I remember the first time I was the client in a counselor’s office. I was in college and visited the on-campus counseling center as a part of a class assignment. I was in the psychology program, and my professors gave bonus points for meeting with one of their graduate students. It was a win-win; the graduate student was able to practice, and I got bonus points (which I desperately needed after that last psychopharmacology test).
I didn’t go easy on her. I was actually the type of client that all therapists dread. I stared at the poor graduate student with a “don’t even try it” kind of stare. I gave one-word answers. She had a smile pasted on her face and panic in her eyes. I was determined to get through the session with very little information shared, and I did.
Despite my opposition, I really could have used counseling back then. Those around me knew it — a chaplain, a coach, roommates, and even a walk-in clinic doctor recognized the signs and approached me about them. Knowing what I know now, I met the criteria for a major depressive disorder. I needed help but was determined to figure it all out on my own.
Recognizing my own need for counseling
After graduate school, I was fortunate enough to work for an organization where the leadership set an example of caring for their own mental health by talking openly about their personal counseling experiences. It was through this open environment that I finally gave myself permission to seek help.
The leadership in my organization modeled for me how to be gentle and honest with myself. I didn’t have to be duplicitous, as I had assumed that I did. Through the vulnerability and humility of my supervisors and my therapist, I learned that I don’t have to be perfect or always have it together. And I don’t have to completely disconnect from myself by ignoring my emotional needs, throwing myself into my work at the cost of others and myself, or by distracting myself with mind-numbing activities like binge watching television shows or eating when I’m not hungry. I learned I can press forward in my life, bringing my struggles with me, instead of disconnecting, hiding, or leaving them behind. As I acknowledged the struggle, with the help of a compassionate third party, I was able to heal the parts of me that needed healing.
Today, in my private practice as a marriage and family therapist and trauma specialist, I carry into my office every day the very important lessons that I once had to learn. The personal healing I have experienced allows me to bring all of me into whatever I am doing. When I sit with someone who is emotional, I can bear to sit in his or her presence because I have learned to be with my own emotional pain. When I hear a hard story, I can empathize and validate their experience, whereas, before, I would have had the strong urge to fix their problem and move on, the same urges I used on myself. We see these same strong urges in Job when he is lamenting in his suffering and his friends, unable to bear it, suggest the reasons for his suffering and offer suggestions to fix it.
It is my desire to share the lessons I had to learn with those who share a common interest in helping others through counseling, pastoring, or the like — and equip us all to serve and live in healthy ways within our communities.
Two years of trauma takes its toll on those in ministry
Over the course of my career, I have begun to see an increase in pastors, missionaries, and pastoral counselors reaching out for counseling. The past two years we, as a society, have experienced near relentless, collective, and complex trauma and grief. Ministers have reached breaking points as the weight of the demands by society, local community, and congregation have compounded into insurmountable weight. No one has come through these last two years unscathed. In my own home state of Tennessee, we have lost pastors to suicide.
Pastors couldn’t catch their breath from one crisis before another was upon them. Church leaders have been forced to make urgent and unprecedented decisions with no road map and guaranteed backlash. They have had to adapt how they minister, learning new technologies and public health best practices. Pastors have had to learn how to disarm internet-fueled hostility among congregation members without the training to do so. Some have lost church members to suicide, drug overdoses, and other self-destructive decisions that pastors feel powerless to stop.
At the same time, pastors have had their own emotional responses to what has been happening in our country and the world, while also leading people through collective grief.
Somehow, in years past, many of us ascribed to the idea that to be a Christian meant to appear perfect. As this message grew, ministry leaders have had to work harder and harder to appear as if they have all the answers and have struggled with their own issues in the dark. In doing so, they have unintentionally led the way for the congregations to do the same. This false definition of faith, along with the compounded trauma we’ve all experienced, has led many ministers to lonely places where the choices include duplicitous living, cutting off from self, isolation from others, numbing behaviors, or despondency.
You do not have to struggle alone. The loneliest place anyone can be is in the middle of their own personal struggles while in a leadership position. Authenticity could potentially either put you out of a job or possibly create a hostile working environment. It is important to understand that counseling is not just for individuals with a mental health diagnosis. Counseling can be a place to unburden, lament, grieve, share the internal struggle, work through conflict, work on relationships within the family, or sometimes, it can be a place of confession. At the very least, it’s a place you can go, where for at least an hour, you know you are not alone.
The hope of new beginnings
Resurrection after death is a central tenant of the Christian faith. Endings are followed by new beginnings. We see evidence of this truth in the annual “death and resurrection” of the four seasons in nature, but this truth is demonstrated most clearly in the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
We have the opportunity to see endings and beginnings with deaths and resurrections in our own lives. When I entered counseling all those years ago, I was in the midst of suffering. I had the opportunity to recognize and put to death several grievances, hurts, and traumas from my own life. Out of that experience came a new beginning for me, and I began seeing the world and people in my life in a new and loving way. It is this hope of new life and faith in the cycle of death and promised resurrection that allows Christians to be resilient in the face of trauma and suffering.
My invitation to pastors is to slow down long enough to process all the pain and sorrow of the last few years and lament with God. It is an invitation to acknowledge, at least to yourself and to God, that you need help. Then, look for a professional in your area who can be an objective third party with some expertise in the area of your struggle. I invite you to begin honest conversations with your congregation about how someone can be a Christian and struggle with emotional and mental health issues. And I invite you to schedule a meeting with local counseling agencies or individuals about how you can work together in your community.
Extending the blessing of care to others
It is my prayer that pastors realize that caring for their own mental health has blessings that extend into the emotional, mental, and spiritual life of their congregation. It begins by leading with vulnerability and humility, “boasting in weaknesses” like the Apostle Paul. (2 Corin 12:9) It looks like acknowledging there isn’t always an answer to what is right, and that we can sit in the discomfort of that together without making an impulsive decision or declaration. This emotional patience demonstrates a resiliency factor found in spiritually mature individuals. Spiritual maturity can acknowledge the uneasiness in the question of why our loving God allows evil, hard things, sit in the uncertainty, and still trust and believe in the goodness of God (Job 13:15).
The call for pastors and ministry leaders is simple, yet often hard to follow. Recognize and acknowledge your own mental and emotional pain. Do your work. Reach out and start down a path of honesty, humility, and accountability with a local counselor. Offer some of your story to your congregation, and extend to them the invitation to be honest. Connect with mental health professionals in your area, and find ways to collaborate to bring spiritual, mental, and emotional healing to your communities.
I learned an important life lesson all those years ago when the leaders in my agency shared their own stories, talking openly about accountability and the support they needed. Their testimony opened to me a pathway that wasn’t available before — one that showed me that strong and passionate Christians can also struggle with mental health issues and what to do with that reality. A pathway that involves individual work, community work, and community support. Pastors and ministry leaders have an opportunity to introduce their congregations to this pathway, maybe for the first time, that bridges the emotional, mental, and spiritual health together.