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Church Leader Mental Health: Overcoming the Stigma

“Who helps the helpers?” is an insightful and difficult-to-answer question that Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center, poses in his article “Four Important Reminders for Pastors Dealing with Mental Health Issues” in Christianity Today. Our pastors pour out each day spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically in the hopes of encouraging, leading, inspiring, and motivating the people who make up their congregation. But who is doing the same for them? Where do they go when they need to be cared for?

There have been far too many suicides of high-profile pastors in the past few years. Their deaths were shocking and heartbreaking, especially because for a few, it was revealed after they were gone that they silently struggled with mental health issues. They were providing a safe place for others who were hurting, yet they couldn’t find that same support and place for their own pain. 

In the article, Ed Stetzer encourages pastors to find people in their lives who can act as a thermometer and a thermostat. He explains the need for someone to help identify when you are close to burning out and when you are “running too hot.” He suggests relying on 3 types of people: a close friend, a mentor, and a boss to help you find the balance needed in ministry.

Stetzer recognized that some pastors end up in a place of despair and depression because they simply don’t ask for help. Unfortunately, it’s often because seeking professional help through counseling or treatment carries such a stigma. Stetzer says, “…we have to normalize counseling as a good thing.” The stigma needs to change so our pastors can lead full and healthy lives. 

When we are sick, we go to the doctor. When we need to lose weight, we pay a personal trainer. But when we need some help with our mental well-being, we tell pastors they need to figure it out on their own. Or sadly in far too many instances, if they admit to their mental health diagnosis, we decide they are no longer fit for ministry

This has to change. Our pastors need the freedom and support necessary to get the help they need so they CAN walk in their calling and continue in ministry. As Stetzer says so well, “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.”

Our pastors need our compassion and our prayers. However, they also need grace and respect to allow them to admit they are human and have faults, weaknesses, and failings too. We need to give them permission to admit when they need help.

This shift or change in perspective will do dramatic things for the health of our churches. Not only will it remove the stigma that pastors can and should “keep it all together” but also it places greater responsibility on the congregation for not just being consumers of the Word but being ministers and the hands and feet of Christ to their own pastoral staff.

This is a much needed, long-overdue change that starts with me and you.

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