“My well is empty”:

Adverse childhood experiences among pastors

David Sedlacek, PhD, is a professor and the chair of the Department of Discipleship and Lifespan Education at Andrews University, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.
René Drumm, PhD, is a social scientist and researcher residing in Ooltewah, Tennessee, United States.

Recent research on pastoral stress has revealed startling insights into the emotional needs of pastors in the United States.1 In one study, a pastor shared: “When it is expected from you to give, and to give, and to give, and to teach, and to be a wise man and a counselor that comes with a pastoral job description . . . I feel that I am kind of exhausted, and my well is empty. And I’m just not excited by helping people, by preaching, by ministering anymore.”

This one statement offers insights into several sources of emotional challenge among pastors. For example, such emotional problems may include unending and often unrealistic expectations as well as constant pressure to teach, provide comfort and counsel, and tackle ever-expanding pastoral functions.

Besides such external pressures to perform, research reveals that pastoral training generally lacks preparation for dealing with the impact of emotions, either their own or those of the people they serve.2 One research participant observed, “We exactly know what the Bible stands for, what we stand for. But emotionally . . . we don’t know how to deal with it.”

The drive

What might be driving such emotional challenges so far that pastors lose their excitement about ministering and feel lost when it comes to handling them? Research indicates that one area to consider is trauma experienced in childhood. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) represent various types of traumas that lay the foundation for long-term negative effects on physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, relational, and behavioral health.3

Several decades of research have shown a strong causal connection between ACEs and overall well-being challenges in adulthood.4 It means that experiencing childhood trauma may often manifest itself in negative ways in adulthood.

The pervasiveness of ACEs is alarming and has far-reaching effects. Early research in the United States revealed that about half of the study samples had experienced at least one adverse event, while a quarter had suffered two adverse events.5 The researchers discovered that for each adverse experience, individuals had a corresponding increase in health challenges, such as higher levels of alcoholism, smoking, drug abuse, depression, and suicide attempts.6

Although pastors do not often report such extreme effects from childhood difficulties, their distress can present itself in discouragement, spiritual dryness, and burnout.7 Results from ACE studies suggest that, at least in part, such afflictions should be addressed by dealing with childhood trauma.8

In addition to their personal emotional lives, pastors are often seen as sources of help for their parishioners. Pastors “who have experienced the healing of their own [emotional] pain can better value mental health care and the need to address the emotional pain of others.”9

The statistics

To study ACEs in pastors, researchers have obtained data from several sources. At the beginning of the 2020–2021 school year at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary (SDATS), ACE scores were collected from all incoming students. Then, at the beginning of the 2021–2022 school year, ACE scores were again gathered from incoming SDATS students as well as from pastors in the Allegheny East Conference (AEC) of Seventh-day Adventists. Also, researchers at the 2022 Called Pastors’ Family Convention gathered more data. Table 1 compares pastors at each of the three data collection points with the ACE scores of the general population.

Evaluation

An examination of the data reveals that pastors experienced emotional abuse at approximately the same levels as the general population, though the rates of both physical and sexual abuse were consistently higher among pastors than the general population. Emotional neglect was higher for the pastors’ samples, but the same was not true for physical neglect. Having parents who were separated or divorced was higher for pastors than the general population, but the rates of domestic violence were generally lower. The percentage of pastors who had a parent who struggled with alcohol or drugs was lower than the general population, but the rate of parents with depression or mental illness, or who attempted suicide was higher. Finally, those who experienced a family member in prison was generally lower for pastors.

It is important to note that current statistics for the general population indicate that 67 percent have one or more ACEs, but among our pastor sample, this figure was 87 percent. This is worrisome because having at least one ACE predicts the probability of chronic physical illness, emotional challenges, and self-destructive behavior, as the literature review has demonstrated. More importantly, 12.5 percent of the general population have four or more ACEs compared to 24 percent of pastors. Having four or more ACEs leads to an exponential increase in physical, emotional, and behavioral challenges.

It is the hope of the researchers that both pastors in training and in the field will begin to address their own trauma, thus growing in resilience and commitment to self-care. Addressing it—a sometimes-painful process—may involve trauma resources or education and counseling. As a result, pastors will then be able to take the lead in creating trauma-informed churches that will help church members face their own ACEs. Such congregations will, in turn, become safe places for people in the surrounding communities to find healing. Church members who have been healed themselves will become vital channels to bring healing to others.

  1. David Sedlacek, Duane McBride, René Drumm, Alina Baltazar, Romulus Chelbegean, Gary Hopkins, Elaine Oliver, and Wendy Thompson, “Seminary Training, Role Demands, Family Stressors, and Strategies for Alleviation of Stressors in Pastors’ Families” (unpublished report, North American Division Ministerial and Family Ministries Departments in conjunction with the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2014); Petr Činčala and René Drumm, “ ‘No Preacher Is Gonna Raise His Hand and Say, “I Need Help” ’: Recognizing Barriers to Reducing Pastors’ Stress” (paper, Ninth Annual Conference of Adventist Human-Subject Researchers Association, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI, May 2021).
  2. Činčala and Drumm.
  3. Vincent J. Felitti, Robert F. Anda, Dale Nordenberg, David F. Williamson, Alison M. Spitz, Valerie Edwards, Mary P. Koss, and James S. Marks, “Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 14, no. 4 (1998): 245–258, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8.
  4. M. De Venter, K. Demyttenaere, and R. Bruffaerts, “Het verband tussen traumatische gebeurtenissen in de kindertijd en angst, depressie en middelenmisbruik in de volwassenheid; een systematisch literatuuroverzicht [The relationship between adverse childhood experiences and mental health in adulthood: A systematic literature review],” Tijdschrift voor psychiatrie 55, no. 4 (2013): 259–268, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236225114_The_relationship_between_adverse_childhood_experiences_and_mental_health_in_adulthood_A_systematic_literature_review; Murielle Jacquet-Smailovic, Marie-Jo Brennstuhl, Camille Louise Tarquinio, and Cyril Tarquinio, “Relationship Between Cumulative Adverse Childhood Experiences and Myocardial Infarction in Adulthood: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,” Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma 15, no. 3 (September 2022): 701–714, https://doi
    .org/10.1007/s40653-021-00404-7.
  5. Felitti et al., “Relationship of Childhood Abuse,“ abstract.
  6. Felitti et al., abstract.
  7. Wesley H. McCormick, Timothy D. Carroll, Brook M. Sims, and Joseph Currier, “Adverse Childhood Experiences, Religious/Spiritual Struggles, and Mental Health Symptoms: Examination of Mediation Models,” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 20, no. 10 (2017): 1042–1054, https://doi.org/10.1080/13674676.2018.1440544.
  8. Satomi Doi, Takeo Fujiwara, and Aya Isumi, “Association Between Maternal Adverse Childhood Experiences and Mental Health Problems in Offspring: An Intergenerational Study,” Development & Psychopathology 33, no. 3 (2021): 1041–1058; Adam Schickedanz, Neal Halfon, Narayan Sastry, and Paul J. Chung, “Parents’ Adverse Childhood Experiences and Their Children’s Behavioral Health Problems,” Pediatrics 142, no. 2 (August 2018): 1–9, https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2018-0023.
  9. David R. Williams, “Findings From Recent Scientific Research: Highlighting Priorities for Mission” (PowerPoint presentation, 2018), slide 82, https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1065&context=ahsra.

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David Sedlacek, PhD, is a professor and the chair of the Department of Discipleship and Lifespan Education at Andrews University, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.
René Drumm, PhD, is a social scientist and researcher residing in Ooltewah, Tennessee, United States.

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