Clergy Mental Health Crisis: Is Your Church Ready? A Guide to Leaves of Absence and Short-term Disability (US Edition)

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*All examples of premium costs, benefits and terms are current as of writing in December 2021. 

*For Canadian edition, follow this link

The Year(s) of Collective Grief and Widespread Burnout

Pastors today have many sources of trauma, grief and loss. In addition to a pastor’s ongoing professional proximity to death and suffering, pastors today must navigate widespread polarization, rising secularism, and a job that is increasingly complex and misunderstood.  

Not surprisingly, at Pastor Church Resources, we are interacting more and more with pastors dealing with diagnosed and undiagnosed depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness and general burnout. 

What Can a Council Do?

As the tension builds, and the pastor finds they are less and less able to carry on, the council begins to ask, “What can we do to help?”

We commend church councils who 

Frankly, pastors have complicated relationships with their “employers,” since their employers are also their spiritual home and, often, the spiritual home of their families. Thus, pastors need a church that is able to treat them as human beings. Councils do more than anyone else in the church to set the tone of treating the pastor as a fellow child of God, called to the ministry, and not merely an at will employee of the church. But sometimes, even an extra week off here or a task reassigned there is not enough to restore a pastor to sustainable mental, emotional and spiritual health. 

Leave of Absence

When incremental adjustments won’t do, a pastor or council may wonder about the viability of a medical leave of absence to attend to mental health needs. But because this need comes up so irregularly, few churches and pastors know what is technically required to make a leave of absence work.

Church Order

The church order is clear that a minister may take a temporary leave of absence with the approval of the council (Article 16). And the church order also asks each classis to appoint a regional pastor whose responsibility it is to support ministers (Article 42). Regional pastors are sometimes called “the pastor’s pastor,” and they are often key support people for pastors in distress. Finally, if a leave of absence proves to be permanent, a pastor may be released from ordained ministry by way of Article 14b.

How to Pay for a Leave of Absence

While almost every US-based medical insurance will cover at least some mental health services (both inpatient and outpatient), the cost of continuing to compensate the pastor (payroll insurance) during a leave needs to be either self-funded or purchased separately by the pastor or church in the form of Short-Term Disability. 

Short-Term Disability

A typical short-term disability insurance plan will cover between 60% and 80% of an employee’s wages for up to 12 weeks. Coverage typically begins after two weeks of illness. Ordinarily, an insurer only requires the council’s formally minuted approval of a leave of absence. Well-known and reputable providers of short-term disability insurance include Northwestern Mutual, UNUM, Alfac, Guardian, Metlife and Mutual of Omaha. Northwestern Mutual also has a helpful online calculator

Short-term disability is not typically included in a medical insurance policy. And the official insurer of the Christian Reformed Church in the United States (Reformed Benefits Association) does not provide or offer short-term disability coverage. 

Thus, we recommend that churches purchase short-term disability insurance on behalf of all of their employees. Individual plans are usually available. Group plans typically require only 2 participants, and the cost per month is usually less than $50, though rates vary. Though the costs of short-term disability premiums may seem high, the financial, spiritual, emotional and social costs of clergy burnout for both pastor and church are much higher.  

Long-Term Disability

For situations where twelve weeks is insufficient to restore the pastor to sustainable mental health, the pastor may apply for long-term disability. Ordained ministers who participate in the CRCNA Pension Plan are able to opt-in to long-term disability coverage, though many have not opted in. 

A long-term disability plan typically pays an employee 60% of their wages indefinitely. Benefits typically begin after 180 days of disability and typically end at your
Social Security retirement age.   

Pastors and churches are wise to make sure they qualify for long-term disability. Long-term disability can also be purchased on its own (by the church or pastor) through providers like UNUM, Alfac, Guardian, Metlife and Mutual of Omaha. 

What About Social Security?

Social Security Disability Insurance pays benefits to you and certain members of your family if you are "insured," meaning that you worked long enough and paid Social Security taxes.

To qualify for Social Security disability benefits, you must first have worked in a job(s) covered by Social Security. Then you must have a medical condition that meets Social Security's definition of disability. In general, Social Security pays monthly benefits to people who are unable to work for a year or more because of a disability.

Benefits usually continue until you are able to work again on a regular basis. There are also a number of special rules, called "work incentives," that provide continued benefits and health care coverage to help you make the transition back to work.

Learn More

If you are a church leader uncertain of how to care for your struggling pastor, contact Pastor Church Resources

If you are a pastor struggling to manage your spiritual, mental and emotional health, contact your Regional Pastor or Pastor Church Resources. 

For technical support with managing insurance options, contact the US Main Office's Director of Human Resources. 

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