Why church leaders can — and should — take care of their own mental health

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(RNS) – For most of his life, Ian Williamson played the role of someone he was not. When his parents separated at a young age, Ian moved to a tougher part of town and found himself helpless and scared. He responded by constructing a fake personality of toughness and used comedy as a mask.

Throughout high school and beyond, Ian found the right balance of drugs and alcohol that would make him feel safe instead of running wild with aggression and fear. By the early 2000s, he had become a Christian, wrapping himself in prison ministry and the pastorate. Now sober, he began to feel both the good and the bad of being drug and alcohol free.

Although he began to feel the blessings of each day, Ian also began to feel the pain and grief of a past that had been numbed by alcohol and drugs. He found that his problems seemed to disappear as he became busy, and before long he had unwittingly replaced drugs with a workaholic.

Ian thought he was fine until the COVID-19 lockdown drastically reduced his workload and his problems started again. In September 2021, he realized “how little I trusted God and how little I knew of his love for me”.

Here is a key fact in this story: Ian was, and is today, a pastor.

A recent study by Lifeway Research showed that a majority of pastors in the United States (54%) say they have known at least one church member who has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness such as clinical depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. One in four of these pastors (26%) say they have personally struggled with some type of mental illness.

The good news for pastors and church leaders is that some of the stigma of mental illness has been removed. This is due to a few factors: COVID-19 and the collective trauma we have all experienced; the rise of social media, which allowed a person to share more openly than they otherwise would have; and the extraordinary increase in the number of people speaking out about their struggles, which in some ways normalizes our experiences.

The bad news is that many church leaders still hide their mental health issues. Even though many pastors and other church personnel have become more aware of our fragility and emotions in recent years, we do not believe that the best and only way forward is to shine a light on what is in the dark.

To be clear, this can be risky. When our livelihoods and our community depend on our ability to lead well, openly sharing that we are not doing well takes a sometimes extraordinary leap of faith.

I know this risk first hand. Several months ago, I shared my own story of childhood abuse and how some of those hurts have persisted to this day. Many pastors live under this veil of darkness. I needed to be told, as many pastors do, that it was okay for my congregation to know that I needed help.

But Ian is doing something important: he’s sharing his story and his healing with others in real time. His healing isn’t 5, 10 or 20 years old – it’s fresh and raw, and it changes not only him and his family, but also his church. “My validation was related to my ministry,” Ian said. “But people around me saw that I was not well. I needed to come back to what it meant to be a child of God, not just a pastor. The former had to be my first priority for the latter to work.

We need to debunk a myth that has saturated our thinking: that churches cannot be a place of healing for church leaders. The Lifeway study actually shows that our churches are well positioned to help us heal: more than 4 in 5 pastors say their churches provide support for people with mental illness. This takes the form of maintaining a list of experts to consult (68%), supporting families of people with mental illness (40%), providing training to encourage people with mental illness (26%) and providing substance abuse recovery programs (26%), among other things.

If you are in ministry and are suffering from depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue, consider reaching out to those around you who are able and willing to help you through this ordeal.

After all, if most of us are willing to take care of those who are struggling, why would we think the reverse wouldn’t be the case as well? God doesn’t just want our preaching and our leadership. God wants our hearts, fully trusting and devoted to him. He can heal us, which includes mental healing, but we must be willing to take the leap to head there.

Ian offers us a first step forward: “I always need to remember that my responsibility as a disciple is to love God and to love those around me. I am accountable to the church and those to whom I preach. This means that my preaching and my life must reflect the real me, even if it is difficult.

The church is a body of Christ — our people need us, and we need our people. We are never called to carry our burdens alone. We are in the same boat, pastors and all the people of God.

(Matthew Spandler Davison is vice president for global outreach for Acts 29 and pastor of Redeemer Fellowship Church in Bardstown, Kentucky. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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