This is an older book, and by the time I heard about it and had a chance to read it (see disclaimer at the bottom), it came out well-timed for Black History Month.
Wynnetta Wimberley, Depression in African-American Clergy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 978-13-4994-909-0.
For far too long, mental illnesses have been stigmatized, and in churches, often treated as a failure of faith. The problem has gained attention as the national suicide rate climbs, and those we honor, such as pastors, first responders, and veterans have been caught in the storm.
Add to this a mental health crisis among African-American communities, one that has also struck many of its traditional leaders—the clergy. So begins Wimberley’s study of the background, unique problems, and suggestions for this group. It is a study from which we all can learn.
“How could a pastor commit suicide” and what are laity to do when clergy lose hope? (4). One of the first suggestions in this book is to understand that a pastor is human too. They have problems, shortcomings, and desires, and many practices in the church are a prescription for failure. One of these practices noted is the high status of the Black pastor, who leads a community that has traditionally been a refuge for its members in an often-hostile world.
Depression is a frequent illness among pastors of all denominations. It is abetted by the vulnerability of the position, and is often correlated with weakness. It is also the most common mental illness. Other frequently occurring conditions include bipolar moods, narcissism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and dementia (9). Factors in this include physical health (pastors often suffer from problems here, too), brain chemistry, genetics and family history, and stress.
Added to this, African-American communities often live with a sense of historical trauma, a cumulative emotional and psychological wound passed on through generations in response to slavery. The author devotes much of her time to illustrations of this phenomenon. For those whose education about slavery is the typical cursory survey of a high-school textbook (often written to satisfy less-than-honest school boards) these examples will be shocking to read. It is also a warning as researchers learn more about PTSD and trauma and find increasing signs among almost all segments of our society.
The African-American clergyperson occupies a distinct position in their culture. In my city, this has recently become clear as this group is taking the lead to work with politicians to handle an outbreak of violence among young people. This “healer of the sick” (82) status, however, leads to a perceived need to hide one’s own vulnerability.
For direction, the author turns to the prophetess Huldah of 2 Chronicles 34. A cultural change to understanding mutual needs in caregiving. She also advocates church training in mental health awareness, candidate evaluations, and including mental health benefits as part compensation, including therapists and sabbaticals. This would provide a model for members, and forge a sense of authority that includes safe spaces for personal needs. Mutual regard and concern will go a long way to restoration of wholeness without stigma and honor those who struggle themselves.
While this book is descriptive of a particular, and important culture, it will provide valuable insights to pastors from all backgrounds. The suggestions for moving forward, likewise, are useful for all.
Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library with the stipulation that I would return it within a specified time. I have fulfilled that stipulation.