Pastor’s Health Summit a ‘rejuvenating experience’

BUIES CREEK, North Carolina  – Ministers, take heed. When a member of your congregation asks how you’re doing, they don’t really want to know the answer.

“They’re really asking if you’re OK enough for them to lean on you,” said H. Mac Wallace, ordained Baptist minister and senior professor of pastoral care at Campbell University.

The real answer to that question is often troubling. More than 1,500 pastors in the U.S. leave their ministries each month due to burnout, conflict or moral failure. About 80 percent feel they spend insufficient time with their family, and 75 percent report their jobs cause “severe stress.”

Most troubling — the pastoral profession is said to have one of the Top 3 suicide rates of any profession.

In an effort to address these statistics and provide pastors with resources and tools that will help them take better care of themselves and their congregations, Campbell University Divinity School hosted its first Pastor’s Health Summit June 2. More than 75 professionals attended what will become an annual summer event that included breakout sessions dealing with topics like grief, marriage and family life, nutrition and exercise, mental health and depression, financial health and more.

If the attendance, participation and feedback are good indications, the inaugural summit was a success, according to Peter Donlon, the Divinity School’s director of church relations and development and organizer of the summit.

“Personally, I feel very satisfied that we provided a life-giving and rejuvenating experience to ministers who give so much to others,” Donlon said. “Pastors are called on to pray and intercede for others on a continual basis. Many told us [the summit] was a welcome and necessary support to their ministry work.”

Wallace partnered with Mary Whitehouse, a 2006 Divinity graduate and current psychologist with Wake County Schools, to deliver two session on “mental health, depression and loneliness.” According to Wallace, pastors are more prone to depression than most other professions because they’re constantly dealing with grief, they’re constantly trying to live up to the expectations their congregations have for them and they’re usually understaffed, underpaid and underappreciated.

“We take on the responsibility of other people’s anxiety,” Wallace said. “It’s a constant tug-of-war — how can I hold on to what I am, what I believe and what I want to be versus what my congregation thinks I am, who they want me to be and what they want me to believe?”

As with the other sessions, Wallace and Whitehouse came with advice for the attendees. Wallace suggested pastors find people outside of their congregation to share their feelings, and he encouraged meditation and breathing exercises. “Have your feet on the ground before you deal with someone else’s irrationality.”

The summit was a multi-departmental event with professors from the School of Osteopathic Medicine, College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences and School of Business on hand as session presenters.

Andrew Muzyk, associate professor in the College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences, talked for 90 minutes on medications and addictions. In addition to revealing startling statistics on pain medicine (opioid) abuse and addiction, he provided important information for pastors dealing with members of their congregation who suffer from addiction. Attendees learned about naloxone, a drug that can halt the effects of an opioid overdose, and how they can legally administer the drug in times of emergency.

Jeff Krepps, associate director for behavioral health for the medical school, and Dennis Bazemore, vice president for student life at Campbell, hosted separate sessions on balancing marriage, family and pastoral demands (13 percent of pastors are divorced, and one-fourth say their spouses see their work schedule as a source of conflict). Michelle Osborn, adjunct professor of business, and local CPA Brent Honeycutt offered advice on finances and taxes in two other sessions (in addition to their plethora of duties, many ministers are the lead financial decision makers of their church).

“This summit was rich on information and much needed,” said the Rev. Lionel Cartwright, former pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Chadbourn, Divinity School alumnus, member of the summit’s steering committee and attendee. “We all came here seeking self help, seeking ways and tools to care for our families and our communities, and seeking ideas for better outreach. This summit complimented and nurtured those dynamics. It gave me as an attendee a renewed vigor for what this profession is supposed to be about. I’m overly excited to not only help make it happen, but to be a part of it.

“I can go out and preach about love, but that love has to also include me. In all the ways we care for our church, we as pastors need to care for ourselves as well. That’s a powerful message.” — Billy Liggett