In the book of Revelation, chapter 2, Jesus makes an impassioned plea to the church of Thyatira: “Hold on to what you have until I come.”
“Hold on.” Jesus was speaking about finishing.
As the stress and strain of COVID-19 lingers on, and the polarization of people in our country seems to be getting worse, some leaders are tossing in the towel. They have determined leading is no longer something they want to do. They are letting go of their assignment. Dreams dashed, they are moving in a direction they never envisioned.
Why is this happening? Besides COVID and growing national unrest, what’s tempting leaders to quit? I think two major contributors are depression and anxiety. These evil twins have the capacity to color everything. Our attitude, our outlook, and our decision-making, to name a few.
Leaders of churches and businesses suffer with depression and anxiety at an exponentially higher rate than people who don’t lead such entities. It’s as if the leadership role possesses this uncanny capacity to set a person up for emotional trouble. So today we’re going to explore four key questions relating to the growing number of leaders wilting under the pressure of depression and/or anxiety. Our goal is to unpack helpful (we hope) answers to those questions.
Question 1: Why is mental health among leaders not talked about much?
It’s a hidden issue for many reasons. Here’s two common reasons:
- Training: Many leaders have been trained to never show weakness. We get the impression early on in our schooling, and sometimes from those who were our predecessors, that a leader can never admit he or she is struggling.
- Fear: A leader wrestling with anxiety and/or depression often fears that opening up about their struggle might cost them their job. Or at a minimum, cost them leadership capital. Thoughts like this can emerge: “I’m supposed to have it together, what will people think when they find out I don’t?” Will they still respect me? Will they still follow my leadership? We’ll talk more about who a leader should open up to at the end of this post.
Question 2: What causes such a high rate of anxiety and depression among leaders?
More contributors exist than can fit into this post, but’s here’s a few:
- Separation anxiety: When you have people-responsibility, disengaging from work doesn’t come easy. Leadership is influence, but it’s often intrusive.
- Spiritual warfare: Everyone has to deal with the devil at some level; but leaders seem to present a juicier target for him. Let’s use pastors as an example. Jesus said: “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” The reality of sustained spiritual warfare is true for anyone leading anything of significance. And the more the organization they lead grows, the bigger the target on a leader’s back gets.
- Societal Dysfunction: Our culture’s growing dysfunction and division has impacted leaders in a big way. The complexity, variety, and sheer number of problems leaders are dealing with have increased dramatically. The vocal 3% who would never follow you no matter what, has ballooned to the vocal 30%.
Question 3: What practices/safeguards can leaders adopt to experience mental and emotional health, even during chaotic times?
I have three words for every leader reading this post: Ownership. Network. Rhythms. (We’re very excited about our upcoming new book entitled Unshakable Leader: The Simple Yet Amazing Power of Alignment. We unpack these three superpowers in the book. Watch for more news about its upcoming release in the days ahead.) Let me quickly explain these three words:
- Ownership: Leaders must take ownership for their emotional well-being. No one else will (or should) do that for them.
- Network: Leaders need a network including their doctor, a counselor, a mentor, and some deep friendships to help them process life.
- Rhythms: To get and stay healthy, leaders need life-giving rhythms:
- Work/rest rhythms
- Physical rhythms
- Spiritual rhythms
- Relational rhythms
The better a leader functions in these three domains—ownership, network, rhythms—the better their chances of getting/staying healthy.
Question 4: What can followers do to help their leaders experience mental and emotional health?
I know we stated earlier that leaders are responsible for their own emotional well-being. But we who follow can contribute to their health. Here are three key behaviors we can do to help our leaders:
- Accept their humanity: Leaders are not robots or superheroes. They’re ordinary human beings who have limitations in regards to time, energy, and skill.
- Respect their space: Leaders need undisturbed time with their family and close friends. Understand they have the right and obligation to set healthy boundaries in terms of their schedules.
- Step up: Contribute to the cause with your talents, time, treasure, and prayers.
If you’re a leader and you feel like quitting . . . when life has thrown you so many lemons you feel like you’re drowning in lemonade . . . understand you’re in good company. We know that the prophets Elijah and Jeremiah, and King David experienced difficult seasons in their leadership. Each of them suffered with significant depression. But by the grace of God coupled with their determination to stay the course, God still used each of them as powerfully effective leaders. They held on to their assignment even in the face of opposition, trials, and the gut-punching experience of depression.
So, my dear leader friends . . . if you find yourself struggling today with depression, anxiety, or dark thoughts, and quitting seems like the only option in front of you . . . reach out for help. Get to your doctor now. Schedule an appointment with a counselor today. And please know, we’re here to listen too.
I’m rooting and praying for you to hold on to your assignment!