Depression: A Vocational Hazard for Pastors

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Early in 2010 Tom Rhodes began to feel overwhelmed by his pastoral duties and barely able to function.

Tom Rhodes is pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh.  Early in 2010 Rhodes began to feel overwhelmed by his duties and barely able to function.  With his wife's urging, Rhodes visited the doctor and received a diagnosis of clinical depression.

The linked story discusses the phenomenon of depression among clergy.  Rhodes points to three factors that contributed to the onset of his depression: (1) an increased workload, due to the departure of an assistant pastor and other factors; (2) the physical effects of aging and a decrease in his level of activity; and (3) a family history of depression. 

Of course, Rhodes is fortunate to receive such strong support from his members.  With the understanding and support of his congregation, he took the summer months as a leave of absence.  He has negotiated a 3/4 time work schedule, and the lay leadership has created a support structure to help him manage his workload and share certain tasks.  Rhodes has preached on the subject of depression and has gotten a grateful response from worshippers who have suffered from mental health problems in secrecy and isolation. 

Advent is upon us, a meaningful time of the Christian year but a busy and demanding time for pastors.  The approach of winter and shortened daylight hours can have a dampening effect on our moods as well.  Perhaps this is a good time to remind our clergy to be on the lookout for signs of stress or depression. 

Tom Rhodes likens his bout with depression to a heart attack: a "wake-up call" warning him to take corrective action.  For depression as well as for heart disease, treatment methods have improved dramatically in recent years.  If we are aware of the warning signs, there is a good chance we can get life-saving, or vocation-saving, help.

As Tom Rhodes reminds us, "True communities are built on shared vulnerabilities."

(The story first appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on November 11.)

Shalom y’all,

John James, M.A.
Research Analyst
Clergy Health Initiative

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