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Last week’s news of Jarrid Wilson’s suicide rocked the Christian world.

Many posts have been posted, many blogs have been blogged, many opinions have been opined. Some of those posts, blogs, and opinions have been tinged with compassion and grief . . . others with unkindness and judgmentalism. I’ve kept my mouth closed about Jarrid’s death until this week.

Earlier this week I had the distinct honor of being interviewed by Pastor Chris Brooks on his radio show “Equipped with Chris Brooks,” on the subject of The Mental and Emotional Health of Pastors. You can list to the podcast here.

Chris and I talked about 4 key questions:

  1. Why is mental health among clergy such a hidden issue?
  2. What causes such high anxiety and depression among clergy?
  3. What practices/safeguards can clergy members adopt to experience mental and emotional health?
  4. What can congregations do to help their pastors experience mental and emotional health?

I could write a book about these four items . . . oh wait, I did! Two books in fact. You can find them here.

But in this post, let me try to briefly address each question Chris posed.

Question 1: Why is mental health among clergy such a hidden issue?

It’s a hidden issue for many reasons. Here’s two:

  1. Training: Many pastors 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 pastor can never admit he’s struggling.
  2. Fear: A pastor wrestling with anxiety and/or depression often fears that opening up about their struggle might cost them their job. Or at a minimum, diminish their leadership. Thoughts like this 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?

These are the some of the mental gymnastics that keep leaders hiding their depression and/or anxiety.

Question 2: What causes such a high rate of anxiety and depression among clergy?

Once again, more contributors exist than can fit into this post, but’s here’s a few:

  1. Difficulty separating from work: When you have people-responsibility, disengaging from work tends to be a monumental challenge. Leadership is influence, but it’s often intrusive.  The apostle Paul described this dynamic when he wrote: “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.”  When I was a lead pastor, disconnecting from work was incredibly difficult.
  2. Spiritual warfare: Every Christian has to deal with the devil at some level; but leaders seem to present a juicier target for him. Jesus said: “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” The reality of spiritual warfare is true for all pastors. And the more a leader’s ministry grows, the target on his back grows accordingly. Growth is desirable, but it often brings a faster pace. If we’re not careful, an out of control pace can take over and catapult us into exhaustion. When we’re exhausted, our defenses are weakened. We become an easier target for the devil to attack.
  3. Societal Dysfunction: Our culture’s growing dysfunction has impacted the Church in a big way. The complexity, variety, and sheer number of problems pastors deal with have increased dramatically. Lead pastors who have a strong need to “fix” those who attend the church they lead are at greater risk for increased stress levels, because first, God hasn’t called them to fix anybody, and second, if “fixing” is their focus, that is all they’ll ever do. Fixing is an emotionally draining way to lead.
  4. Lack of awareness: As a lead pastor, I didn’t know I should pay attention to my emotional health—until major depression forced me to. In my dream world we would prepare leaders better by making them aware of the emotional rigors of ministry, and equipping them with a strategy to maintain a full emotional tank.

Question 3: What practices/safeguards can clergy members adopt to experience mental and emotional health?

I have three words for every pastor reading this post: Ownership. Network. Rhythms. Let me explain each one:

  1. Ownership: Pastors must take ownership for their emotional well-being. No one else will (or should) do that for them. Not their spouse, nor their board, nor the members of the church they lead.
  2. Network: Pastors need a network including their doctor, a counselor, a mentor, and some deep friendships to help them process life. Emotional health rarely develops in a vacuum.
  3. Rhythms: To get and stay healthy, pastors need healthy rhythms:
  • Work/rest rhythms: Daily – learning how to clock out at a reasonable time every day. Weekly – taking a regular day off. Annual – taking a vacation.
  • Physical rhythms: regular exercise, 7-8 hours of sleep nightly, and good nutrition.
  • Spiritual rhythms: daily moments of meaningful connection with God.
  • Relational rhythms: relationships that fill up a leader’s emotional bucket, mixed in with times of solitude.

Question 4: What can congregations do to help their pastors experience mental and emotional health?

  1. Accept your pastor’s humanity: The apostle Paul told his friends in 2 Corinthians 4:7 – “But we have this treasure in jars of clay.” The gospel is preached by men and women who are ordinary human beings who have limitations in regards to time, energy, and skill.
  2. Let your pastor have close friends: Refuse to be petty, jealous or immature about the people your pastor hangs out with. He needs guys with whom he can laugh and relax. If you study the life of Jesus… you understand He had an inner circle of three—Peter, James and John. He shared moments with these men that He didn’t with others. If Jesus as a man needed that type of relational structure, so will your pastor.
  3. Respect their space: Pastors need undisturbed time with their family. Understand they have the right and obligation to set healthy boundaries in terms of their schedules.
  4. Step up: Contribute to the cause with your talents, time, treasure, and prayers.

As Jarrid Wilson’s suicide shows us, openly talking about our struggle with depression and/or anxiety doesn’t always guarantee a happy ending. But not talking about it almost always results in an unhappy ending. Depression festers in isolation. The best chance for healing comes when it’s exposed to the light.

I experience two emotions when suicides happen: The first one is sadness. Sadness for the person who took their life, sadness for the loss of what could have been through their lives; sadness for the surviving family, friends, and in Jarrid’s case, his church. My heart goes out to Jarrid’s wife, his boys, his friends, his extended family, and his church.

And the second emotion I feel when suicide happens is anger: Anger that another amazing life was lost. Anger over the devil convincing yet another person that life wasn’t worth living anymore.

I’m sure many who knew Jarrid are asking themselves, “Why?” “Why did this happen?” “How could this happen?”

There are no satisfying answers.

I do know that the prophets Elijah and Jeremiah, and King David suffered with depression. Yet God used each of them as powerfully effective leaders. I’m 100% in favor of leaders who struggle with depression taking advantage of resources to help them heal. In severe cases, a sabbatical is in order. But in most cases, depression does not disqualify them from leading. We all lead with a limp of some sort.

So, my dear leader friends . . . if you find yourself struggling today with dark thoughts . . . reach out for help. Get to your doctor. Schedule an appointment with a counselor. And . . . we’re here to listen too.

Let me encourage once more to listen to the Equipped with Chris Brooks podcast.

Everyone on the team at Converge Coaching is rooting and praying for you!

John Opalewski

Author John Opalewski

John Opalewski is a graduate of Oral Roberts University. He served as a pastor for fifteen years. He has worked in the business world for nearly two decades, serving in multiple leadership roles. John's experience as a leader in both the church and business arenas has made him a sought-after international speaker, coach and mentor.

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