Pastors, how is your mental health?

The importance of recognizing your own struggles and seeking help when needed

October 18, 2021

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. 

Alice Stricklin

Alice Stricklin is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Tennessee.  She has a masters in Public Health and a Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy. Alice is a therapist, author, public speaker, a trainer of EMDR Therapy, an AAMFT approved Supervisor, an AAMFT Professional Member, and … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24