The number of church leaders thinking of ending their life has doubled since 2020, says Ps Chua Seng Lee, an organiser of the 3rd Christian Mental Health Conference in July, which is rolling out new initiatives to better care for pastors – and equip them to care for their flocks. Photo by Ümit Bulut on Unsplash.

“Pastors can be the loneliest souls because everyone expects them to have God. But they also have normal human problems like challenges at work and with ‘clients’, sick spouses, ageing parents, and financial worries. The pastors are stressed, and their children and families are also stressed.

“Who is asking after them? Who looking after them?” asks Ps Chua Seng Lee, co-chair of the annual Christian Mental Health Conference (CMHC) that aims to support – as well as equip – church leaders by connecting them and their ministries with mental health professionals.

“At my lowest, pastors who didn’t know me from Adam reached out to me and loved me.”

The Senior Pastor of Bethesda (Bedok-Tampines) Church knows too well the challenges that church leaders face. Since 2020, he has heard of at least one suicide by a church leader a year, and counselled pastors who have expressed their wish to die.

About 15 years ago, he went through his own “horrible two years” in ministry.

“I told my mentor, ‘I want to go home (to the Lord)’. I broke down and cried, and just wanted to die,” Ps Seng Lee told Salt&Light.

“At my lowest, pastors who didn’t know me from Adam reached out to me and loved me, offering a listening ear and other forms of support. I am indebted to them.” 

The Christian Mental Health Conference, which is now in its third year, is part of his effort to pay it forward and care for other pastors. 

“It is also our way of telling pastors, ‘It’s okay to seek help’.”

“It is also our way of telling pastors, ‘It’s okay to seek help’,” he said.

The conference is a safe, supportive environment for pastors and church leaders involved in counselling ministries. It is not open to the public.

Its aim is two-pronged, with Day 1 devoted to ministering to the church leaders. It traditionally includes personal sharing by pastors who have gone through – or are living with someone who is going through – a mental health challenge.

Day 2 focuses on equipping church leaders to care for those with mental needs among their flocks. 

Held on July 6 and 7 at Bethesda (Bedok-Tampines) Church, the conference is jointly organised by Christian Mental Health Advocates, Association of Christian Counsellors (Singapore), and Promises Healthcare, a private psychiatric and psychology clinic.

Church leaders not immune 

The CMHC was born out of a concern for pastors following a 2020 survey by Christian Mental Health Advocates, Focus on the Family and Salt&Light, which revealed that church leaders are not immune to mental health issues. 

Pastors today face more intense pressure than in the 1980s and 1990s. 

The results of a similar survey conducted this year are even more worrying: The number of pastors who have thought of ending their life has doubled since 2020.

“One in 20 pastors (19.62% of respondents) have thought of ending their life,” said Ps Seng Lee. In the last 12 months, 5.69% of church leaders polled have harboured such thoughts.

Full results from this year’s survey will be release during the conference.

Ps Seng Lee, who became a pastor in 1992, cites a range of reasons why pastors today face more intense pressure than in the 1980s and 1990s. 

Digital connectivity and social media have brought to the forefront an unrealistic demand for an immediate response from the pastors.

Pastors are also seeing a slew of mental health issues from congregants after the pandemic. 

Deeper understanding and support 

This year’s edition of CMHC sees greater psychological support for pastors and church leaders.

A fund providing subsidies for pastors seeking private consultations with a mental health professional will be unveiled.

In one segment, Ps Seng Lee will guide attendees through a time of self-reflection and ministry.

“This process can help bring about a deeper understanding and processing of the day’s activities and their emotions,” he said.

“Christian psychologists, counsellors and psychiatrists will be on standby to offer further support and guidance to those who need it.” 

A fund providing subsidies for pastors seeking private consultations with a mental health professional will also be unveiled at the conference.

“We want to share the financial burden with pastors. Many don’t want to claim the cost from the church where they work because they are conscious about confidentiality,” explained Ps Seng Lee.

