McDonald’s might not be the first place people think of as a hub for ministry. But that’s where you’ll find the Rev. Chip Webb most mornings, sipping a steaming coffee as the Pfafftown, North Carolina, community streams in.

“At 8 a.m., at 9 a.m., at 10 a.m., there are a whole lot of older adult United Methodists taking care of their needs for fellowship in those very inexpensive fast food joints,” Webb said.

And he counts himself among them. Many of the people he chats with each morning are not members of his Brookstown United Methodist congregation, and he relies on those conversations for outside perspective.

“It’s a wonderful practice for me, simply to confirm for myself that I’m a member of this broader community, and my life doesn’t just center around being at the church or with church folk,” Webb said.

It wasn’t always that way.

“In my first appointment, I would have thought, ‘If people see me at McDonald’s or Hardee’s every day, they’ll think I’m just a slacker,’” he said. “But the reality is it feeds my soul, and I’m able to feed other people, emotionally and spiritually.”

Do you regularly take time to care for your mental health?

As the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School is finding, that sense of connectedness can be a marker of something very powerful for clergy: positive mental health.

Positive mental health is more than the absence of negative emotions. People with positive mental health experience high levels of positive emotions, which can be anything from chuckling at a cartoon to feeling awe at the sunset. They feel good about themselves as individuals, experiencing meaning in their lives, positive relationships and personal growth. They also feel satisfied with themselves in community with others -- a sense of belonging and contribution.

In their professional roles, clergy frequently negotiate highly stressful situations, and that can take a personal toll. Researchers with the Clergy Health Initiative found that United Methodist clergy in North Carolina experience high rates of depression and anxiety. Clergy in other mainline Protestant denominations face similar pressures and likely experience similar outcomes.

At the same time, the unique vocation and responsibilities of clergy may have a bearing on their positive mental health. Many clergy strive to live engaged and meaningful lives, and like other caregivers, they feel a strong calling to their work. They also often feel called to help others find meaning and joy during times of suffering and negative circumstances.

In a new study of United Methodist clergy in North Carolina recently published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Clergy Health Initiative set out to determine which factors might protect clergy against problems such as emotional exhaustion, depression and anxiety, and which factors might improve their positive mental health.

They discovered that the factors associated with a lower likelihood of negative outcomes such as depression and anxiety are not necessarily the same as those associated with positive mental health. By identifying factors and pursuing strategies that relate to both, churches can decrease mental health problems among clergy and boost pastors’ positive mental health at the same time.

“People with positive mental health have been shown to work more effectively with people of different backgrounds, races and genders,” said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, the Clergy Health Initiative’s research director. “They’re also more open to social interaction and to new ideas, and better equipped to solve problems creatively. Who wouldn’t want that sort of leader at the helm of their congregation?”

Moreover, those with positive mental health are less likely to experience a new case of anxiety or depression, be hospitalized or develop a chronic disease in the next year.

So while offering support and treatment for depression and anxiety is important, Proeschold-Bell said, churches should also put resources toward proactively promoting clergy’s positive mental health, which can further serve as a preventive against physical or mental health problems.

The Clergy Health Initiative study found several factors related to positive mental health in clergy -- leading a “positive congregation,” for example, in which congregants get along with each other, contribute positively to the surrounding community, and are open to new experiences and new people; and perceiving that congregants support the pastor as an individual, not just as a pastor.

Do you perceive that your congregants or community support you as an individual?

But more importantly, the study found three factors that were associated with both a lower likelihood of negative and a greater likelihood of positive mental health. It’s in these areas -- experiencing less financial stress, getting adequate social and emotional support, and not feeling socially isolated -- where interventions may have the greatest impact, not just for United Methodist clergy but for clergy in other denominations as well.

Financial stress among clergy is not uncommon. The minimum salary for a full-time pastor in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church is roughly $42,000; the median full-time income in this study was $48,000. While housing expenses are often covered as part of a compensation package, clergy responsible for the expenses of raising a family and paying off debt from seminary and undergraduate education may well experience financial strain.

In addition, the frequent relocations required of itinerant United Methodist clergy may limit the incomes of clergy spouses, who may not receive promotions because of short tenures, thereby increasing the family’s financial stress. Lengthening church appointments could help, the study said, as could providing financial counseling and planning tools for clergy.

Clergy themselves, speaking with Clergy Health Initiative researchers, named a variety of strategies they use to increase social support and decrease social isolation -- joining a covenant peer group, for example, or finding a mentor.

“Ministry is lonely, particularly in some of these smaller churches,” said the Rev. Jenny Wilson, associate pastor of Apex United Methodist Church in Apex, North Carolina. “You don’t have a large staff. You’re not part of a big team.”

A covenant group can go a long way toward providing clergy with much-needed support and accountability, she said. “I always was in one. It has been huge for me.”

Webb said his ministry has benefited from a mentoring relationship with a more seasoned pastor.

“My very first appointment [as a student pastor], I had four churches,” he said. “At the main church, there was a person who was maybe eight years older than me, and he was my lifeline. He sought me out to engage me; he was hospitable and invitational and nonjudgmental. He’d been doing it long enough where he could simply say to me, ‘You don’t need to do this. You don’t need to put up with this.’ And whether I listened to him or not, that was extremely helpful for me.”

The Rev. David Woodhouse of Smyrna United Methodist Church near Robbins, North Carolina, increased the level of social support he receives from his congregation by engaging them in the shared work of ministry. He let his congregation know that as pastor, he intended to be present and available to people. But he also challenged them to join his efforts: “If the only people who get a visit are the people I visit, then we as a church aren’t going to fulfill our calling.”

“That concept of ‘doing church as a team’ is really important from the start,” Woodhouse said. “The truth is, a leader makes a big difference, but the impact of that leader is multiplied tremendously if others come alongside of that person, and it becomes a team effort.”

It can also have a big effect on the pastor’s health.

Editor’s note: A copy of the study is available on the websites of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Clergy Health Initiative.

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • Do you regularly take time to care for your mental health? Do you pursue strategies that might improve your positive mental health, rather than only focusing on reducing depression or anxiety? What strategies have worked for you in the past?
  • Do you perceive that your congregants or community support you as an individual? What markers do you look for to know whether that is true?
  • Do you lead what researchers call a "positive congregation"? How much of your leadership is spent helping congregants get along with one another, contributing to the community, or feeling open to new experiences and people?
  • The Rev. David Woodhouse has challenged his congregations to join him in the work of ministry. Do you invite your community to live into a joint calling, or do you feel like you need to do all of the work yourself?