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Research shows that nearly 1 in 4 pastors (23 percent) acknowledges having struggled with mental illness. A significant number also experience burnout. A Mental Health Task Force established by the Disability Concerns offices of the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America has been concerned about how these situations are addressed and handled by pastors and councils or consistories. This is a sensitive issue. Sometimes a pastor may need a leave of absence.

The Task Force has developed a document called Guide for a Clergy Leave of Absence for Mental Health Reasons that provides guidelines and suggestions for pastors and for church councils. Christian Reformed (CRC) and Reformed Church in America (RCA) Disability Concerns ministries collaborated to produce this guide and supporting materials. Our team — composed of people from Canada and the U.S. and from both denominations — included pastors, chaplains, therapists, members of CRC Pastor Church Resources, mental health service providers, and individuals who have experienced mental illness themselves. 

The Guide recommends things like:

  • (for the pastor) Seek professional help in processing and reflecting on your situation so that you can gain insight and make healing and healthy changes. Be patient with yourself. Healing takes time.
  • (for the council or consistory) Pastoral care is important. Let the pastor and the pastor's loved ones guide you as to what they need. The need for emotional space varies and must be respected. It may be tempting to prescribe what should be done and when, but the details for an arrangement need to be worked out with the pastor and the pastor’s health care providers.

In order to introduce this document, we have designed 15-, 45-, and 90-minute presentations that include slide presentations, discussion questions, and sample case studies. If you decide to present this to your group (which we hope you do), the presentation could be made by a mental health professional or a church leader.

Find all the documents below:

  • Guide for a Clergy Leave of Absence for Mental Health Reasons (CRC and RCA versions)
  • Case Studies for Discussion
  • Leader’s Guide for Case Studies
  • Slide Presentation Options
  • Facilitator’s Guide for the Group Presentation (CRC and RCA versions)

The attached materials were created for CRC and RCA churches, and the documents have been tailored to the polity and practices of each denomination. For this reason, some of the documents are labeled "CRC" and some "RCA." Churches with different polity and practices are welcome to use these materials as a guide for creating your own. If you do this, we ask that you acknowledge your source.


Kudos to Mark Stephenson and the entire team who assembled the guidelines for requesting a leave of absence for pastors with mental health issues.

This document/toolkit will serve Pastors, councils, and churches well.

Thank you immensely,

Larry Van Essen


I would second Larry's commendation, it is time we recognize that something is wrong and take steps to address it.  However, like many other things I encounter in both the RCA/CRC and churches in general, we are incredibly slow to recognize a problem.  Over 10 years ago I was tasked with investigating malfeasance by a fellow pastor.  During that investigation I had several conversations with police detectives, and at one point I was asked how often clergy are expected to have a psychological evaluation.  I had to admit, that once we are are ordained that kind of check up is no longer called for.  The detective told me every time he was promoted, a psychological evaluation was required.  Given that one in four clergy suffer from mental illness, maybe it is time we took a look at getting ahead of the problem rather than providing resources at the end.  I also wonder that since 1 in 4 clergy will admit to some sexual indiscretion with someone other than their spouse, if there is a connection? 

My perspective is that of a long term, "old guy" clergy and a licensed therapist.  I hope, that this is just the beginning of the process of looking at clergy health.  A few years ago we decided that most of us were overweight and a physical fitness regimen was encouraged, maybe it is time we looked at mental health the same way, and looked closely at what is negatively impacting a group of men and women who in previous generations would have been some of the healthiest people in the population.

Rodney, thanks for your comment. Your suggestion that pastors have periodic mental health checkups is intriguing and strikes me as wise. However, you are suggesting something much bigger and even more anxiety-producing than a guide for what congregations and pastors can do once the pastor is dealing with an acute mental illness. In Danjuma Gibson's insightful article, "Trauma: Suffering in Silence" in the Fall 2016 Calvin Seminary Forum, he argues that congregations have a need for their pastor always to be emotionally and spiritually strong, which would get in the way both of pastors getting treatment and of looking for signs of mental illness among pastors before symptoms become acute. Gibson writes,

Th­e congregation’s need for their idealized pastor to “be well” will in many cases compromise the pastor’s actual ability to recover from trauma or loss. ­The reality of their pastor falling victim to a trauma and possibly displaying human weakness and spiritual ambivalence may be too disruptive to the collective psyche of the church.

I would guess that unless a pastor has good self-differentiation, he or she will succumb to that need of the congregation and do his/her very best to pretend everything is fine. I hope that this clergy guide, and especially the accompanying materials, will help move the dial just a little for church leaders to acknowledge that pastors, along with everyone else, have struggles, and the whole system is healthier when we acknowledge that and even take preventative steps (as you suggest) to prevent challenges from becoming train wrecks. 

Mark,  Thanks for your kind words.  It is my prayer that this is a first step toward some honest dialog on this subject between more than just you and I.  You see I am nearing the end of my career and doing my best to maintain my balance.  My concern is for those who have many years to come and as you cite Gibson's article, which I need to find by the way, the idealized pastor is part our collective history and is not likely to change to quickly, unless we as active clergy find ways to support and encourage that kind of self-differentiation which is not generally rewarded. 

I would also like to offer my help to be part of the solution rather than someone complaining.  I have some theories and ideas I am pondering and hoping to put into practice in the near future.  Once again thanks for the willingness to at least raise the issue.

This is a great resource! I'm sharing in a Facebook group our ministry launched for mental health ministry leaders.

Good work like this seems to stand the test of time.  Here I am, 4 years later, finding this helpful and good again.  Thanks again, Mark (and any others that helped assemble this piece).  It is good to be a part of this denominational community, to be enveloped in the care and wisdom gathered, and to be a part of the work of sharing the wisdom in helpful ways to my local community.

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