By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Correspondent

Having led spiritual direction with priests in crisis since 1998, the Rev. Ed Cardoza has helped clerics navigate the deep personal impacts of many catastrophes, from the 9/11 terror attacks to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Ten months into the COVID-19 pandemic, he said the state of clergy mental health is the worst he’s ever seen.

“This is the first time I’ve heard clergy folks say, ‘I’m really thinking about ending my life’,” said Fr. Cardoza, co-founder of Still Harbor, a nonprofit with spiritual direction services based in Arlington, Massachusetts. Since March, about 20 percent of his clients have expressed “strong suicidal ideation.” Another third was not thinking about leaving ministry until this year, but now sees no other option.

“I have noticed a profound lack of joy in priests,” said Cardoza, who works largely with Episcopal clergy and finds them wounded by the inability to be present with their flocks. “If you’re not filled with joy and the energy of community, then no wonder why you’re thinking about: ‘Maybe it’s time for me to pack it in.’”

Social isolation, tough circumstances within clergy families, frustration-fueled conflict in parishes, nervous church budgeting for 2021 — all of it together makes the pandemic status quo feel unsustainable for growing numbers of men and women of the cloth, as Cardoza has learned.

Tragedy has underscored how worst-case scenarios aren’t merely hypothetical. In May, Charleston megachurch pastor Darrin Patrick drew national attention to clergy vulnerability when he ended his own life. Then in September, 30-year-old Episcopal priest Melissa Kean also took her life too, according to a statement from Bishop of Colorado Kimberly Lucas, who used the moment to urge anyone suffering from mental health woes to get help.

“In this time,” Lucas said, “where many of us are dealing with competing demands and the emotional, spiritual, and mental toll of social isolation… I encourage you: speak to someone. Reach out.”

As a group battered by knock-on effects of pandemic stress, clergy have plenty of company. In the 2020 Stress in America Report, the American Psychological Association finds that 78 percent of Americans say the pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives. What’s more, 67 percent say their stress has increased as the pandemic has worn on.

Cumulative and intensifying stressors are now wearing clergy in particular ways, even though many have adapted at least somewhat to online worship, pastoral care via Zoom, and other innovations. Surveys taken both ecumenically and inside denominations point to a worsening mental health situation that’s leading dioceses to make more supports available. Among the findings:

  • In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, about 16 percent of church workers were treated for mental health disorders such as major depression or anxiety during the first half of 2020. That’s up 6.1 percent from the same period a year earlier.
  • 20 percent of Protestant clergy rate their mental and emotional well-being as below average or poor, according to a national survey in August by Barna Group. That was up pointedly from 11 percent in April and two percent in December 2015.
  • Among Roman Catholic priests, 62 percent said their morale has been impacted somewhat or very much by the pandemic, according to a May-June survey by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Eighty percent said they see the pandemic impacting the morale of priests in their dioceses.
  • In August, 64 percent of United Church of Christ clergy were judged to be doing fair or poor in terms of mental health, according to survey results from regional conference staff in 12 geographic areas.

“I know from my research that the poorer mental health comes from being isolated, feeling alone, feeling like there’s no hope and no support,” said Sarah Griffith Lund, the UCC’s Minister for Disabilities and Mental Health Justice, and author of Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church. “Having a community of practice [bringing clergy peers together] will remind people we’re not alone, we’re not isolated, there is hope and we do have support.”

The pandemic is making it hard for clergy to renew themselves and be effective. Although many are experienced in ministering in crises, they’re usually not going through the disaster themselves while also trying to help others cope with extreme stress. Yet that’s what’s needed this time — not just for the sprint last Spring, but also for what’s become a marathon without mileage markers and no end in sight, according to Jeff Thiemann, President and CEO of Portico Benefit Services, which manages health claims for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) 11,000 affiliated workers.

“People aren’t taking time to rest,” Thiemann said, “but one thing we do know is that we cannot run this marathon on adrenaline alone. Adrenaline got us online , and adrenaline got us through Easter, but boy, Easter feels a long way away.”

