Church leadership comes with pressure. Eyes are watching how you handle yourself. People are evaluating your performance. Those whom you serve can become critical and judgmental when they disagree with your preaching or ministry. Admission of sin can lead to the loss of your job. So what do you do when you need mental health treatment and you have a church to lead?
Establish Weekly Accountability and Support
If you are a pastor or ministry leader and you do not have a clear list of people with whom you can be 100% honest, you are on your way to a major fall. Sin can trap us all, and the only way to avoid snares is to catch them early. Most problems don’t start out as major problems. Who are you calling when you are tempted in an area that has owned you before? Who do you lean on when you have a discouraging day? Who do you tell when you have thoughts you would rather not say aloud?
Once you have established who those people are (could be as few as 2-3), then you need to have regularly scheduled times that you talk. You can’t wait until you feel the need to reach out. Church leaders need weekly check-ins. Most of the time when a problem is in its earliest stages of formation, those who know you best will spot something that is off. My best friend is more than happy to call me out when needed, and often in ways I did not see myself. We all have blind spots, so we need people who are hearing our detailed thoughts and getting a weekly report on our actions.
Seek Help Outside Your Circles
When your closest friends spot red flags, it may be time to seek additional help. If that discouraging day turns into a few weeks of despair, your friends will hopefully spot that pattern and encourage you to talk to a professional. Don’t put that off and simply wait for things to get better or return to “normal.” Chances are there are things you need to work through, and if you have never been to counseling then it’s a great time to start exploring all that lies underneath the surface.
That being said, pastors cannot always seek mental health treatment or counseling in their local communities. These counseling practices might be the referral sources for parishioners of the church, and a pastor may feel unsafe talking to someone closely tied to the church. Don’t hesitate to drive an hour to get to counseling. It’s worth it and you will not regret getting the help as early as possible when you notice a problem. There are also some online counseling options now, which can help you connect with a counselor completely outside your sphere of influence.
Be Willing to Walk Away
If fear of losing your job or your ministry is causing you to solve your own problems in secret, you have an even bigger problem than you think. You need to be willing to lay even the ministry to which you have been called at the foot of the cross and walk away. If your stress level is so high that you are struggling to function through a day, or if you are so depressed that you are having fleeting thoughts of suicide, it is time to step away from ministry for a season. If you keep going and try to push through your problems without seeking help, you are far more likely to become disqualified for the long-term. Taking a 6-month or year-long leave of absence to take care of your mental health is a lot better than reaching a point where you can no longer serve as a leader at all.
You are not a superhero, nor are you called to save the world. Pastors and church leaders must take care of themselves and their families first. If you take time away from ministry for a season, God may show you some broken places that need healing. Or he may reveal to you some new next steps in your calling. When you attend to your needs and seek help from God and others, you are making a physical and spiritual decision to choose to live in health. Satan is eager to devour you in any way he can, so don’t give him room to work by ignoring your own mental health.