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Pastors and Mental Health

Updated: May 13, 2020

Olympic Mountains from Alki Beach, West Seattle, WA (author’s picture)

Olympic Mountains from Alki Beach, West Seattle, WA (author’s picture)

This morning I chose the above view for my office. I did it for my mental health. And I don’t mean that metaphorically. I actually mean it. I slept fitfully last night, appreciative for a wife who did not kick me out of bed despite the fact that I must have woke her up the same number of times I tossed and turned. My mental health feels frazzled. Besides Coronatide and Zoom fatigue I am disturbed by the apparent suicide of Pastor Darrin Patrick.

I first heard of Patrick’s death through a restrained short post a friend made on Facebook noting a suicide of a pastoral friend of his. Only later in the day when the news became more widespread did I put the pieces together that my friend and Patrick worked together years ago. And my heart began to sink.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Psalm 42:5a)

I am a highly empathic person. That is, I feel deeply what other people feel. This work of the Holy Spirit in me makes it easier for me to obey God’s command in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” But that obedience is costly. You only have so much emotion to go around. 

It is easy for pastoral types like me to feel like Bilbo in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, “I feel I need a holiday, a very long holiday, as I have told you before…Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: Like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something.”

Is that what Darrin Patrick felt? Is that why he apparently took his own life? Pastoral mental health is remarkably low. If you are not a pastor and you are wondering why this is the case, reading the linked article will help. I am more interested in this piece in providing some encouragement and direction to pastors seeking better mental health.

In our work coaching pastors we encourage them in their emotional life to “be willing to feel”, “feel”, “name”, and “say”. Let’s look at each of those.

“Be willing to feel” - Some pastors feel so hurt by life (which can be a covert way of hiding anger with God), critique, complaints, and the genuinely difficult and challenging work of walking with people in all kinds of distress that they choose to cut themselves off from feeling their emotions. They go through life somewhat robotic as a survival technique. The problem with this is that the emotions are still there lying hidden affecting (even distorting) the pastor every moment of his life. This becomes obvious when responses to relatively small things are reacted to in disproportionate ways. We want these disproportionate responses to stop because they end up hurting people. However, the path to solving the responses involves first being willing to feel again.

“Feel” - Made in the image of the feeling God, humans are full of emotions. But being conscious of those emotions and letting them have their due is another matter altogether. For many Western cultures, emotions are likely barriers to goals and thus are to be eschewed, avoided, forgotten, suppressed, and even repressed. That’s a recipe for disaster just like my French Press coffee habits of some years ago.

In my church office I used to make a large pot of French Press coffee every morning using a glorious double wall stainless steel pot from Ikea. When the pot was finished I foolishly would simply wash all the grinds down the drain. Until… one morning the sink wouldn’t drain. I took the old pipes apart to discover a nasty, smelly, gross mess. For years I ignored reality but as it always does, reality reared its head eventually. The same is true of emotions. This is why we need to become fluent in feeling. Aids to learning how to do this can be found from Peter Scazzero and Ken Sande's RW360.

“Name” - Author Dan Siegel coined the phrase, “Name it to tame it”. That is, it becomes possible to manage our emotions once we can give them a name but not before. So let us try something... As you are reading this piece how do you feel? What name would you give to what you feel? Some people can immediately respond with an accurate, cogent answer. Others not so much. The good thing is that naming emotions is a skill you can acquire. The Feelings Wheel can help you get better at naming your emotions.

About three weeks into the Coronatide malaise I woke up one morning after yet another unproductive day before and said to myself, “Matt, maybe you are depressed”. While the realization was not particularly pleasant (who wants to be depressed?), having the realization — naming the emotion I was feeling and was willing to feel — was critical. Why? Now that I had named it, I could manage it, minister to it, and seek to live differently in light of what I was willing to “own” that I felt.

“Say” - I love the courage displayed by the Sons of Korah in Psalm 42. Read this slowly out loud to yourself a couple of times changing the emphasis to different words in the line to hear how differently it can sound. D. Martyn Llyod Jones is helpful on speaking in the midst of spiritual depression as well.

 “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Psalm 42:5a)

Notice these things about this line of poetry designed to be sung (do we have the courage to sing this?):

  • There was a willingness to look inside and feel.

  • There was curiosity about the reasons for why I feel like I feel. 

  • Upon looking there was the feeling of “cast down” and “in turmoil” (accurate to what I felt yesterday as I grappled with my friend’s pain and my own feelings about Darrin Patrick’s death).

  • The feelings were not allowed to exist as generalized, “I do not feel great”. Instead they were memorialized with labels, names, even we could say “hooks”.

