This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!
Ask Mission Central: Question Eleven
“When a ministry leader’s mental health is tanking, should they continue in leadership in that season or take a step back? It’s nearly impossible to lead well out of a place of desolation or burnout, but many churches still expect leaders to do so.”
Conversations about the mental health needs of Christian leaders are vital. At the same time, we need to have those conversations with Jesus’ teachings on suffering in mind. For Christians, self-care and self-denial need to go together. “Emotionally healthy” does not mean “pain free.” Following Jesus is inherently difficult. It means swimming upstream, not just against many social norms but also against our own proclivity to sin! The letter to the Hebrews points to Jesus’ suffering as a frame of reference for the pain his followers will face in the process: “Consider him who endured . . . hostility . . . so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (12:3-4 ESV). The writer offers us no sentimentality about the Christian life. They remind us that Jesus also suffered—and as real as our struggles are, we haven’t had to go through what he did for our sake.
If pain is to be expected for followers of Jesus in general, how much more for those who serve in Christian leadership! Scripture warns us that the work of those in pastoral authority can be either a “joy” or a “burden” (Hebrews 13:17 NIV). It is usually both. It can be draining to care for others’ emotional and spiritual needs or to “direct the affairs of the church” (or any ministry team). Even when there is a sense of purpose and fulfillment in seeing changed lives, the weight of responsibility takes a toll.
This is all true regardless of whether someone has diagnosable mental health needs. But for many Christian leaders, there comes a turning point where the normal burdens of leadership become unbearable. They can no longer honestly say, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair . . . struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9 NIV). Instead, they do feel crushed and near to despair. Rather than experiencing a difficult journey sustained by grace, they come to the end of the road. Researcher Thom S. Rainer is concerned that, on the heels of the pandemic, many pastors feel just this way and will find it necessary to resign.
Your question shows awareness that leaders at such a crossroads need to take stock of their real needs. Is it possible to keep going, or not? We need to reckon with mental health honestly in order to give a discerning answer to that question. Ministry leaders are just as susceptible to the threats of depression, anxiety, and burnout as anyone else. But those who look to leaders for guidance often expect them to “have it together” and take mental health struggles as a sign that someone is a poor fit for their role. Colleagues or congregants may communicate an unstated stigma about seeking counseling or taking medication. Sometimes that stigma is even made explicit in the form of disciplinary actions; Ian Lovett writes in The Wall Street Journal that “Employees [of churches] including pastors are still regularly fired after disclosing mental-health problems.” It’s hard to say, “I need a break” when you’re afraid that doing so will make the break permanent.
But even in a supportive community that believes it’s okay for ministry leaders to have mental health needs, it can be hard to discern when to “hang in there” and when to tap out. While every situation is different, there are indicators that can help clarify a wise next step if you’re struggling. Let’s take a look at three options: Staying the course, making changes within a role, or taking a break.
Staying the Course
Mental health needs affect everyone differently. For some people, the work of leadership can compound the stress. For others, a leadership role may be a refuge of familiar competence in the middle of an emotionally weary season in their personal life. Even while facing serious mental health challenges, your leadership role may not be what needs to change. This could be true for you if you can answer “yes” to the following questions:
- In your place of leadership, have you been able to maintain normal routines so far (e.g. coming to work on time and responding to work communication in a timely manner)?
- Does your supervisor provide clear expectations for you?
- Are you given some measure of freedom and flexibility in implementing what you are responsible for?
- If you are processing trauma, do your primary triggers come outside of your leadership context?
- When you consider the decisions you need to make with and for your team, do you feel relatively confident rather than overwhelmed?
- Can you pursue the help you need without changing anything in your job description?
If most of these conditions are true for you, consider ways of responding to your mental health needs other than changing your leadership responsibilities. To be clear, even if you can answer “yes” to all the questions above, you can still be carrying a heavy burden! It just might be that the flashpoint moments of greatest need for you come in another context, like your family or roommate relationships, or when you’re on your own, rather than where you lead.
I experienced several months like this a few years ago. As I write about in my book, some of my wife’s health needs had collided with my achievement-oriented attitudes about ministry, forcing me to slow down and re-think what mattered. Although I did step back from several volunteer leadership roles at that time, one that I kept with almost no changes was my job coordinating Sunday service teams at my home church. What I needed to accomplish each week was fairly predictable, and I enjoyed working with our faithful volunteers. The work was a stabilizing factor in my overall mental health. I actively pursued help in several ways: seeing a counselor and a spiritual director, praying regularly with friends, and guarding time with the Lord and with my wife. But, as it happened, I was able to do those things without quitting or changing my job. That might be a possibility for you, too.
