Pastor based in Dallas shares journey in depression, urges others to get help

Pastors and other clergy members often serve as pillars of support in times of crisis. Yet what happens when they’re the ones who need to be lifted up?

Mark Dance, a former pastor who lives in Dallas, knows firsthand that mental health struggles can impact those in church leadership.

During his three decades of leading various churches, Dance, now 59, experienced a three-year bout of clinical depression — and now, as a pastor advocate for GuideStone, he helps support other pastors who are struggling.

ILLINOIS PASTOR AND AUTHOR URGES OTHERS AMID TODAY’S EVIL, ‘MAKE AMERICA LOVE AGAIN’

He revealed the details of his story to Fox News Digital. 

The ‘three-year fog’

Dance’s mental health challenge began about 15 years ago, when he was in his third pastoral position, he said. 

Dr. Mark Dance split

Mark Dance, pictured with his wife, Janet Dance, said he suffered through a three-year period of depression while serving as a pastor. (Dr. Mark Dance)

He and his wife, Janet Dance, were busy navigating life in ministry while raising teenagers — and they were also in the middle of a major move from one church campus to another.

“I noticed that I had become different,” he told Fox News Digital. “I was avoiding people, when I used to love being with people. And it became difficult to sleep, eat and make decisions.”

“I was working way too much, and using ‘the God card’ as an excuse.”

Dance also noticed that he’d lost a significant amount of weight. It was a period that he now refers to as a “three-year fog.”

“I was working way too much, and using ‘the God card’ as an excuse,” he said. 

FLORIDA MOM-TO-BE GETS SURPRISE OF HER LIFE FROM HER OWN MOTHER: ‘WISH FULFILLED’ 

“I was a ‘churchaholic’ who refused to receive the gift of a day off and did not honor the Sabbath. I was neglecting myself, and it just all caught up with me.”

Dance had been down before, he said, but usually he was able to shake it off within a week or two. “But this time, I was stuck for a long time,” he said.

Dr. Mark Dance

Mark Dance is pictured with his family in 2002. He and his wife, Janet Dance, were busy navigating a life in the ministry while raising their teenagers when his depression journey began, he said. (Dr. Mark Dance)

Although it was “out of character” for him to ask for help, Dance reached out to his family physician — who diagnosed him with clinical depression, prescribed medication and told him to “throttle down.”

By slowing down and focusing on his own needs, Dance was eventually able to “get healthy again.” 

A few years later, he transitioned into a new role of helping other pastors overcome their own mental health struggles.

Those in church leadership are just as vulnerable to mental health struggles as the people they serve, Dance said.

“My clinical depression was equivalent to a common cold compared to some other types,” he told Fox News Digital. 

AMERICAN VETERANS WHO COMMIT SUICIDE ARE 95% MALE, CRISIS OFTEN DRIVEN BY FAMILY DISPUTES, SAY EXPERTS 

“Depression is kind of like cancer in that regard — there are different levels. In my case, it was diagnosed early and was treatable.”

Learning to practice self-compassion

While it might seem that those in church leadership are perpetually strong, they are just as vulnerable to mental health struggles as the people they serve, Dance said.

“We deal with the same issues — health problems, marriage challenges, problems with kids or money,” he said. “But it is more difficult for us to ask for help because it’s counterintuitive for us as caregivers.”

Dr. Mark Dance

“My wife is my biggest fan and advocate,” Dance said. “Janet stepped up and became the leader of our home and our marriage for about three years, when I couldn’t lead anything.” (Dr. Mark Dance)

A pastor feels compelled to succeed both at work and at home, Dance noted — “because our spouse and kids are in our job description in the Bible.”

That can lead to unrealistic expectations and added pressure, he said.

“About one out of four pastors will experience a mental health challenge,” he told Fox News Digital. “And I just happened to be one of those.”

ILLINOIS PASTOR AND AUTHOR URGES OTHERS AMID TODAY’S EVIL, ‘MAKE AMERICA LOVE AGAIN’

Dr. Norman Blumenthal, director of the Ohel Zachter Family National Trauma Center in New York, noted that members of the clergy are often “benevolent and idealistic individuals” who extend themselves to others, even at the expense of their own well-being

“It’s essential to remember that charity and care entail giving generously, but not excessively,” Blumenthal, who is not associated with GuideStone, told Fox News Digital. 