New: Workshops for people-care 

Practical workshops are a new addition to this edition of CMHC. They will be held on both afternoons of the conference. 

Participants may choose from one of five on offer:

  • Mental Health First Contact Training Workshop will equip pastors with skills to be a loving first contact for individuals and families with mental illness. Attendees of this particular course by Association of Christian Counsellors (Singapore) are required to commit to both half-days of training (eight hours in total).
  • LIFE Training Workshop by Caring For Life provides attendees with skills to offer immediate support to those in distress who are having suicidal thoughts. The training includes recognising warning signs, listening for feelings and thoughts of suicide, asking directly about suicidal ideation and connecting at-risk individuals to trained professionals for help.
  • Pastors As Caregivers Training Workshop is designed to equip pastors with practical caregiving skills that can be applied in their ministry. Organised by Touch Community Services, it covers topics such as communication, empathy, self-care and support systems for caregivers.
  • Identifying Signs of Emotional and Mental Distress in Youth will cover common issues – such as anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts – that young people face. The speakers from Promises Healthcare will share practical tips and tools for helping youth in distress, including how to initiate conversations about mental health and where to find professional help.
  • A guided time of meditation and prayer with practical spiritual exercises aims to deepen one’s relationship with God and enhance peace and overall well-being. It will be facilitated by Esther Tzer Wong who teaches the Master of Counselling programme at TCA College.

Participants need to pre-register for their preferred workshops when they pay for the conference. Spaces are limited and availability will be on a first-come first-served basis.

Practical strategies for church leaders

At least 20 church leaders and mental health professionals are due to speak at the conference.

Bishop Dr Gordon Wong of The Methodist Church in Singapore will give the opening address on the biblical view of mental health.

Senior psychologists Dr Tsao I-Ting and Dr Liza Thia will share insights on self-care for pastors and ministry leaders, and offer practical strategies to maintain one’s physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being while navigating the unique challenges of ministry life.

The panel discussion will be moderated by Rev Sam Kuna, President of the Association for Christian Counselling (Singapore) and Associate Professor and Dean of the School of Counselling, TCA College.

There will also be a panel discussion by Singapore Anglican Community Services that will explore the roles of church leaders, religion and spirituality in psychiatric rehabilitation, recovery and reintegration. A recovered client and peer specialist will also share his experience.  

Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) will present insights into trends and challenges surrounding suicide prevention in Singapore, with a focus on youth.

Equipping the church to help

“The purpose of this conference is to break the wall between the church and the mental health professional. It connects the church with mental health training and information so that they can become a community of help to those inside and outside the church,” said Ps Seng Lee. 

The Christian Mental Health Conference connects the church with mental health training so that they can become a community of help.

According to the two surveys of church leaders, this year’s survey results show a rise by more than 10% to 38.4% of respondents feeling that their church has better equipped them to attend to people with mental health problems.

“It is encouraging to see that we are beginning to fulfil the purpose of the conference,” said Ps Seng Lee.

Networking sessions at last year’s conference – the first in-person sessions since Covid – have since borne fruit, with helping agencies going on to provide training for members and leaders of churches of various denominations.

Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), for example, has trained 135 individuals from City Harvest Church in basic techniques of providing emotional support for distressed individuals, and encouraging them to seek help. 

“More than 30 of them have progressed on to undergo a course on suicide risk assessment with SOS. Potentially, they can be trained to run the Be A Samaritan programme, which will further benefit and strengthen safety nets within the church community,” said Ps Seng Lee, quoting an SOS spokesperson.

To find out more about the Christian Mental Health Conference 2023, click here.

Fees go towards operational costs, meals and refreshments. Possible sponsorships for full-time pastors and ministry leaders are available on request.


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About the author

Gemma Koh

Gemma has written about everything from spas to scuba diving holidays. But has a soft spot for telling the stories of lives changed, and of people making a difference. She loves the colour green, especially on overgrown trees. Gemma is Senior Writer & Copy Editor at Salt&Light and its companion site, Stories of Hope.