Marlon C. Robinson, PhD, is an American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy–approved supervisor, board certified chaplain of the Association of Professional Chaplains, and Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries–endorsed pastoral counselor and chaplain. He serves as director of pastoral care at AdventHealth Manchester, Manchester, Kentucky, United States.

Most people agree that COVID-19 has drastically altered their lives compared to what they were before the pandemic, redefining in so many ways what clergy members now call life in this new normal.1 As of January 25, 2021, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of over 2.1 million people worldwide,2 infected millions of others, turned the world upside down, and exposed pastors to a new type of burnout. Clergy members and the rest of the global population have experienced disruptions in personal health habits, family life, occupation, economic stability, social connections, and the health of their loved ones.3

The COVID-19 crisis has displaced members from their usual places of worship and altered koinonia, the fellowship of believers. It has led to the adoption of online religious service in various forms, small-group fellowship, and house worship. Few, if any, seminaries prepared pastors for the challenges of running a virtual church—especially the challenges involved in operating a single virtual church, let alone a virtual multiple-church district.

Additionally, changes in the medium through which clergy members provide religious services have increased their workload, destroyed many of the boundaries they had in place before COVID-19, and put in disarray the solace they usually experienced in homes now transformed into primary workstations.4 Ministers who are inundated with phone calls, emails, text and WhatsApp messages, and communications through a host of other platforms, identify with Monmouth University’s poll showing that 55 percent of the general population reported higher stress levels.5

Clergy mental well-being

Mental health is vital during this COVID-19 crisis, not only because it is extremely necessary for quality human life6 but also due to the notion that “mental illness has been called the pandemic of the 21st century.”7 Hence, we do a disservice to pastors if we talk about health without considering mental health. Ideally, there can be no true health without it. The million-dollar question is, how are pastors taking care of their psychological health during the current pandemic?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress in social, occupational, or other important activities.”8 The COVID-19 disruptions cited above will likely produce significant distress, the precursor for mental disorders. As pastors, it is vital to understand that mental illness does not discriminate based on religion, age, gender, disability, color, race, nationality, financial status, genetic heritage, occupation, political ideology, marital status, or any other categories or characteristics. In other words, mental illness is no respecter of persons.

Two pastors describe their COVID-19 experience “as an overwhelming sensation of busyness” and having “new levels of irritation and stress.”9 In a study conducted during the pandemic with 400 pastors, clergy members indicated that they are worried about finances (26 percent), technological challenges (16 percent), offering remote pastoral care (12 percent), and the members’ lack of access to technology (11 percent).10 According to the clergy recruitment and development coordinator for the Great Plains Conference, pastors’ “pangs of anxiety and depression, which are normally higher [than the average population] anyway, are higher even yet.”11 Such findings indicate that pastors are experiencing intensified stress levels that will put them at increased risk for developing a mental illness.

The current crisis makes pastors even more vulnerable to illness on account of traumatic events arising from within their personal and family situations. Clergy members are also at increased risk because of their repeated exposure to the traumatic information shared by their parishioners, arising from their increased need for pastoral care. Consequently, it is vitally important that pastors implement strategies to care for their mental health during this time of anxiety, fear, and uncertainty.

Strategies for mental well-being

As professionals, pastors need to recognize that if they do not care for their mental health, they will not have the psychological strength to adequately care for anyone else. In other words, if ministers fail to protect themselves, they will lack the quality of health to help others.12 While the negative impact of COVID-19 is a unique type of burnout or psychological stress, there are eight strategies that can reduce its adverse effects and improve overall psychological well-being.

1. Maintain a work-life balance. The fact that pastors “often put the needs of others above their own”13 is a clear indicator that they require work/life balance. Work/life balance reduces medical costs,14 builds commitment,15 enhances job satisfaction,16 and improves productivity,17 which will likely reduce the pastors’ stress level and improve their psychological well-being. Such work-life balance will look different for each pastor, based on his or her family life-cycle stage. Work-life balance also increases profitability18 and affects employee retention.19 Consequently, faith-based organizations that put in place policies to support pastoral work-life balance, benefit both employee and employer.

2. Manage stress and crises effectively. Proper stress and crisis management includes adaptability, admitting to and seeking help with problems, seeing crises as challenges and opportunities, growth through crises, openness to change, and resilience.20 Stress handled effectively can lead to happiness, health, effectiveness at work, and less mental illness.21 Hence, it is paramount that pastors regulate their stress levels and manage crises successfully.

3. Find a ministry buddy. Having a colleague in ministry that a pastor can talk with openly and safely is extremely important to his or her mental well-being. Social support from a trusted colleague is a possible safeguard against job stressors.22 I have personally found this to be extremely important for stress management, brainstorming, constructive feedback, and peer-to-peer support.