You could also consider making changes within your leadership role. Rather than taking time off, could you adapt what you’re doing or how you’re doing it? In the broader world of U.S. labor law, employers are required to allow accommodations for health needs so that someone can continue to do their work even with a physical or mental health condition. Although some ministry roles are exempted from these legal requirements, the principle is one we as Christians should gladly embrace as part of “bear[ing] one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2 ESV). If talking openly about health accommodations isn’t part of your team’s culture, maybe your request for some changes could help nudge things in the right direction.
Common changes could include additional breaktime, a changed schedule, or a shift in responsibilities. For example, I was once serving on a ministry team where face-to-face meetings took up most of the day every day. A colleague of mine was diagnosed with clinical depression mid-year. She realized that the emotional output required for so many face-to-face meetings was simply too much, and requested that she be assigned a greater proportion of our administrative and graphic design work. That way, she could keep her feet planted in relational ministry, which she loved, but stave off burnout through the mental break of some solo projects. Our leadership team gave the change a thumbs up and the new arrangement (while not making the cycles of depression easy) was more manageable.
Regardless of whether you pursue such changes at work, you need to get appropriate help for your needs. Consider seeing a counselor, and don’t write off the possibility of medication. Brain chemistry is real, and it affects our well-being. Integrate these forms of support with spiritual practices like seeking prayer from others and practicing the spiritual discipline of rest.
Another kind of change, which may even be harder to get “permission” for, is relaxing your own expectations. At times the burnout we feel is not due to some objective demand of leadership, but rather because of impossibly high standards for our own performance. When I served as a college minister on a secular campus, I had to make on-the-spot decisions all the time: Which students do I try to strike up a conversation with? Who do I text one more time to see if they want to grab coffee? How much time should I spend preparing for Bible study and how much time should I spend inviting more people to check it out? What should I say in response to that friendly atheist’s intelligent, probing question about the claims of Jesus? There were far more emotionally-loaded choices to make each day than I had ever faced before, and I often felt overwhelmed by self-doubt about whether I had made the right call for each one.
When my second school year on campus started, I came up with a mental trick to relieve some of my anxiety: I gave myself a “mistake quota.” I officially allowed myself to make fifteen really bad mistakes per semester. On the first day, something I said came off poorly and a student took offense. When I was ruminating on it later, I said to myself, “Hey, that was a mistake, just the first one of my quota.” As it happened, my anxiety levels dropped so much that I stopped counting way before I got to fifteen. I had learned to reframe mistakes as “okay,” and that’s what made the difference.
Ultimately, the permission we need to be less than perfect comes from the Lord. God is patient with our weaknesses; “he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14 NIV). He doesn’t expect us to be superhuman. If the God of the universe can make allowances for our needs, it’s not unreasonable for us to ask others to do the same.
Taking a Break
Finally, there’s the possibility you suggested, of taking a step back from leadership for a period of time. This is not just the third option in this list; it’s helpful to consider it after the other two. Take a look at the list of questions under “Staying the Course” above. The more questions that you have a “no” answer for, the more likely it is that you need to make some kind of change. Maybe you’ve already tried to get accommodations or to restructure your work to get some emotional breathing room, and you’re still feeling stuck in a dark place. A leave of absence can be a needed grace.
If you’re considering requesting some time off, get some godly counsel from someone who won’t be directly affected by your decision one way or the other. The authors of Resilient Ministry write of the importance of finding “confidants” outside your ministry circle who will have your back at all times. If you don’t have someone like this, make it a priority to find someone, regardless of where you’re at with your personal mental health needs. I used to meet up monthly with a friend who had my same job role at a different area church. We both found it sanity-restoring to swap stories and prayers with someone not on our team. If you can describe your situation to a confidant, a counselor, and a family member or friend, and they agree that time off seems in order, then you’re probably discerning well.
For you, and for your team, the idea of you stepping back might seem scary. A good word for everyone to remember is that “for now is not forever.” A temporary break does not need to be a permanent one. Many leaders have taken an unexpected but needed leave of absence and returned healthier for it.
Regardless of whether that’s the right step for you right now, know that there’s a way forward. Desolation and burnout do not have the final word. God in his grace will give you what you need for today. As you let him meet your real needs, you’ll grow into a stronger and more resilient Christian and leader, even in the middle of the struggle.
Photo from JJ Jordan on Pexels