Ed Stetzer on Four Important Reminders for Pastors Dealing With Mental Health Issues

Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange team helped with this article. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.

Mental health issues in general and burnout in particular are real issues for pastors and leaders as we minister today in our complex world. We can’t ignore them. It’s easy to say, “I would never struggle with this” without realizing how much people actually do.

This topic is so important that this past December the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, in partnership with the Wheaton College School of Psychology, Counseling, and Family Therapy, hosted a GC2 Summit on Facing Hard Truths & Challenges of Pastoral Ministry. Below I want to share four ways to think about these issues.

First, pastoral balance is a myth, but seasons without balance almost always destroy.

Ministry is not the kind of role where we get to create the balance that is in our lives. We may establish some regular routines or prioritize our lives in the order of disciple, husband, father, and then pastor.

That’s great in theory, but it doesn’t work that way in everyday life. There are times when that phone call comes: a tragedy has happened, and you have to switch those things around, and your routine is rerouted.

You don’t plan four funerals in one week, but sometimes they happen. Learning to say no when possible can help, but there are times when you have to drop everything and go.

Pastoring comes in waves. Waves come in, and waves go out. If you’re always at high tide, your ministry won’t last. Or to change the metaphor, we need both a thermometer and a thermostat in our lives to help us with the ebb and flow of ministry.

The thermometer says, “I’m burning a fever, doing too much, too fast, too soon.” It alerts us when we are about to crash. We also need a thermostat to help regulate our lives regularly.

Who in your life monitors your temperature? You can’t do it alone. Who in your life helps you turn it down when you’re running too hot? This is where accountability comes in. There are three ways this should happen.

One, you need people involved in your life personally – close friends who truly know you. Two, you need someone who’s a mentor or a spiritual figure speaking into your life. Three, you need a boss. If you don’t have one, you need some sort of organized board.

You aren’t accountable to everyone about everything. People will expect things from you all the time. I’m not accountable every person who says to me, “Well, I think you should do this.” But we need specific people who are for us as we minister to help us.

Second, pastoral burnout, flameouts, wash outs, or walk outs are all important realities.

Pastoral burnout is when a pastor or staff member just can’t take it anymore. The temperature is burning too hot and there was neither a thermometer to notice nor a thermostat to adjust.

A flameout is the worst version of that. In burnout, you might step away, but in flameout, it all burns to the ground on the way out. A wash out could be because things come in our lives that don’t jibe with the qualifications of a minister or don’t match areas of character in our lives. A walk out means we decide we would rather do something else than continue in the presser cooker of ministry.

Unfortunately, there are times when these realities come together in the tragic reality of pastors or staff members who contemplate or commit suicide. How do we avoid these? We start by admitting the third thing I want to share.

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Source: Christianity Today