“We can give a piece of ourselves, but not ourselves in entirety. When setting limits and triaging those we help, clergy often provide more effectively and abundantly than less.”

Dr. Mark Dance

While it might seem that those in church leadership are perpetually strong, they are just as vulnerable to mental health struggles as the people they serve, Dance pointed out. (Dr. Mark Dance)

While pastoring requires compassion for others, exercising self-compassion is just as important, according to Yale University’s Dr. Emma Seppälä, author of “Sovereign: Reclaim your Freedom, Energy and Power in a Time of Distraction, Uncertainty, and Chaos.”

“Often, people in service-oriented professions give a lot to others without taking into account that they need to give to themselves as well,” Connecticut-based Seppälä, who is also not associated with GuideStone, told Fox News Digital.  

“As I tell pastors, the only thing between you and help is your pride.”

“You can’t easily give from an empty cup. Self-compassion is the ability to treat oneself as one would treat a loved one — with kindness, consideration, respect and nurturing.”

This might include the ability to set boundaries so that there is enough time in the day to get exercise or proper nutrition, Seppälä added.

“Ideally, pastors should include themselves in their ministry.”

Having the courage to ask for help

Clergy members who experience depression or other mental health conditions need just as much help as the general population, Dance said.

While counseling others dealing with depression, he often hears the common sentiment that depression “sneaks up on you.”

Dr. Mark Dance

Mark Dance (far right) is pictured in a recent photo with his wife, Janet Dance, and the couple’s children, Brad and Holly. (Dr. Mark Dance)

“It’s usually not a big freight train that runs you over,” he said. “It can start with lack of sleep, or a dramatically increased or decreased appetite. It can be very subtle.”

Reaching out for help takes courage and humility, Dance pointed out.

“As I tell pastors, the only thing between you and help is your pride,” he said.

NURSES CALL FOR CHANGE AS MANY REVEAL THEY’RE ‘EXTREMELY LIKELY’ TO LEAVE PROFESSION: ‘EMOTIONAL, STRESSFUL’

In his role, Dance often tells preachers, “Don’t self-diagnose and don’t hesitate to ask for help.”

“God has not called us to be competent in everybody else’s profession — if you’re a pastor, it’s OK not to be a mental, physical or financial health professional. Just be a pastor and let other people help you.”

Dr. Mark Dance

Dance’s wife, Janet, encouraged him to seek help during his struggles. Clergy members who experience depression or other mental health conditions need just as much help as the general population, Dance said. (Dr. Mark Dance)

At GuideStone, Dance said, the focus is on helping pastors and ministers to “stay well and finish well.” 

“I help people think about what a strong finish would look like at the end of their ministry, and it’s very fulfilling.”

Supported by faith

During Dance’s depression journey, he relied on his church and his faith to get him through.

“Church is a place where you can grow in all areas — not just one,” he said. “For me, church became a place where I could receive help from my own members.”

“And that’s the experience I’ve had for the last 36 years of industry — if the pastors ask for help, the church members will reciprocate.”

“I learned to become more physically, mentally and spiritually healthy, through the process of my mind being renewed by the Lord and His people.”

The pastor also drew strength from the Bible — particularly his favorite verse, below.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).

CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP FOR OUR HEALTH NEWSLETTER

Listening to God is an important part of self-care, according to Dance.

“He’s the one who designed us — He knows how to help us stay well,” he said. “I learned to become more physically, mentally and spiritually healthy, through the process of my mind being renewed by the Lord and His people.”

Dr. Mark Dance split

Pastors and others can visit www.GuideStone.org/mentalhealth to see Dance’s video testimony and to get support from a pastoral counselor, Dance told Fox News Digital.  (Dr. Mark Dance)

Dance also draws support from his wife of 36 years and their two children.

“My wife is my biggest fan and advocate,” he said. “Janet stepped up and became the leader of our home and our marriage for about three years, when I couldn’t lead anything.”

“She’s a big part of how I got healthy and how I’m staying healthy.”

CLICK HERE TO GET THE FOX NEWS APP

Pastors and others can visit www.GuideStone.org/mentalhealth to see Dance’s video testimony and to get support from a pastoral counselor.

For more Health articles, visit www.foxnews.com/health.

Check Also

Three women — ages 41, 55 and 64 — share their secrets to better health and longevity

Join Fox News for access to this content Plus special access to select articles and …