Mental health issues in general and burnout in particular are real issues for pastors and leaders as we minister today in our complex world. We can’t ignore them. It’s easy to say, “I would never struggle with this” without realizing how much people actually do.
This topic is so important that this past December the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, in partnership with the Wheaton College School of Psychology, Counseling, and Family Therapy, hosted a GC2 Summit on Facing Hard Truths & Challenges of Pastoral Ministry. Below I want to share four ways to think about these issues.
First, pastoral balance is a myth, but seasons without balance almost always destroy.
Ministry is not the kind of role where we get to create the balance that is in our lives. We may establish some regular routines or prioritize our lives in the order of disciple, husband, father, and then pastor.
That’s great in theory, but it doesn’t work that way in everyday life. There are times when that phone call comes: a tragedy has happened, and you have to switch those things around, and your routine is rerouted.
You don’t plan four funerals in one week, but sometimes they happen. Learning to say no when possible can help, but there are times when you have to drop everything and go.
Pastoring comes in waves. Waves come in, and waves go out. If you’re always at high tide, your ministry won’t last. Or to change the metaphor, we need both a thermometer and a thermostat in our lives to help us with the ebb and flow of ministry.
The thermometer says, “I’m burning a fever, doing too much, too fast, too soon.” It alerts us when we are about to crash. We also need a thermostat to help regulate our lives regularly.
Who in your life monitors your temperature? You can’t do it alone. Who in your life helps you turn it down when you’re running too hot? This is where accountability comes in. There are three ways this should happen.
One, you need people involved in your life personally – close friends who truly know you. Two, you need someone who’s a mentor or a spiritual figure speaking into your life. Three, you need a boss. If you don’t have one, you need some sort of organized board.
You aren’t accountable to everyone about everything. People will expect things from you all the time. I'm not accountable every person who says to me, “Well, I think you should do this.” But we need specific people who are for us as we minister to help us.
Second, pastoral burnout, flameouts, wash outs, or walk outs are all important realities.
Pastoral burnout is when a pastor or staff member just can’t take it anymore. The temperature is burning too hot and there was neither a thermometer to notice nor a thermostat to adjust.
A flameout is the worst version of that. In burnout, you might step away, but in flameout, it all burns to the ground on the way out. A wash out could be because things come in our lives that don’t jibe with the qualifications of a minister or don’t match areas of character in our lives. A walk out means we decide we would rather do something else than continue in the presser cooker of ministry.
Unfortunately, there are times when these realities come together in the tragic reality of pastors or staff members who contemplate or commit suicide. How do we avoid these? We start by admitting the third thing I want to share.
Third, finding help is harder when you’re a pastor.
Sometimes, we hurt ourselves here because we don’t reach out for help when we know we need it. Sometimes, we feel guilty because we think we aren’t “spiritual enough” to make it without help.
Jesus already walked on the earth, and you aren’t Jesus. But it’s also something people put on us because of unrealistic expectations. I wrote an article called “Six Ways Pastors Struggle: You Are Not Alone” in which I point out how pastors and staff members who isolate themselves when they need help is disastrous. I cite that 23 percent of pastors in a LifeWay Research survey indicate they have personally struggled with mental illness of some kind.
About half said it was diagnosed, while the other half said it wasn’t diagnosed. This begs the question, why was this not diagnosed? The question of who helps the helpers is a key question for us not to miss.
Here’s the thing: we have to normalize counseling as a good thing. If you need help losing weight, you see a nutritionist or get a personal trainer. If your child struggles in school, you get a tutor. If you want to preach better, you seek out resources and conferences.
But we still see counseling as something for extreme cases, especially concerning leaders. You need people who encourage you along the way, and sometimes that means a skilled counselor. Rick and Kay Warren have helped us all with this. They talk openly about suicide after the death
of their son by suicide.
Fourth, mental health issues and mental illness are realities for pastors.
Pastors are people, too! Do we acknowledge that in our own lives? If 23 percent of pastor struggle with mental illness, that’s about one out of four. That means one out of four reading this article. If you’re a pastor of a church with a larger staff, it could mean one out of four of your staff.
Is there a safe place for you? Or, should you be out of pastoral ministry because of your struggles? Some people would say the latter. I don’t agree. I think part of the reality is we can struggle, and sometimes as pastors we struggle in public.
Pastors, our sermons can break the stigma about these things. I recently preached on anxiety from I Corinthians 7. I mentioned how some anxiety is a normal part of life’s struggle. I added that if for anyone listening anxiety has become all-consuming, talk to a pastor, because we want to help you get counseling for that.
Sermons break stigmas.
Sometimes, the answer to an issue is not a longer quiet time, it’s to get help from someone God has gifted in this area. We can’t ignore this issue anymore. Let’s encourage one another, and not be afraid to seek help.
Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange team helped with this article.