Resignation of Indianapolis Pastor Puts Light on the Toll Ministry Takes on Mental Health

Pastor John E. Girton. (Recorder file photo)

When Pastor John Girton, affectionately known as Pastor G., became lead pastor at Christ Missionary Baptist Church (CMBCIndy) nearly five years ago, he had 17 congregants. Now, after celebrating the church’s 100th anniversary in April and growing the congregation to 150 regular attendees, Girton is ready to step down from the pulpit.

Girton announced his resignation in September, and the church’s New Year’s Eve sermon on Dec. 31 will be his last as pastor.

“You never think you’ll end up being a pastor at the church you were baptized at,” Girton said, referencing his baptism years earlier at CMBCIndy, when his uncle, Melvin Girton, was lead pastor.

Girton left Indianapolis in the early 1990s and returned in 2009 to teach journalism and communications at Ball State University. After a year of teaching, Girton found himself leading the church that he grew up in when his uncle retired.

“It wasn’t my idea that I would be there as the lead pastor,” Girton said. “But because I’m a man of faith, I knew there was a reason I was there.”

Part of his mission, Girton feels, was to restore the physical structure of the church and form connections with community organizations outside of the church. During his tenure as pastor, CMBCIndy celebrated a century in Indianapolis, fixed many issues within the building and developed a relationship with several community organizations, including Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. While successful in his mission, Girton admits the workload took a physical toll on him and his staff.

“We did 10-15 years’ worth of work into five years,” Girton said. “I’m exhausted … We had to reach out to the community, refocus to make positive changes in the community. We had to work to get the church out of debt, to get us grant-ready, build classrooms, put new paint on the walls. We had to fix the boiler. These were things that we just had to do … and it wore us out.”

Mental well-being was also a reason for Girton’s resignation.

“It takes a tremendous toll on your mental health,” Girton said of pastoring. “The hardest thing I had to do as a pastor was funeralize four girls who died in a fire in Flora,” Girton said. “When the Bible talks about us relying on God to fill our mouth with words, to enter into you and animate you and give you what to say and do, that’s real. I couldn’t have stood there without being empowered by the Spirit that was operating outside of myself.”

As a pastor, it is expected of you to make hospital visits, give eulogies and assist people in times of need. This does not come without a toll on one’s mental well-being.

“There’s no way for people to truly understand [the mental toll],” Girton said. “My wife just visited a friend who is funeralizing her son, and she told me, ‘I don’t understand how you can do this,’ and she’s my wife.”

Girton became an advocate for mental health after his own bout with depression and suicidal thoughts in the past. While a depressive episode wasn’t a factor in his resignation, Girton is familiar enough with the warning signs to know what was coming.

“I slowly started to disengage because I could tell I was empty.” Girton said. “Because of how informed I am about mental health, I knew that if I didn’t do something I was going to break.” According to a study conducted by the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School, pastors are twice as likely to experience depression than the general population. Services to help men and women of the cloth deal with mental illness, however, are scarce.

However, pastors, like their congregants, are becoming more aware of the importance of mental health and are endeavoring to prioritize self-care.

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Source: Indianapolis Recorder