4. Practice the attitude of gratitude. The Bible encourages us to give thanks in every circumstance (1 Thess. 5:18). Thankfulness is associated with better mood and sleep, less fatigue, and more self-efficacy,23 as well as better mental well-being, greater social support, and adaptive coping.24 Gratitude is essentially “a positive emotion beneficial for positive functioning, as well as broadening and building other positive emotions, which, in turn, result in an increase in emotional well-being.”25

5. Exercise. A physical workout of 30 to 60 minutes is a stress reliever and producer of endorphins, the happy hormone. Pastors who exercise at least three times weekly reduced their risk of high emotional exhaustion by 25 percent.26 A study on exercise and mental health found that individuals who exercise had about 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health in the previous month compared to those who did not exercise.27 All forms of exercise have shown links to a lower mental-health burden than no exercise.28 Clearly, exercise is a stress reliever vital to pastors’ mental health.

6. Take a sabbatical. Seventh-day Adventists understand the importance of taking a weekly day of rest, the seventh day. I am aware that the church does not have a sabbatical policy for pastors. Therefore, I hope that the denomination will develop a program that gives pastors at least three months of sabbatical every seven years of ministry, comparable to the rest that the land enjoyed in Old Testament times (Lev. 25:4; Exod. 23:11). A sabbatical can help pastors destress,29 retool, refocus their ministry, and deepen the connection with their most important earthly asset, their family.

7. Seek mental health services. Talking with a mental health provider is essential to clergy members’ psychological health. Psychological distress is to mental health professionals as pain in the body is to medical doctors. If ministers’ psychological distress interferes with their relational, occupational, and social functioning or other important activities, they are probably overdue to see a mental health professional. It is imperative to note that mental health services are not just for a person with a mental disorder but also for all those who need help dealing with issues such as life transitions, grief and loss, parenting concerns, personal goals, and occupational choice.

8. Be hopeful. Hope is defined as “the belief that your future can be better than your past and you play a role in making it so.”30 Such hope is linked to overall psychological well-being and resilience.31 It buffers stress and adversity, mitigates the negative effects of trauma, and is the best predictor for a life well-lived.32 Pastors can find hope in God (Ps. 71:5), His Word (Ps. 119:114), His mercy (Ps. 147:11), and ultimately in the Second Coming (Titus 2:13). It is essential for clergy members to understand that they can live without food for three weeks, water for three days, and oxygen for three minutes, but they will not be able to live a second without hope. Hence, I say to pastors, speak hope, walk in hope, think hope, preach hope, and immerse yourselves in hope.