Laypeople can inadvertently compound their clergy’s mental health woes. In settings where conflict has lingered unresolved, for instance, clergy are increasingly being scapegoated or viewed with heightened distrust, Thiemann said.

“I’ve heard clergy talk about… a lack of trust within the congregation that the pastor is actually working because they don’t see [the pastor] visible in the way that they saw them before,” Thiemann said. “They’re asking for documentation to show me that you’re actually working full-time. Meanwhile a lot of [pastors] are putting in way more time and energy than they did before to adapt to the new way of doing this.”

Working extra pandemic hours is a story familiar to the Rev. John Drymon, rector of Trinity Church in Findlay, Ohio. Pre-pandemic, he used to lead two Sunday services in person. Now he leads three in order to allow for sufficient social distancing at each. But that’s not all; he also pre-records a fourth service which he then edits and posts on Facebook and YouTube.

Pandemic stress has at times stirred up the chronic anxiety that Fr. Drymon says he manages with a combination of medication, psychotherapy, and spiritual direction. The pace of pandemic ministry has been “exhausting,” he said, but he’s taking only half the vacation time he’s earned this year because the demands of ministry have kept him mostly at work. He was working last August when he finally felt himself “coming up on hitting a brick wall,” he recalled.

“A lot of it was the stress of trying to reinvent the wheel” and do ministry without physical presence with parishioners, Drymon said. “It was a lot of extra hours leading to fatigue and irritability.”

He recognized his irritability for what it was — a mental health warning sign — and pivoted to recommit to healthy habits. He’s feeling better now, he says, though still fatigued at times. He credits his reinvigoration of several routines, especially his 20-year daily habit of saying morning and evening prayer, which he says keeps him grounded. As an added bonus, a few parishioners now join him for morning prayer online each day.

“I reminded myself,” Drymon said, “what those great ascetical theologians of old, like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, talked about. Just keeping at it, even if you are in a period of spiritual aridity or coming into a dark night. I found that over a period of six weeks, I was able not only to stop the tide of a negative outcome for my own mental and spiritual health, but really come out the other side a bit stronger and more energized.”

Dr. Lund, the UCC officer, manages her own pandemic stressors in her role as senior minister at First Congregational Church. She is in recovery from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), she said, but hasn’t been notably hampered by that condition this year. She says she is doing “very well,” which she attributes to what she calls “wellness practices.” She sees a therapist, maintains friendships, and sustains routines to regulate healthy eating, exercise and sleep.

“I’ve found that people who had preexisting mental health conditions and had a method of support in place are doing better [in the pandemic] than people who are not accustomed to addressing mental health challenges,” Lund said.

To stay mentally healthy, clergy are supplementing individual disciplines with group engagement. In Southern Massachusetts, they’re learning to rely on peers to make sure they’re doing OK and keeping up with selfcare, according to Canon for the Southern Massachusetts region Kelly O’Connell. In one of her four deaneries, clergy have gone from meeting monthly pre-pandemic to gathering weekly now on Zoom. Efforts are also underway to make sure every clergyperson in the Diocese of Massachusetts is part of a peer support group.

Now with the arrival of Advent, tired clergy in Massachusetts are receiving an early Christmas gift: prerecorded sermons, preached by diocesan staff, for each week covering the Feast of Christ the King (Nov. 22) through the Baptism of Our Lord (Jan. 10). The idea is for them to use one or more to feed their flocks in the holy seasons of Advent and Christmastide — and take off the time they would have spent sermon-writing.

“I do worry about their burnout, I guess, more than anything,” said Bishop Carol Gallagher, canon for the Central region of the Diocese of Massachusetts. “We’ve had a couple [of priests] inquire about taking leave for mental health reasons. I do think there’s a rise in that. But I’m actually pretty positively amazed at how creative people are being in the midst of all of this.”