When The Minister Needs A Minister: Pastors and Mental Health

By Rebekah Bell

I am the Children’s Minister at a small Baptist church. I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I work two other part time jobs and volunteer my free time with a child sponsorship organization. I love tea and cats and Disney and reading. I am a daughter and a sister and a friend.

I am also in recovery from an eating disorder.

In the Kingdom of God, these things should not contradict. God calls the broken. He made David, a murderer and adulterer, King. He made Peter, who denied him, the rock upon which the church was built. He made the lame to walk and the blind to see. This same God also called me.
God has blessed me with a church family who believes in my calling. With great love and grace, the people I see each Sunday embrace my journey to healing as a part of the brokenness through which God’s power shines. If I may brag on them for a moment, my church family are in fact the people who made my healing possible. I was sick and broken when they hired me. They made it possible for me to get the treatment I needed, even though it meant I had to go away to a residential facility for several months. The children of the church sent me cards they had made to encourage me. The pastor’s wife sent me books to read that she thought might encourage me in my walk with Christ as I ventured through the dark night of the soul. I was never made to feel ashamed of my brokenness. I was only gently prodded toward the path of healing.

I am overwhelmingly, and unusually, blessed.

Unfortunately, many ministers are afraid to allow their brokenness to show. Not all churches or denominations are as understanding and forgiving as mine. In too many instances, ministers are expected to be impenetrable, always there for others when they are struggling, but left alone to pick up the pieces when they are struggling themselves.

This needs to change.

If you are a minister, you know this. The work of a minister perhaps makes one even more susceptible to depression and other mental health struggles. Shepherding a flock is work that taxes the entire self – physical, mental, and emotional. And unlike congregants, a pastor does not have a pastor to turn to in times of struggle. Duke University performed a study that found 11.1 percent of ministers suffer from depression, more than half the national rate of 5.5 percent. About a quarter of pastors say they have dealt with some form of mental illness.

If you are in ministry and you suffer from mental illness, you are not alone.

There is lots of work to be done in churches and congregations regarding the personal demands placed on ministers and unrealistic expectations of piety, cheerfulness, and God-like character. But for the purposes of this article, I will focus on the things ministers can remember to help them navigate the road of ministry when their own personal demons set out to destroy them.

1.) Even Jesus Wept

The God we serve is the God who became man and experienced the things we experienced, was tempted in the same way that we are tempted, and felt emotions just as we feel them. Jesus was well acquainted with grief and sorrow. In Scripture, we are told that Jesus wept when he heard that his friend Lazarus died. We are told that he sweat drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane in anticipation of the cross.
Jesus understands your pain and sorrow and struggle because he has felt them too. Your struggle is not a sin. Your struggle is not a lack of faith. Your struggle does not make you weak. Your struggle is part of your humanity. In your suffering, you share in the suffering of Jesus.
The good news is, Jesus has overcome. We as ministers can have victory over what grieves us through His victory, even when we ourselves are too weak to go on.

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33)

2.) There is No Shame in Getting Help

I firmly believe that all ministers should have a therapist if they are able. Getting help from a professional provider is not sinful. There are even Christian therapists who offer services that take into account a Biblical worldview. Mental health issues are real. When we struggle with our mental health, it warrants real treatment just as a person with a physical ailment seeks medical treatment. When we take our mental health seriously, it can help keep our mental illnesses from becoming more serious.

3.) We Need Our Church Family as Much as they Need Us

Even ministers need ministers. We were not made to live this life alone. As those in leadership roles in churches, it is important for us to know who in our congregations we can rely on in times of crisis. Our church families are just that – families. We must be willing to be vulnerable with our church members and let them know when we need them. This is what the church is commanded to do. If your church is unwilling or unable to do this, it is worth praying about seeking another church to serve.

“Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

4.) Take A Step Back

There are times when we have to acknowledge our struggles and limitations in order to take care of ourselves. Just as I had to leave the church I served in for a while to deal with my anorexia, there may come a time when you as a minister have to make the decision to take a step back from your role as a minister in order to care for yourself. Some churches may be more open to this and open to this in different ways than others.
Remember, Christ desires for you to be whole. Surrender to Christ sometimes includes making difficult decisions. It is better to leave a church in order to heal than to stay at a church and become a shadow of who Christ created you to be. It may not be easy. It may be the hardest thing you ever had to do. But stepping away from ministry in surrender to Christ is an act of faith that is every bit as much a part of following God’s call on your life as accepting a ministry assignment.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Christ loves you. And that includes all of you. Even your mental health. It is an act of faith to care for your mental health. Let us as ministers set an example to those we minister by taking our mental health seriously.

Peace to you.

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