intensities, within even a short period. Sometimes, we experience conflicting emotions in the same instance that can easily lead us to catastrophize the immediate situation, best illustrated by thoughts like “I will never survive this,” “this is the absolute worst possible thing that could happen,” and “there’s no way out of this problem.”
Our cognitions though – the things we know – are not transient. This is why it is important to make decisions based on thoughtful, prayerful discernment and not in the anxiety of the moment. Tendering your resignation to the church board based on the high anxiety from the stress and strain of ministering in the alien conditions imposed by COVID-19 is a reactive response – and unlikely to be the best decision, all things considered.
You are not alone, and there is help. Anxiety is a common concern. In Canada, it is estimated that between 11 per cent (for those experiencing diagnosed, severe anxiety disorders) and 25 per cent of adults* (having had at least one episode of severe anxiety) deal with anxiety. On June 4, 2020, Statistics Canada released current information noting that in early May 2020, 48 per cent of Canadians sampled* self-reported excellent or very good mental health; conversely, 22 per cent self-assessed as experiencing poor mental health with increasing anxiety. Four weeks earlier, via the same survey, Statistics Canada had reported that 56 per cent of Canadians expressed excellent or very good mental health, while only 18 per cent identified as poor mental health. For Canadians in general, the intervening conditions were continuing weeks of pandemic conditions and news, and the devastating experience of our nation gripped by one man’s violence in quiet counties of Nova Scotia.
Anxiety is a common concern and pastors are no exception, but there is help. The following are some of the things we recommend:
- Call our Clergy Care phone line and speak to one of our staff counsellors, dedicated to caring for pastors at 1.888.5.CLERGY (1. 888. 525. 3749).
- Consult a physician for screening, support and referrals to local resources (and sometimes, just sometimes, a necessary prescription!).
- Don’t be isolated! Stay connected with prayerful and supportive family, friends, colleagues and fellowship members.
- AnxietyCanada.com provides free online, self-help and evidence-based resources on anxiety.
- SanctuaryMentalHealth.org provides training, tools and resources to equip the Church to support mental health and well-being.
*Persons aged 15 years and older
Karin Gregory is the director of counselling at Focus on the Family Canada.