leading through the emotional pain 1

Leading Through Emotional Pain

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.

leading through emotional pain

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).

Jed Jurchenko

Jed Jurchenko is the husband to an incredible wife, daddy to four amazing girls, and a foster dad to one more. He's served as a children's pastor, marriage and family therapist, psychology professor, award-winning writing coach, and life coach. Jed is the author of 23 books on relationships, parenting, writing, and doing life well. In his free time, you'll find Jed reading, preparing for an upcoming marathon, barbecuing, paddle boarding, and enjoying life with his incredible family. Find out more about Jed's books, coaching, and courses at www.ithrive320.com.

3 thoughts on “Leading Through Emotional Pain”

  1. Hey Kristen,

    Thank you for doing the very first guest post for this site! There is so much good stuff here. Ten years ago, I was serving as a children’s pastor at a small church in Illinois, while going through a very difficult time in my own life. From personal experience, I know that you are absolutely right. Being in a leadership position, while going through personal struggles, feels overwhelming.

    I love the three points you listed. Especially the last one. I find myself drawn to leaders who are honest about their struggles. In fact, I was telling a friend, earlier this week, that I don’t like talking about these challenging times. However, when I do share, others have reported that hearing my story of learning and growth, has been helpful to them.

    I love how you talk about having, “deep reliance on God in the midst of pain.” Emotional pain doesn’t have to signal the end of ministry. In fact, many times God works through this pain to prepare us for something new. I love this post!

  2. Kristen, while the whole post was on point and well-stated, I found the final two paragraphs to be particularly important. Nothing turns me off like hearing a preacher whose only reference to personal struggles are the same rote rehashings of twenty years ago, when “I was a real rascal as a teen” or “when we were first married.” If the last marital struggles, temptations or failures were twenty years ago … well, let’s just say the weren’t.

    My central theme in life and writing is this: “You always have a choice.” That doesn’t mean that any particular choice is easy. The fact that you spelled out that even if you are removed from ministry, it is best to be honest and get help if you need it … is vital. To add to depression or struggle the continual pressure to perform and hide is not ever what God would want of us.

  3. Hi Kristen,

    You have a great message here for all church leaders. I love the statement you make about not confusing perfection with godliness. I’ve seen too many church leaders come undone while trying to pretend they were perfect, while struggling with mental health issues. As peers and parishioners we need to do what we can to make it ok for us all to be human, and ask for help when mental illness strikes.

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