I was a young 20-something, eager to get ahead, and interviewing for a promotion to Project Manager. My boss at the time gave me this little bit of wisdom as she described the role, “You’ll have all the responsibility but none of the authority.”
This sentiment does well to describe the roles of church administrator, treasurer, and executive pastor.
Nearly 80% of churches in America have an average weekly attendance of fewer than 400 people. Often times, these smaller churches have limited staff resources, meaning that one person ends up managing the finances, HR, payroll, contracts, and anything legal. As Sally, a church treasurer that I spoke with put it, “You feel like you have to carry the responsibility since no one else is taking it seriously.”
Jim, a church business administrator, expressed it this way, “How do I get my pastor to listen to me?”
Without a doubt, leading from the second chair can be a difficult and stressful task, and one, unfortunately, that causes many who sit in the chair to suffer from bouts of depression, worry, and burnout.
Depression and the Church?
At this point, it’s widely understood that depression exists, both in America and in the church. In fact, two national studies estimate that 50% of Americans will battle with mental illness at some point in their lifetime. A number this high all but guarantees that most people will come face-to-face with mental illness—either personally or with a loved one. Unfortunately, most churches have not provided support for this epidemic publicly. According to a 2014 Lifeway study, 66% of pastors mostly avoid the topic from the pulpit, choosing to preach about mental health either once, rarely, or never each year.
Recent efforts by groups such as Lifeway Research and Rick and Kay Warren of Saddleback Church have been instrumental in raising awareness around mental illness in the church. Yet, even with this increase in exposure, the topic still remains largely taboo, especially for those who work in the church.
As Ed Stetzer said in his presentation at The Church and Mental Health Summit, it’s one thing for a mega-church pastor to admit their struggle with depression; it’s another if you’re the pastor of a church of 300. You could be talking yourself out of a job. That’s a huge risk to take.
A Long and Lonely Road
The role of finances in the church can be a long, lonely, and heavy one. Even though the burden is shared amongst all the leaders, the person handling the books is the one who has to say “no” to ministry opportunities, cut the payroll checks, and give the financial reports. In short, the burden rests most fully on their shoulders.
In an attempt to better understand the connection between carrying church financial responsibility and the potential for worry, burnout, and depression, I jumped on the phone with five people who work in a financial capacity for their churches.
“Does it ever become personal?” I asked.
Jim’s response, “100% yes! My senior pastor and I have this conversation frequently. I get sick to my stomach worrying about finances. Is the offering going to work this week or not?”
While those who give know that they are giving to God, a person’s tithe can also be interpreted as an act of trust in the church leadership. If the giving levels are low, “… maybe it’s because of something I’ve done,” confessed Randy, the long-time pastor of a small church.
At a higher level, for those churches that are part of a denomination or association, it’s not even just what their church thinks of them, but also the district superintendent. Many pastors share their annual reports with an audience of their peers. Imagine the stress of standing in front of your fellow pastors, confessing that you’re not hitting your numbers.
In Stuart’s experience, as a stewardship officer for a denomination, pastors will confess to him, “It’s hard to want to talk about it because it feels like I’m failing.”
Burnout is Surprisingly Common
We all share a basic human need to feel successful; therefore, it’s not surprising that burnout within a couple of years is quite commonplace for bookkeepers and church admins. In Jim’s experience, it’s about a two-year cycle: “You either make it long term, or you burn out by the second year.”
What makes success so hard in the second chair? As Jim put it, since many church admins are not pastors, their title unfortunately doesn’t carry the same weight. From a purely hierarchical standpoint, they hold a lower rank. Their voice is listened to, respected, but not used as a primary driver to create priorities or set agendas. In his words, “The Business Administrator is a key role, but it’s seen as secondary.”
Sally recounted to me the difficulty in trying to make her voice heard: “About the sixth finance committee meeting, pleading that we need to communicate to and educate our members, I gave up. It fell on deaf ears. It wore me out.”
In her particular case, only 25% of their church was giving consistently. In the low times, rather than communicate this to the church, they would reach out to the same ten “big-tithers,” asking them to write a fat check.
The Connection Between Burnout and Depression
There’s a very real weight involved with church finances that can sometimes lead to burnout—but does the burnout ever turn into depression? Out of the five church leaders we spoke with, every single one had either a personal or family battle with depression.
Bill expressed it to me this way, “Sure I’ve personally felt depressed. I get these waves that come out of nowhere. Wave after wave, it hits me. I feel like I have a target on my back.”
“Depression,” he continued, “is seen as a weakness—not just in the church, but in America in general. Just like the ‘fact’ that ‘men don’t cry,’ depression is similar. You can’t have depression.”