  • And then the Sons of Korah spoke, wrote, even sung these words. They “said” out loud what they were feeling. They named them to tame them (to use Siegel’s phrase).

There’s something else hidden here that is the key to learning to manage emotions. Note the pattern displayed in the whole of Psalm 42:5-6a.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you..”

The form of these words is actually the writer speaking to his own soul. When we coach our clients to “say” we not only want them to speak out loud their emotions but to do so in the form of addressing themselves. Note how the Sons of Korah tell themselves to hope in God their salvation, “their” God (and Old Testament way of saying “Our Father”), and tell themselves to remember God’s deeds on their behalf.

This last matter is absolutely critical. What did Darrin Patrick feel near the end of his life? It was likely what a lot of pastors feel — “Is this worth it?”, “Is this all there is?”, “Why does the world feel like it is collapsing on me?”, “Why do I feel such turmoil inside?”, “Will anyone ever be pleased with me?”, “Can I keep living despite my many regrets?”, “Has even God abandoned me?”

If you are a non-pastor, you should know that these thoughts are common for pastors to have run through their minds. Pray for them! If you are a pastor, what can you do for your own mental health?

Let me suggest that you learn two habits, listen and speak. First, listen to yourself. Be willing to ask, “How do I feel?” And then wait until your feelings can take the shape of a name or names for emotions. Second, speak thick cross-shaped, gospel truth to yourself. I’ll offer a couple of examples in closing.

Listen: “I feel hurt due to Mrs. Jones’ critique of my sermon (or decision or failure to care for care for her, etc.)”

Speak: “Matt at the cross the most true and greatest criticism of you that could be leveled was. And God was right. You not only make many mistakes and are radically imperfect you are pervasively corrupt and deserving of judgment for your many sins. And… the Father who made you uniquely loved you so much that He sent His very own Son to live perfectly in your place and to bear the punishment due to you. Jesus’ record which is uncritiqueable is now your record. Rest in knowing your Father’s love and care for you and that in Christ He is ‘for you’ (Romans 8:31).” (I’m indebted to Tim Keller’s simple formulation of this that I label So Bad / So Glad)

Listen: “I feel overwhelmed by managing everyone else’s emotions on top of my own.”

Speak: “Jesus understands how you feel. Bring to mind what Jesus felt in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36ff, Mark 14:32ff, and Luke 22:39ff). Go to Jesus and pour out your heart knowing that He will hear sympathetically. Ask the Holy Spirit to give comfort, relief, and perspective. Read again slowly and carefully 2 Cor 4:7-18. Realize that you are not the only servant of Jesus that has felt this way. Take comfort that THE Apostle Paul felt as you do. Note how Paul seeks comfort and hope in what Jesus will do. Ponder that as truly overwhelmed as you feel that in light of the glory that will be the New Heavens and New Earth, your overwhelm can also feel like ‘light momentary affliction’. Ask the Holy Spirit to give this perspective and comfort.”

Listen: “I feel shame that I am not meeting expectations, mine or others.”

Speak: “Who is the only audience that really matters? God, your Heavenly Father who Has done all this is needed in the sending of His Son for you to be received without shame into His family forever. Now you are privileged to rely on the indwelling Holy Spirit to serve God, not men (Gal 1:10, Eph 6:5-9, Col 3:22). What is God’s attitude towards His servants that are sincerely trying to obey Him? Note carefully the Master’s words to the servants who invested their gifts in his service. Have you invested your gifts in God’s service? Is not the answer to that question, yes? So is not this God’s attitude towards you as well? Why is that hard for you to believe? Is not God that wonderful even if people and perhaps even yourself are not? Gladly choose God’s expectations and rest in Jesus who desperately desires to give rest to you (Matt 11:28).

A couple of tips or best practices will round out this conclusion.

  1. You would be amazed at what a change of scenery will do. Even in lockdown, you can take a walk in Creation. Listen to the birds. Look at the intricate bottoms of flower petals crafted for beauty by their Creator. Get some fresh air away from Zoom, texts, and demands.

  2. Take “mental health” time off without shame. I heard from a pastor this week that he was taking an extra day off each week during Coronatide. He simply felt that everything was so taxing that for his own sanity, he needed to have extra space to rest. This takes courage. It takes discipline to squeeze down your expectations and others so that you can get what is most essential done so you can rest.

Pastoral mental health is critical. It is critical so that more pastors do not take their lives. Also, it is critical for pastoral longevity which is keyed to fruitfulness. Feel no shame in caring for yourself. 


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