Stress, Trauma, Chronic Stress, Depression, Pain, Fatigue
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A High-Risk Profession: Pastors and PTSD

Pastors often lack training and support structures to deal with the personal impact of traumatic events

Awareness of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has risen dramatically since 1980 when it was formally given a diagnostic status by the American Psychiatric Association. However, this condition has been around much longer. During World War I it was called โ€œshellshock,โ€ Shakespeareโ€™s Henry IV displays many of the characteristics of PTSD. The condition is perhaps as old as trauma itself.

What Is PTSD?

According to the National Center for PTSD, โ€œPosttraumatic stress disorder is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault.โ€ Among the general population PTSD occurs in approximately 10 percent of women and 5 percent of men. Being a victim or simply witnessing the following types of traumatic events can lead to PTSD:

  • Physical assault
  • Sexual assault
  • Military Combat
  • Violent Accidents (car crash, sports collision, or mass transit accident)
  • Racism
  • Terrorism
  • Murder or suicide
  • Crimes in which a person feels violated (like home invasion, burglary, or kidnapping)
  • Life-threatening illness or injury
  • Hearing the story of one of the above events (especially in a helping role like a counselor or therapist)

High-Risk Occupations

When people think of PTSD, they often think of certain professions that necessarily face traumatic events on a daily basis โ€“ soldiers, police, paramedics, etc. This doesnโ€™t mean that these professions cause PTSD, but they are associated with a higher risk. Consider this list of 7 High-Risk Professions That Can Lead to PTSD:

  • Veterans of Military Combat:
    • Iraqi Freedom up to 20%
    • Gulf War around 12%
    • Vietnam as high as 30%
  • Police Officers about 10%
  • Firefighters & Paramedics 20%
  • Healthcare and Mental Health Workers up to 17% depending on the type of work
  • Journalists 30%
  • Disaster First Responders & Volunteers 15-30%

When individuals have an opportunity to express their feelings or talk to a counselor shortly after the traumatic event, the rate of PTSD dramatically drops. This is why the rate for police officers is so low and the rate for journalists is so high.

Pastors and PTSD

One category that never makes the list of at-risk professions is Religious Leaders. According to a current cross-denominational study being done at the Danielsen Institute at Boston University, 55 percent of clergy had scores that indicated PTSD may be a concern, and almost 35 percent met the criteria for a probable PTSD diagnosis. If these numbers were added to the list above, Pastors would have the highest risk of developing posttraumatic stress among all the listed professions.

Why do pastors have such a high risk for developing PTSD?

There are three primary factors for why pastors are at a high risk of PTSD:

First, pastors are exposed to a lot of trauma. Take another look at the above list of traumatic events that can cause PTSD. Pastors are exposed to many of their either by direct experience or through ministering to people who have suffered such trauma.

Second, pastors have high-stress jobs. They live in a world of high expectations, high criticism, and low support. This is a dangerous combination. According to Dr. Nicola Davies, in her article Anxiety, Depression, PTSD Impacted By Occupational Stress, โ€œEvidence suggests that the key link between occupation and mental illness is high stress, which can increase the risk of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and mood and sleep disturbances.โ€

Third, pastors often lack training and support structures to deal with the personal impact of traumatic events. As mentioned above, most of the at-risk professions have support systems to help them deal with trauma. They often attend workshops or professional education to train them how to deal with the effects of exposure to trauma. Most of these occupations also have regular access to counselors through their workplace. Pastors are on their own. They rarely have any training on this issue, and if they want to see a counselor, many have to pay for it out of their own pocket (something most small church pastors canโ€™t afford).

Signs of PTSD

Here are some signs that your pastor may be experiencing PTSD, they may:

  • Withdraw from family, friends, and church members.
  • Have trouble sleeping.
  • Seem lethargic or have trouble doing normal activities.
  • Become distracted, distant, or forgetful.
  • Are depressed, angry, or on edge.
  • Seem uncharacteristically negative, pessimistic, or self-absorbed.
  • Emotions seem muted or they complain of feeling emotionally numb.
  • Engage in addictive or self-destructive behavior.
  • Complain of chronic pain or they have been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia.

What Can a Church Do to Protect Their Pastor from PTSD?

Please note that not all exposure to trauma will result in PTSD. In some cases, it may actually help the person become stronger. โ€œAlmost everyone develops post-traumatic stress reactions shortly after being exposed to severe stressors. However, most stress reactions will diminish within days, weeks or a few months without any intervention. In a significant proportion of those exposed to severe stressors, the outcome is increased resilience, acceptance and post-traumatic growth.โ€ However, given the risk factors that most pastors face, churches would be wise to implement the following:

  1. Ask your pastor โ€œHave you seen or heard about traumatic events recently?โ€ This should be asked at least every month. If the answer is โ€œyes,โ€ they should be encouraged to talk to a professional counselor.
  2. Provide your pastor with a monthly appointment with a licenced professional counselor who knows the stress of pastoral ministry. Make this part of your pastorโ€™s benefit package (even if they are bivocational). Some denominations provide this free or at a reduced cost.
  3. Pay for your pastor to attend training events on primary and secondary trauma. You may have to find one for chaplains, counselors, doctors, or police because there arenโ€™t many available specifically for clergy. If you have the resources, contact a local professional counselor who is an expert on trauma and set up a training day at your church. Invite all the area pastors to attend. Or ask a local seminary to hold a small conference on this issue.
  4. Make sure your pastorโ€™s spouse is trained in spotting symptoms of PTSD. Many times they will be the only one who notices the change. Without training they may take it personally or feel ashamed. Trauma affects the whole family and the effects can last for multiple generations.
  5. When you know your pastor has faced a traumatic event in the life of your church, give them extra time off within a week or two to process their grief. Taking some stress off their shoulders is one of the best ways to help them thrive in traumatic situations.

Experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder does not disqualify your pastor from ministry. In fact, it can be a power tool that God uses to help others process their trauma. As Rick Warren has said, โ€œYour greatest ministry will likely come from your deepest pain.โ€ If your church gives your pastor the support they need, you are following the biblical command to honor your pastor and it may become a blessing for the whole church.

Author of ๐‘ป๐’‰๐’† ๐‘พ๐’†๐’‚๐’“๐’š ๐‘ณ๐’†๐’‚๐’…๐’†๐’“โ€™๐’” ๐‘ฎ๐’–๐’Š๐’…๐’† ๐’•๐’ ๐‘ฉ๐’–๐’“๐’๐’๐’–๐’•: ๐‘จ ๐‘ฑ๐’๐’–๐’“๐’๐’†๐’š ๐’‡๐’“๐’๐’Ž ๐‘ฌ๐’™๐’‰๐’‚๐’–๐’”๐’•๐’Š๐’๐’ ๐’•๐’ ๐‘พ๐’‰๐’๐’๐’†๐’๐’†๐’”๐’” Zondervan Reflective, March 28, 2023 | West Michigan Regional Director for Pastor-in-Residence Ministries ( | Co-host of the Hope Renewed podcast | Clergy Coach | Certified PRO-D facilitator | Spiritual director | Graduate of the Soul Care Institute | Provides training in soul care and leadership | Consults for churches and leadership teams | Leads workshops and retreats | Served as an ordained pastor for 18 years | MDiv from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. | Learn more about Sean at

10 comments on “A High-Risk Profession: Pastors and PTSD

  1. Pingback: Stranger Angels Fighting PTSD – PTSD Patrol

  2. Fr.Scott DesOrmeaux

    I am a Catholic priest, ordained 28 years. Fro the last 7 years the diocese placed me on medical leave which was due to PTSD issues that interfered with my ministry. For 15 years I worked with several law enforcement agencies so more than I needed to of murders, suicides, broken bodies from accidents an delivering hundreds of death notifications to families. For the past 6 years I have requested an assignment or Medical Retirement. Most of those years went unnoticed. Now the bishop is actively working on lacizing me which would deny me of any benefits. I would be given $37,000 and told to leave without insurance or anything else. I feel as many others do that the bishop is treating me not in a Christian manner. I have a church lawyer now and may have to get a civil lawyer for wrongful termination because of PTSD issues acquired during my years of ministry. Does anyone have any thoughts or suggestions? I have already turned my anger towards the bishop to prayer for him and his ministry as bishop.

    • Scott, I’m sorry to hear that you are being treated so poorly. I can imagine how all those years of seeing tragedy and notifying families has affected you. I have my own trauma around similar issues. If you haven’t already, talk to your therapist about this. They may have some knowledge of the law and your legal recourse.

  3. Pingback: Am I Damaged Goods? — The Pastor's Soul

  4. Having went through depression and burnout as a pastor what I found is if you tell leaders your struggles you get labeled โ€œdamaged goodsโ€ and no denominational leader wants to touch that with a ten foot pole. Forget about getting another church and forget about them having help for you. You are a casualty and there is a lot of truth in the saying that we shoot our wounded

    • Jim, I understand your struggle. I had a similar experience of feeling like “damaged goods.” There is a lot we have to learn about mental health in our culture (and especially in our churches). By speaking up and challenging these attitudes, we may be able to change things for the next generation. You’ve inspired me to write more about this problem. For now, know that I do not see you as damaged goods. I believe anyone who has gone through depression and burnout is stronger for it. In my opinion, they will make better pastors because they can identify with the pains of their flock. Don’t let others define you, show them the strength you have gained through this pain. Thank you for your courage to speak this truth!

  5. Roberta Arrowsmith

    I am not sure lay church goers are qualified to ask their pastor if they have seen or heard trauma. There may be a tendency to become an arm chair psychologist thinking they know what is best for their pastor. It could cause a rift between the pastor and laity. I am a pastor. I have a spiritual director and a clergy support group. My denomination provides workshops addressing such issues, and encourages the local Presbyteraries to off support.

    • Roberta,
      You have more resources to help you cope with trauma than many pastors. Some denominations offer no help. There are no qualifications necessary for a congregant to ask if a pastor has been exposed to trauma. In many independent churches, that’s the only way the pastor will get help – if the congregation points them to a qualified professional and provides some support. Without this compassion, many of these pastors will hide their pain and suffer alone.

  6. Mike Miller

    Thank you for addressing the issues of emotional and psychological struggles of pastors. Missionaries are also prime candidates. Thankfully, many agencies are working via. missions debriefing to assist them. However, pastors are overlooked. I do appreciate your desire to help to strength pastors and their families through these difficult times.

    • Great observation Mike, missionaries often have fewer resources to get help. There’s so much we still have to learn on this subject. Hopefully, we will develop helpful systems for pastors and missionaries that don’t rely on self-reporting.

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