  1. See David Burke, “Pastors facing additional stress, depression, anxiety during pandemic,” Great Plains United Methodists Conference, June 16, 2020, accessedSeptember 10, 2020, https://www.greatplainsumc.org/newsdetail/pastors-facing-additional-stress-depression-anxiety-during-pandemic-14026573; Tess Schoonhoven, “Pastors Face Mental Health Challenges in COVID-19 Pandemic,” Kentucky Today, April 17, 2020, https://www.kentuckytoday.com/stories/pastors-face-mental-health-challenges-amid-covid-19-pandemic,25462; David C. Wang, “Coping and Caring for Oneself During COVID-19: Practical Steps for Pastors and Christian Leaders,” Humanitarian Disaster Institute, accessed September 10, 2020, https://www.wheaton.edu/media/humanitarian-disaster-institute/tip-sheets/Final-pastor-self-care-during-COVID-19.pdf; Kate Santich, “COVID-19′s Latest Toll in Central Florida: Rising Drug Overdoses, Mental Health Issues,” Orlando Sentinel, September 18, 2020, accessed September 18, 2020, https://www.orlandosentinel.com/coronavirus/os-ne-coronavirus-big-increase-in-substance-abuse-mental-health-20200918-kuesqudc2vb6rkoyph2nuwjgbi-story.html.
  2. “Coronavirus (COVID-19) Deaths,” Our World in Data, January 25, 2021, www.ourworldindata.org/covid-deaths.
  3. Burke, “Pastors Facing Additional Stress”; Schoonhoven, “Mental Health Challenges”; Simon Dein et al., “COVID-19, Mental Health and Religion: An Agenda for Future Research,” Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 23, no. 1 (June 2020): 1–9, https://doi.org/10.1080/13674676.2020.1768725; Aaron Earls, “Most Churches Have Stopped Gathering, Few Plan to Meet on Easter,” LifeWay Research, April 2, 2020, https://lifewayresearch.com/2020/04/02/most-churches-have-stopped-gathering-few-plan-to-meet-on-easter/; Wang, "Coping and Caring," 2020; Insider NJ, “Monmouth Poll: Covid-19 Impact Intensifies,” Insider NJ, April 13, 2020, http://www.insidernj.com/monmouth-poll-covid-19-impact-intensifies/.
  4. Burke, “Pastors Facing Additional Stress”; Schoonhoven, “Mental Health Challenges”; Wang, "Coping and Caring," 2020.
  5. Insider NJ, “Monmouth Poll.”
  6. Marlon Robinson, “In Pursuit of Self-Care: Health and Well-Being for the MFT,” Family Therapy Magazine 14, no. 4 (July 2015): 27.
  7. Andrea K. Witterborn et al., “Strengthening Clinical Research in Marriage and Family Therapy: Challenges and Multilevel Solutions,” Family Therapy Magazine 18, no. 1 (January 2019): 20–32, https://doi.org/10.1111/jmft.12338.
  8. American Psychiatric Association, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. (Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association, 2013), 20.
  9. Schoonhoven, “Mental Health Challenges.”
  10. Earls, “Most Churches Have Stopped.”
  11. Burke, “Pastors Facing Additional Stress.”
  12. Robinson, “In Pursuit of Self-Care,” 25.
  13. Crystal Mary Burnette, “Burnout Among Pastors in Local Church Ministry in Relation to Pastor, Congregation Member, and Church Organization Outcomes” (PhD dissertation, Clemson University, 2016), 41, https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/all_dissertations/1745/.
  14. Sunday Azagba and Mesbah Sharaf, “Psychosocial Working Conditions and the Utilization of Health Care Services,” BMC Public Health 11 (August 2011): 642, https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-11-642.
  15. Azagba and Sharaf, “Psychosocial Working Conditions.
  16. Michelle M. Arthur, “Share Price Reactions to Work-Family Human Resource Decisions: An Institutional Perspective,” Academy of Management Journal 46, no. 4 (August 2003): 497–505.
  17. Mental Health America, “Work Life Balance,” accessed July 12, 2020, https://mhanational.org/work-life-balance; E. Jeffrey Hill et al., “Influences of the Virtual Office on Aspects of Work and Work/Life Balance,” Personnel Psychology 51, no. 3 (December 2006): 667–683, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.1998.tb00256.x.
  18. Pilar Roho, “Work-Life Balance Policies: A Profitable Move for Business,” IE University Insights, December 22, 2016, https://www.ie.edu/insights/articles/work-life-balance-policies-profitable-move-for-businesses/.
  19. See Azagba and Sharaf, “Psychosocial Working Conditions,” 642; Vivienne Luk and Raymond Stone, “Family-Responsive Variables and Retention-Relevant Outcomes Among Employed Parents,” Human Relations 51, no. 1 (January 1998): 73–87; Mental Health America, “Work Life Balance.”
  20. Sylvia M. Asay and John DeFrain, “The International Family Strengths Model” (presentation at World Congress of Families, Madrid, May 26, 2012), https://www.scribd.com/document/386726913/Sylvia-Asay-the-International-Family-Strengths-Model-ENGLISH.
  21. Eluned Gold et al., “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for Primary School Teachers,” Journal of Child and Family Studies 19, no. 2 (April 2010): 184–189.
  22. Burnette, “Burnout Among Pastors”; Wang, "Coping and Caring," 2020.
  23. Paul J. Mills et al., “The Role of Gratitude in Spiritual Well-Being in Asymptomatic Heart Failure Patients,” Spiritual Clinical Practice 2, no.1 (March 2015): 5–17, https://doi.org/10.1037/scp0000050.
  24. Chih-Che Lin, “Impact of Gratitude on Resource Development and Emotional Well-Being,” abstract, Social Behavior and Personality 43, no.3 (April 2015): 493–504, https://doi.org/10.2224/sbp.2015.43.3.493.
  25. Lin, “Impact of Gratitude,” abstract.
  26. Benjamin R. Doolittle, “The Impact of Behaviors Upon Burnout Among Parish-Based Clergy,” Journal of Religion and Health, 49, no.1 (March 2010): 88–95.
  27. Sammi R. Chekroud et al.,“Association Between Physical Exercise and Mental Health in 1.2 Million Individuals in the USA Between 2011 and 2015: A Cross-Sectional Study,” abstract, The Lancet Psychiatry 5, no. 9 (August 2018): 739–746, https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30227-X.
  28. Chekroud et al., “Association Between Physical Exercise,” abstract.
  29. See H. B. London Jr. and Neil B. Wiseman, Pastors at Greater Risk (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2003); Wayne Cordiero, Leading on Empty: Refilling Your Tank and Renewing Your Passion (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2009).
  30. Casey Gwinn and Chan Hellman, “Dr. Seuss, Resilience, and the Science of HOPE.” Alliance for Hope International, May 27, 2018, https://www.allianceforhope.com/dr-seuss-resilience-and-the-science-of-hope/.
  31. Ricky T. Munoz et al., “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Posttraumatic Stress as an Antecedent of Anxiety and Lower Hope,” abstract, Traumatology 24, no. 3 (2018): 209–218, https://doi.org/10.1037/trm0000149.
  32. Gwin, “Science of HOPE.”

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Marlon C. Robinson, PhD, is an American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy–approved supervisor, board certified chaplain of the Association of Professional Chaplains, and Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries–endorsed pastoral counselor and chaplain. He serves as director of pastoral care at AdventHealth Manchester, Manchester, Kentucky, United States.

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