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Pastoral mental health is declining, so how do spiritual leaders take care of themselves? 

By Marissa Greene, Fort Worth Report
January 4, 2024

The year 2020 was a demanding time for the Rev. Dr. Scott Venable, lead pastor of Northwood Church in Keller.

At the start of the pandemic, questions buzzed over whether to wear a mask to church,

civil unrest was spurred by the death of George Floyd in May of that year and political tensions grew. All of a sudden, Venable found himself no longer just preparing for Bible studies, sermons, funerals and weddings — but also trying to keep his church together through divisive times.

“I didn’t realize the toll it took on me … the weight I was carrying to try and lead through the storm of all those things and hold this church together. So professionally, the church was doing awesome and we were growing, and we came on the other side with a lot of unity,” Venable said. “But inside, I was in shambles.”

Venable hadn’t realized the mental toll that the start of the year took on him. But he wasn’t alone. The well-being of pastors — spiritually, mentally and emotionally — decreased significantly from 2015 to 2022, according to a study by Barna Group, a Christian research organization based in Dallas-Fort Worth.

Stress, isolation and political divisions are factors in religious leaders’ desire to quit, according to the organization.

In answer to Fort Worth Report’s inquiries about the issue, health experts break down factors that have caused pastoral mental health to decline and local clergy share what they’re doing to restore their well-being.

Decline in pastoral mental health

Ken Jones is a behavioral health clinical officer with Texas Health Resources and an elder at Keene Church of Seventh-Day Adventists. The recent health, racial and political tensions have added another layer of stress among churches and their leaders, he said.

“It was certainly something that was unavoidable from the pulpit,” Jones said. “From a counseling standpoint, we’re dealing with quite a lot of the individual, interpersonal aftermath of that.”

Ricky Cotto is the lead pastor of City Post Church in Fort Worth, as well as a director of community engagement for Texas Health Resources. He organized North Texas Healthy Communities’ annual summit focused on the well-being of local faith leaders.

About 40 people gathered at Freedom Church on Dec. 6 to talk about mental health through a spiritual lens. Local clergy gave presentations that shared their own journey with well-being and resources that are available to faith leaders.

“I think it took a toll on people and we’re seeing the outcome of it now,” Cotto said. “People are leaving. They’re burning out. So what can we do to improve the health of our pastors mentally, physically and emotionally?”

Ricky Cotto, lead pastor of City Post Church and director of community engagement for Texas Health Resources, organized a faith summit Dec. 6, 2023, focused on pastors’ well-being. (Courtesy photo | Ricky Cotto) 

Venable decided to seek help through counseling, including traveling to Colorado to attend a program through Ranch of Hope. His church also created a pastoral care and counseling center available to churchgoers and the general public.

Through these experiences, Venable has become more passionate about taking care of his own mental health and sharing his experience with other religious leaders. In December, he was a guest speaker at the summit organized by Cotto.

“When you struggle with something yourself, it brings a lot of awareness that you previously didn’t have,” Venable said. “I think we created a culture, potentially generationally, as well as in the church itself, that pastors have to have it all together all the time.”

Restorative practices

There are many ways pastors can take care of their mental health, Jones said. Some examples include exploring virtual therapy options, establishing a support system that one feels safe turning to when in need of help or doing exercises or meditation practices.

The key, Jones said, is establishing these practices before you need them.

“These kinds of conversations are really helpful in reducing some of the stigma and making sure that both faith communities and pastors receive the support that they need for their own physical, mental and spiritual body,” Jones said.

Ways that Venable takes care of his mental health include eating healthy foods, staying active and journaling.

“You’re carrying those burdens with those people … but who’s carrying yours? That’s the question I ask pastors now to try to get them to evaluate if they have anyone in their life that can walk through the darkness with them,” Venable said. “That’s a really important answer to some of what we’re facing”

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here. Marissa Greene is a Report for America corps member, covering faith for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at marissa.greene@fortworthreport.org or @marissaygreene

This article first appeared on Fort Worth Report and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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