The Christian sub-culture is currently full of inspiring messages about leadership and accomplishing amazing things for God. Conferences, workshops, books, and Twitter-feeds all shout loudly that you can and should be a dynamic Christian leader. Don’t just do things, do BIG things. All of these leadership messages have their place, but they often leave behind people who are going through emotional struggles. What does it mean to do big things for God when you struggle just to get out of bed in the morning?
In any given year, about 25% of American adults experience symptoms of a clinical mental illness. Depression, anxiety, and other brain disorders strike Christians and non-Christians alike. Pastors and ministry leaders are no exception, as Tom Ridgaway wrote about in his article, “Silent Suffering: Pastors and Depression.” So how do you lead well when you have to struggle with your own emotional pain?
Lead With What You Have
Depression in particular can fill your head with negative messages about who you are and what you cannot do. Cognitive distortions (untrue, harmful ways of thinking) can cause you to count yourself out of leadership. Chances are your energy level and motivation aren’t what they once were. But working through emotional problems does not automatically mean you cannot lead. Many of our Christian ancestors, in particular those known as the “Desert Fathers,” have written about deep spiritual growth in the midst of suffering.
When we choose to use our suffering to connect with Christ, we find a place of strength in our weakness. We don’t have to fix it, make it okay, or pretend the emotional pain is not there. We can simply acknowledge that Christ suffered too, and it was in his deepest place of suffering that his most influential and powerful work was accomplished. When we come to the end of ourselves and allow God to simply work, not in spite of but through our pain, we operate in a spiritually powerful humility. So lead with what you have instead of focusing on all you feel you don’t have.
Take Care of Yourself
There is nothing noble about trying to fight symptoms of a mental illness through sheer willpower or mental battling. Talk to your doctor about whether or not your symptoms could be treated with medication. Find a professional Christian counselor to help you work through your symptoms. Yes, even leaders need help, and admitting this without letting shame get in your way is an act of leadership in and of itself.
Anytime you travel on an airplane, the safety instructions remind you that in the event of a drop in cabin pressure an oxygen mask will appear. Before helping anyone else, you have to secure your own mask. If you as a Christian leader are not getting the help you need, you are not going to be able to be of help to others. But getting help does not need to disqualify you from leadership — it is simply a different type of leadership. Modeling self-care for other Christians around you is a powerful example that decreases the stigma and shame around emotional problems.
Tell Your Story
Sometimes leaders feel that they have to maintain a certain appearance or reputation at all times. You must put on a happy face. Ministry must always fill you with intense joy and satisfaction. Your marriage must be perfect, your children must behave in every situation, you must be able to handle every problem life throws your way… And on and on it goes. But we must not confuse perfectionism with godliness. The former is born out of your own human striving, while the latter is deeply rooted in the work of the Spirit.
While it is not appropriate to burden your church members with the weight of every struggle, there is a place for honesty. If you find yourself pretending in order to hide what you are going through, it is probably time to find a few key leaders or elders in the church that you can talk to about your emotional struggles. They can offer support and help shoulder some of the leadership tasks that you are not able to do alone right now. And if you feel you cannot share honestly for fear that you will be removed from ministry, then getting fired may just be the best thing for you. An environment that requires pretending and happy faces is toxic when you are trying to overcome depression, anxiety or other emotional challenges.
Being a leader isn’t about always being “on” or having energy for the next big thing. Simple, Christ-like leadership is a demonstration of grace in the midst of suffering. Deep reliance on God in the midst of pain. Perhaps if more pastors and ministry leaders walked this path, the church would be a more honest place in which mental illness carries no stigma and in which true emotional healing is found.
About the Author
Kristen Kansiewicz is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor on staff at East Coast International Church in Lynn, Massachusetts. She is a graduate of Wheaton College (IL) and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. In addition to her counseling practice, Kristen is a speaker and author of four books, including On Edge: Mental Illness in the Christian Context. Her blog can be found at ChurchTherapy.com, and you can also follow her on Twitter (@ChurchTherapist).