Randy’s daughter suffered from clinical depression as she grew up, and now, seven years later, she’s not on medication anymore. But initially they felt, “a feeling like we don’t want people to know about this.”
Finally, there are stories out there similar to the one that Stuart told me. “I went fifteen years without a sabbatical, leading the worship ministry for our church. It was towards the end of those fifteen years that the church decided to send the senior pastor on sabbatical. As he left, he told me that they were going to give me a sabbatical when he got back. But instead, when he returned, we gathered as a leadership team and he said, ‘While I was gone, I visited a lot of churches. We can do better that what we’re doing in the worship ministry.’ What I heard him say was, ‘What you’re doing is just not good enough.’ Something broke in me that day. I knew I had to pass the baton.”
The Church is Not Immune
As mentioned earlier, and confirmed in my conversations with pastors, the illness of depression is widespread—and the church is not immune. The troubling part is that many churches are not yet able to confront the tension between depression and faith. Rather than making the church a safe harbor, we’ve set up stigmas and stereotypes around the disease that create more harm than good.
“If you had more faith you wouldn’t feel this way. Pull yourself out,” was the way Sally described the church’s view on depression.
Bill said this powerful statement, “It’s real. People experience depression. Lots of times pastors think they can handle this by praying, but in our case we refer them. This is bigger than me.”
Randy, in telling me the story of his daughter, said, “There’s a feeling that you are failing in some way, but you can’t just think your way out of it. Be aware that you are down in the bottom of a dark hole and can’t see your way out.”
Popular pastor and blogger Jarrid Wilson, who suffered through much of his teenage life with mental health issues, sums it up well: “I felt as if all the ‘Christian’ resources were outdated, and really didn’t address the fact that taking medication was okay in the eyes of God … It was as if all the answers I was finding were suggesting that I just needed more faith. Seriously?”
The fact is depression has become one of those issues we don’t address until we absolutely have to. As Sally described, “Some traumatic event needs to happen in order for it not to be shaming.”
The toughest part is that as a church employee, you can’t turn it off on the weekends. Church is a seven-day-a-week venture. When you walk into the building, it’s “Jim the Business Administrator,” not just “Jim my friend and fellow church attendee.”
This leaves XPs and church administrators caught in the strange dynamic of feeling extremely isolated in a church setting—a setting that for many others is a place of support, comfort, and community.
The pressure, the burnout, the shame, the isolation … it all leads us to the reality that we’re in: many church leaders are battling with depression. Stuart went so far as to say this: “Maybe it’s just a natural byproduct of ministry that happens.”
You are Not Alone and there is Always Hope
Perhaps the worst part about an illness such as depression is the heightened sense of isolation. When a person suffers from depression, they feel alone and unable to ask for help. And as a church employee who may already feel shame about their struggle, this isolation can seem insurmountable.
If you’re reading this and can relate to the feelings of being depressed, worried and burnt out, be encouraged to know this: You are not alone in your feelings and there is always hope. And while this may sound cliché, these were the exact sentiments expressed by everyone I interviewed. You really are not alone in your struggle.
Here are three pieces of advice to take to heart if you are in a place of depression in the church:
#1: Make It a Team Effort
Seek out the community God has given you rather than isolating yourself. As Stuart put it, “Clergy is horrible at this. We don’t model the community that we tell our people to be involved with.”
Find a confidant; not for advice, but just for listening and honesty. If you already have people around you who you can trust, be honest with them. “It’s my job to be transparent with my team,” said Bill.
Then, from a professional standpoint, share the burden of responsibility as a leadership team. Don’t carry the weight alone.
Jim had a unique suggestion, “Twice a year, visit a local church and make a buddy. Find your counterpart and buy them lunch. Ask for their help instead of offering yours. This builds relationship.”
#2: Find Your Own Version of Sabbatical
Set boundaries, especially on Sundays. If it’s not blood, death, or destruction, it can wait until Monday. Bill’s church has a standard policy for their leadership, “Our church gives us a five-week sabbatical every five years. It takes several weeks to fully decompress. We come back refreshed.”
Sabbatical is God’s law to keep us fresh and healthy. Even if your church doesn’t allow for a multi-week break, find your own version of a rest period … and take it.
#3: Change the Perspective
We know that success is crucial to fighting burnout. However, success can be defined many ways—find one that works for you. Don’t give up, get creative. Stuart encourages pastors to, “Redefine success—away from numbers and more towards ministry, love, and the work God is doing.”
While you’re changing your perspective about success, also learn the difference between responsibility and control. We can’t always fix the giving problem, but we can be good stewards of what we do have.
Finally, adjust your thoughts on depression as a whole. There are times when faith alone doesn’t work. Randy put it this way, “Don’t be afraid to get professional help—you can’t think your way out of it. You’re not just having a day of the blues.”