Depression is an occupational hazard for clergy

As a Raleigh minister learns, depression is an occupational hazard for clergy

Staff WriterNovember 11, 2010 

  • Several groups provide help for clergy members suffering from burnout . Among them:

    The Lilly Endowment's National Clergy Renewal Program offers pastors an opportunity to step away from ministry for a period of time to engage in reflection: clergyrenewal.org

    The Louisville Institute offers sabbatical grants for pastoral leaders: louisville-institute.org

    The Duke Divinity School has a Clergy Health Initiative, designed to improve the health and well-being of North Carolina's Methodist pastors and elders: divinity.duke.edu/ initiatives-centers/clergy-health- initiative

— The week the BP oil rig exploded off the Gulf of Mexico, the Rev. Tom Rhodes fell apart too.

It was spring at his church, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Wade Avenue, and he was preparing a sermon honoring the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.

But he could barely go through the motions. His mood felt as black as that inky pool of goo gushing into the ocean.

"It was this sudden feeling of being overwhelmed and hopeless," he said.

Alarmed, his wife, Lettice, send him to the doctor. Though nothing was wrong physically, the doctor gave him a mental health questionnaire, tabulated the results and concluded he was depressed.

And so began Rhodes' descent into despair and his climb back.

Clergy suffer disproportionately from obesity, hypertension and stress. Add depression to that list. Several recent studies have shown that clergy work too much and suffer from burnout. Religious groups, both Christian and Jewish, have begun to adopt policies requiring them to take sabbaticals, vacations or simply time off.

What marked Rhodes' journey was his willingness to share it with his congregation, the 500-member liberal group united by common values, not by creed. For Rhodes, 50, there was really no way to avoid the subject.

"How could I preach on hope, faith and love, when I felt none of these things myself?" he said.

A native of Tallahassee, Fla., who arrived in Raleigh nearly five years ago, Rhodes lists several reasons for his depression. In 2008, the part-time assistant minister left, and because of the souring economy, the congregation could not afford to replace him. Rhodes began working 60-hour weeks. In addition, he was putting in 10 hours a week organizing the Wake County Clergy Coalition opposed to the local school board's dismantling of the district's diversity policy.

An active man who loves to bike, play racquetball and generally "go a mile a minute," Rhodes had to adjust to a midlife body that was no longer able to take on the same physical challenges without feeing exhausted.

But in the end, he also knew depression ran in his family. Maybe it was just catching up with him.

Hearing his doctor's diagnosis was a huge relief, Rhodes said. The next step was telling the church's board and asking for time off to heal.

Doing so required tremendous courage, said Jack McKinney, a pastoral counselor and the former pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. Most pastors are afraid of admitting they're overwhelmed, let alone depressed.

"People assume that when pastors are faithful they should be happy and well-adjusted," said McKinney. "Of course it's not true."

Rhodes was fortunate to have a congregation willing to work with him. The agreement hammered out allowed Rhodes to take off during June, July and August.

"I remember asking, 'Are you coming back?'" said Jason Secosky, the congregation's president. "He was very sure about coming back."

During that time, Rhodes began taking an antidepressant, saw a psychiatrist and paid deeper attention to his soul.

"I liken this to having a heart attack," Rhodes said. "It was a wake-up call - a sign that something had to change."

When he returned to the pulpit in September, he delivered a sermon about depression and urged his congregants to seek help if they found themselves in a similar place.

"He inspired people to be more open about their depression," said Lynda Hambourger, a member. "It wasn't something to be ashamed of."

More important, he negotiated a three-quarters time position that allowed the congregation to hire a part-time minister. The congregation's board also assembled a group of three to work with Rhodes to make sure he wasn't overworking.

Rhodes gradually understood that he could not do it all and that some things - whether editing the weekly bulletin or helping to resolve room scheduling conflicts - could be handled jointly.

"We live in a culture that, particularly for men, says 'You should be strong, independent and capable,'" said Rhodes. "What I found was, that doesn't work, and that's not what the congregation needed."

Where he used to tell his congregation that community is built on shared strengths, he now knows, it's just the opposite. "True communities are built on shared vulnerabilities," he said.

More than six months later, Rhodes now feels hope and life returning. These days when he tells people his tale, he sees the spark of recognition.

When one person says to another, "You too? I thought I was the only one," that, he said, that's when real friendship begins.

yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4891

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