Spiritual Leaders and Mental Health

In Daily Life, Faith / Life, Leadership by Kirk GilesLeave a Comment

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Why do spiritual leaders battle mental health problems?  The North American Christian community was rocked this week with the news of the suicide of Pastor Jarrid Wilson.  Sadly, Jarrid is not the first (or even likely the last) spiritual leader who will face these challenges and temptations.  What can we learn in these moments? 

Please know – the following thoughts are not about Jarrid Wilson or any other spiritual leader who has committed suicide.  I did not know him.  These comments are general in nature.

Examine the Expectations of Spiritual Leaders

It is easy for us to create a culture where spiritual leaders should have everything together.  After all, who wants to follow someone who is obviously struggling? 

There is also a culture within the Christian community that calls for spiritual leaders to become experts on everything.  In any given week, a pastor can be expected to:

  • Bring comfort to someone in a hospital
  • Prepare a sermon better than whoever the latest famous preacher is
  • Manage and lead volunteers
  • Be a family counselor
  • Be an expert in conflict resolution between members
  • Plan major events
  • Perform facility repairs
  • Be a financial manager
  • Be a marketing genius for the latest program the church is offering
  • Lead like a chief executive officer of the organization/church

And this list isn’t even a full picture. It’s not healthy to be expected to operate at a high level in every one of these areas. We need to examine the kind of expectations we place on our spiritual leaders.

Some of the expectations spiritual leaders experience are placed on them by others, but there are also many expectations we place on ourselves.

The Expectations Leaders Place On Themselves

During one of my own emotionally dark seasons in leadership, God graciously confronted me with some of the expectations I was placing on my own life.

He brought me to Romans 12:3-5.  In this passage of Scripture, we are taught that God has given a particular grace or “measure of faith” to each person in the Body of Christ.  The big idea is that we all need each other for the body to function correctly.  But the passage begins with this warning:  we are not to think more highly of ourselves than we should.  At this moment, God taught me some of the expectations I placed on myself were me operating beyond the grace God had given to me.  I was trying to do what I was not created to do, but others were.  In short, I thought more highly of myself than I should. 

When I release the wrong expectations I place on myself, it becomes a place of freedom in my own mind.  I recognize how much I need God to bring others forward to accomplish the work.  It influences my own definition of success and failure as a spiritual leader.

Our Leaders Need Our Support

Even outside of expectations, there are a lot of other things going through the mind of spiritual leaders.  There is a biblical role for us to play to help with the mental health of those who are in leadership.

  1. Only expect them to do their part in the Body based on the way God has gifted them.  This means you need to step up and do your role in the Body to help the church be healthy
  2. Give them grace.  Our leaders are not perfect people.  They will have dark days and seasons.  Find ways to be supportive, understanding, and helpful during these times.
  3. Pray for them.  Give thanks to God for them.  Encourage them.  Don’t just do this in private, but do it in public.  Let them know you are thinking of them.  Encourage them to know their life and ministry is valued to you and to others.  Consider joining with others to celebrate Pastor Appreciation Day/Month in October.
  4. Listen to them.  Really listen.  In Hebrews 13:17, we are taught to obey and submit to leaders because they watch for our souls.  Sometimes, the emotional heaviness of a spiritual leader is like a parent who is watching their child go down a dangerous path.  If you have ever experienced this in your family, then you know how hard it can be on a parent.  Now imagine you have dozens or hundreds of people you care for in the same way and what that could do to you.

Final Thoughts

It is not a great time to be a Christian leader in our culture.  There is a general pessimism about the motivation of leaders, and a drive towards hyper-individualism.  Many of our spiritual leaders are struggling, which means we are all suffering.  The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 12:26 that when one member suffers we all suffer.  Let’s be a people who do what we can to stand for the emotional, physical, and spiritual health of our leaders.

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