How to love yourself as you love others

By Luke Campbell

“Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39)

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Pastors are people, too”? For the parishioner, this refrain invites them to remember the humanity of those who shepherd them in their churches. It suggests that their pastors are liable to struggle with the same issues that your average person does – a helpful reminder for them to consider easing off on their demands as they consider that their pastor has other things going on.

But it’s good for you, Pastor, to remember that too – but not just so you can set healthy boundaries. It’s a reminder that you aren’t immune to the standard maladies of the day. It’s a reminder to treat yourself with love and care like you do for others.

Ten per cent of adult Canadians report that they have an anxiety or mood disorder. It may seem natural to suggest that pastors do, on average, exist in a state of mental and spiritual flourishing relative to the general population. After all, don’t pastors have a direct line to Jesus? Don’t they spend so much time in the Word that they render themselves immune to the troubles of the world?

You may be surprised to learn that it’s quite possible that you are more vulnerable to experiencing anxiety and depression than the average person. It’s an uncomfortable truth that research seems to reflect. Pastoral ministry is an altogether unique experience filled with blessings, but it also has the potential to be overwhelming, isolating and discouraging.

Mental and emotional health in clergy

In 2013, a study was conducted by Clergy Health Initiative (CHI) that found that rates of anxiety among clergy was similar or even higher than the national average in the United States. It seems reasonable to conclude that similar trends exist in Canada, especially when one considers that the prevalence of anxiety is higher here among adults overall by about four per cent.

Here are some more statistics from Barna Group. As you read these, keep in mind that they aren’t intended to discourage, but to spur you forward to make wise choices. Remember you have to pay attention to your own needs as you serve.

  • 25% of pastors report mental and emotional challenges.
  • 70% of pastors fight feelings of depression.
  • 75% of them feel very stressed with their work.
  • 70% of surveyed pastors said their self-image is lower than it was before they started ministry.
  • 70% say they don’t have a close friend.
  • 50% of pastors leave the ministry within five years.

Factors to consider

However much weight you may put on statistics like these, it definitely points to a trend. So, why does it seem like pastors are uniquely vulnerable? Here are some factors that may contribute:

You may blend your work and personal life. Struggles in one area may affect the other area deeply. One researcher from CHI suggests, “Pastors may have created a life for themselves that is so strongly intertwined with their ministry, that their emotional health is dependent on the state of their ministry . . . It’s possible that when pastors feel their ministry is going well, they experience positive emotions potent enough to buffer them from mental distress. Of course, the converse is also true.”

You may feel you are constantly being assessed. The expectations from the congregation, other staff members and/or elders board can create intense pressure. Rejection may develop as you assess the state of things through tangible means, such as attendance or giving. While those may be indicators of health, they are not necessarily so – a church can grow in ways other than simple numbers.

You may have a hard time balancing roles. Pastors are implicitly expected to be excellent orators, shrewd leaders, visionaries, counsellors, coaches, administrators – the list goes on in addition to the many hats you must wear outside of work.

You may put a lot of pressure on yourself. Some of it is a response to the unrealistic expectations of the church culture at large, but by responding to these pressures in an unhealthy way, pastors perpetuate these expectations. Like explorers stuck in quicksand, their frantic attempts to struggle forward end up sinking them deeper into the trap.

You may be exposed to the deeply distressing personal details of others. Out of sight of many of the congregation, pastors may walk with others through acute distress. Pastors may watch marriages crumble before their eyes or walk families through grief all in the same week – and then jump back up on stage to preach.

You are isolated. Ministry exercises the same muscles as socializing does, but instead of being a symmetrical relationship where two people feed the other, pastoral work has the potential to drain – and to not refill. The asymmetry demands the pastor gives, while the congregant may tend to take. Some pastors don’t have safe spaces to share their journeys with others. Others on staff and elders or deacons are often far too close and sometimes a part of the struggle. Many pastors hesitate to involve their spouse in their journey, and those who do may be encouraged to seek support elsewhere as it becomes too much of a burden on the family.

None of this is meant to be a discouragement; rather, it’s an invitation to take your call seriously and remember how to – if I may flip the script for a second – love yourself as you love others. Your vocation is altogether unique. Treat it with the reverence it deserves by taking your own functioning and health seriously.

How to preserve your health

“And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:39)

Matthew 22:39 is interesting because it presents itself as an assumption that we are ultimately oriented towards ourselves in a self-preserving way – that we know how to care for ourselves and treat ourselves as if we were made in the image of God. Because we are!

You as pastor may struggle to implement that aspect of it. You love God. You love others. But do you take the time to practically love yourself? Here are some ideas of ways to preserve and build your own health in the midst of what God has called you to do. I think it’s safe to say that he would like you to be healthy while you do it.

Build a strong life entirely separate from your ministry. Family, friends, hobbies, rest. Defend boundaries. Engage in protective practices like exercise and healthy eating. Develop a strong social network. Ensure your faith practices are deeply personal and not just tools to do your job well like your computer or pulpit microphone – the Bible is more than a repository of pithy sermon quotes!

Ensure your thinking is reflective of what is true. Let’s look at a sermon, for example: Let’s say that the only feedback you received was that it was too long. Does that mean you are a bad preacher? No. It means that one individual thought it was too long, and they may be narrow-minded and mistaken, or they may be technically correct and possibly insensitive. The length of a sermon has no bearing on whether the Holy Spirit used you to speak to your congregation. We tend to see that most people tend to quietly absorb material. Often, we must learn to be content with the mystery of what is going on in people’s hearts and minds, trusting God to do the work. If we take captive our thoughts and take the time to unpack how we are interpreting things, we can see that our thoughts have a powerful effect on the direction they take our feelings in.

Give yourself grace and ask for it where appropriate. You truly cannot do it all, and pastors sometimes will overwork themselves and sacrifice their personal lives to meet the sometimes-absurd demands of pastoral ministry. Focus on what is explicitly yours to accomplish. What are the specific ministry tasks God has equipped and called you to do? Don’t ruminate over perfecting your sermon; perfection is an abstraction, a cage, and often a coping mechanism to – in theory – avoid negative feedback. Delegate if you can. Let things fall away if you must. If those you are accountable to won’t entertain these changes, then it may be time to reconsider prayerfully where the Lord wants you to serve.

Have someone shepherd you. You can’t give someone water if your own well is dry. Find a mentor. Find a counsellor. Talk about the things you experience to metabolize your own grief and stress. It isn’t weakness or an admission of failure – it is responsible leadership.

As I close and as you begin, I would encourage you to identify one area of struggle that resonates with you. Which one strikes a chord? Does any single factor rise to the top, even when looking at the solutions? Take small steps to build that protection. You have enough on your plate already, so don’t overwhelm yourself with changes. Ask God to give you the strength – perhaps even the courage – to begin loving yourself as you love others so that you can continue to make disciples.


Sources and further reading

Mood and anxiety disorders in Canada,” Government of Canada, June 3, 2015.

Philip Wagner, “The Secret Pain of Pastors,” Church Leaders, September 5, 2022.

Aaron Earls, “Pastors at Greater Risk for Anxiety, Depression,” Lifeway Research, September 3, 2013.

Clergy More Likely to Suffer from Depression, Anxiety,” Duke Global Health Institute, August 28, 2013.


Luke Campbell is a counsellor with Focus on the Family Canada and a lifelong PK.

© 2023 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.