Faith from the Edges

Faith and life from the perspective of me.

Depression, Stigma, and Clergy Families


I am not even sure how to start this post – I am so full of anger, disappointment, despair and sorrow.

The dear one is a clergy person. He loves being a priest, sharing the good news, celebrating the sacraments, being with people on their faith and life journeys.  Almost two years ago he was placed on medical leave by his bishop. This was not a mutual decision, this was a decision that was handed to him, to us. The dear one had coped with and managed his depression with a lot of support from his family  and medical team for almost 15 years before being placed on medical leave. Now here we are stuck.

Every parish that he has applied to has not even put him on the short list for an interview. Every bishop he has spoken to has been discouraging of him applying for parishes. As soon as they see the words ‘medical leave’ or ‘depression’ they put his application at the bottom of the pile.

Here comes the rant part. This is STIGMA pure and simple.

The bishops in our church are not being honest about how many clergy regularly  cope with depression or about  how many of them are dealing with depression on a daily basis. Just by the grace of God they are not in the situation that we are in. At the moment I am not even sure that it is grace. In fact I think it has more to do with lying and subterfuge and fear than it does with grace.

No one is being honest with the dear one about why he cannot get past the front door and at least get asked to interview for a parish. No one will come out and say it is because your depression got out of control and you burned out. They won’t say that because that would put them into legal difficulties.

There are also no resources within the church to help clergy and their families in this situation. You are told you are on your own. Keep applying for parishes and hopefully a parish will be willing to take you on. There is no encouragement there at all.

What I want to know is where the gospel in all of this?  Where is the love of God in all of this? Is it right to abandon a good priest and his family because he has been honest about his mental health situation?

We are trying to figure out what is next for us. My job is ending soon. The future is seeming bleak at the moment. I never thought that in our middle years we would be facing such an emotional, financial, and mental crisis.

I wish that I could end this with a positive note but I cannot at this time.  My heart just can’t find a positive place to be at the moment.


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12 thoughts on “Depression, Stigma, and Clergy Families

  1. Valerie on said:

    As always my prayers are with you all … I to understand the stigma of depression and mental illness. So … here is my rant!

    It is unfortunate that organized religious communities are so slow to catch up with the rest of the world in understanding and actively being proactive and helpful when dealing with their “staff” i.e. clergy when they are faced with this type of life altering dilemma. As your dear one has dealt with his difficulties he should be integrated back into “the workforce” i.e. a parish … in the corporate world this is called modified work. It is high time that the church did a reality check and provided better care for it’s clergy; for illness whether mental or physical and also provided integration back into service when once again healthy. It is shameful and uncaring do to otherwise.

    The Lord be with you …

  2. Sharon on said:

    It is shameful that those who are supposed to be the chief pastors would abandon and treat you in this way. I really hear your despair and pain. My heart weeps with yours. Much love.

  3. Dale on said:

    I too am familiar with depression. More North Americans suffer from this than any other….I was diagnosed with CCD over 20 years ago. I took one year of leave from my work. I am on medication and will be for my lifetime. I found THE CHURCH the most ignorant except for my very dear fellowship Prayer group who walked with me.

  4. How to confront prejudice and stereotypes is something they never taught us about at church. Most of the time we don’t talk about the hard stuff. Why, I’ll never know, since some of Jesus’ greatest miracles were about embracing humanity in times of crisis and overcoming the darkness, and seeing everyone as children of God.

    Sometimes I wonder why I do not feel comfortable at church and partly I think it is the masks we wear on Sunday, the secrets we keep, and the way we mistreat or abandon people who need our support the most. Yes, people in your congregation suffer from mental illness, physical illness, depression, anxiety. Yes, people have had cancer, had disease. Yes, people in your church are poor and broken. Yes, people in your church have been through tremendous personal loss. Yes, people in your church have had miscarriages, abortions, been through divorce, and death.

    But people are resilient, God makes us strong, and we have come through worse times. So why would depression make any Pastor less capable of teaching the word of God, when now he can surely relate to a larger portion of his population, because although we have not all been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, we have all been through periods of sorrow and discouragement. We have all reached some personal lows. The church is in a low now. You feel it. But there is always a new cycle, a new season of the spirit. This is not the end.

  5. Valerie is right that a secular employer would be provide modified duties for an employee recovering from a legitimate disability. However the Church has its own curious HR avoidance strategy.

    Clergy don’t really work for “the Church.” They really work for “The Parish.” And in our parochial system (and I mean that both technically and pejoratively), the prospective new parish a) feels no legal obligation and little moral obligation to provide for the former employee of another parish and b) most parishes that are realistically available to a priest recovering from mental / emotional issues (including depression and burnout) tend to be almost marginal, one cleric parishes which are (perhaps understandably) unwilling to take a risk on such a priest (meaning, ironically, they are more likely to end up with a priest on a trajectory towards burnout).

    I don’t really know what to suggest. For me, secular work for 15 years (and the effective abandonment of ministry for most of that) seemed to work. And though there are significant differences between your beloved’s story and mine, there are fundamental similarities.

    There are ways to be priest that do not depend upon the traditional parochial model – many of which come from identifying an unmet need and proposing to meet it.

  6. Pingback: Grace, Abundance, and Thanks « Faith from the Edges

  7. There but for the grace of God go too many clergy; after loving, supporting, leading others through so many different kinds of suffering, none is offered by our bishops, who are busy attending to administrivia, and legal issues, and official business that has nothing to do with the Gospel, or proclamation or serving the least! Parish clergy are supposed to “suck it up” when the cross-currents become too much to bear; and then are told that since we could no longer do so we are “unfit”. Bishops don’t burn-out because they are so far from the fire- and won’t go back there because deep down they are fearful in these tumultuous times. So much easier to say it was your fault!

  8. I am very sorry for your family’s experience and for your current experience of church family. I am all too aware of the variety of responses that are displayed by a cross-section of people in positions of authority.
    However, I have also had opportunity to offer my forgiveness to those who have admitted their part in creating the bumps in the road of my life. These were moments of profound humility for me, that ‘the other’ became ‘like me’ in their vulnerability as they also yearned for healing of relationship and for Jesus’ peace.
    I have also had to practise what I preach and ask forgiveness in many situations and relationships, and it is still so hard to do. Sometimes the forgiveness is not forthcoming and the rift is made permanent by the one I hurt. These are the things that I have done and the things that I have not done, and asked God to reveal to me my hidden faults. It is long and difficult work – the work of the soul, and I expect and hope that for better or for worse I’ll find out how I’ve done, later!
    I have been very fortunate, in that while I have experienced much that is negative during my life’s spiritual journey, it has been diluted, and finally ameliorated by the kindness shown by others. Jesus is present no matter how I understand or misunderstand the concept and working of forgiveness at any given point along the way.
    I pray for healing of mind, body, and spirit, and have been granted compassion. I will pray for you and for that same gift of healing. I have a long way to go to learn patience, but the spell-checker ensures that I can at least type it correctly! I do not know if I will ever have a parish under my sole care again, and at this point am not sure that it would be a good idea for me or for my family. I am very grateful that I am in a situation where our practical needs are met. The transition into the unknown is very difficult, so sometimes I have to state out loud my trust in God, to provide me with Living Water to get through the next hour let alone the next day. Sadly, you are not alone and happily, you are not alone.

    • Brendan on said:

      My dear step-daughter-in-law,

      My mother referred me to your excellent post here.

      I know depression, and I’ve been struggling with it since I was 12 years old. I’m 25 and I am just now starting to get a handle on it. It’s taken living in horrible conditions, being berated or abandoned by family members, being called lazy and told I should be ashamed of myself (and I have felt that way, for a long time).

      What changed my view of my depression and non-functioning was something my doctor said. He described how he had been called upon to testify at a hearing of a patient’s, who had been fired because he missed work (due to depression). He testified that it was unrealistic to expect someone working through major depression to handle work like a non-depressed person. He said, “You wouldn’t expect a cancer patient currently undergoing chemotherapy to work a full time job without missing at least some work.” In that comparison I found a real sense of relief, I have been ill, not lazy. I have been very, very ill. I am undergoing treatment, and that is a good thing, and something that takes time.

      I’m sorry that your dear one’s employer didn’t understand and support them. I’m glad that you’ve had some forward motion of late, and that opportunities have opened up.

      I know we haven’t known each other long, but I hope you both feel my love and support. You are both special people.

  9. Brendan on said:

    I mean to say step-sister… I’m no good at genealogy.

  10. Pingback: Reflections « Faith from the Edges

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