Ministry and Mental Health: Your Pastor's Mental Health Matters

Have you ever thought about the amount of stress your pastor and ministry leaders may be under when it comes to the role they play in and outside the church? Pastors are regularly called upon to provide support in emotional and mental crises to those in the church which can lead to an overwhelming feeling of stress if their own mental health isn't taken care of properly. There are also many expectations that others put on pastors to live an almost nearly perfect life that can cause higher levels of stress making one feel spiritually drained, burnt out, upset with God, or lead to depression and other mental health conditions. Let's face the truth, pastors and those called to ministry are not exempt when it comes to mental illness. If they are struggling emotionally, they should also be treated the same as if it was your own friend or family member fighting this battle. Outside of the church, pastors live their personal lives as well and can also experience frustration and emotional pain that doesn't necessarily come from ministry work. This can include marriage and family problems, financial difficulty, spiritual warfare, or pressures from unrealistic expectations. When it comes to mental health and the church, it often creates a unique challenge for believers to discuss. Why has it become so difficult to address an issue that many individuals are facing "in the church". The topic of mental health simply should not be avoided especially if it's impacting our church leaders as well.  

Eliminating the Stigma

A major step towards eliminating the stigma within the Christian and church communities is through education and understanding both the spiritual and practical ways God works. Those who believe Gods word know that He is a healer, but He doesn't heal in only one way. Those who struggle with mental health issues may require additional help rather this be through a mental health therapist or psychiatrist for medication assistance. Mental health conditions can be caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Mental health conditions are difficult for many to understand because some are biological brain disorders. Some mental illnesses are more complex or chronic but can be treated through treatment. When mental health conditions are looked at in the same lens as physical health conditions, this can help end the stigma as well. Understand that this doesn't indicate you lack faith in God's word or spiritually weak, it means you are human.

Another major step towards ending the stigma surrounding mental health in the Christian and church communities is allowing the topic of mental health to be openly discussed within the church. If a pastor or church leader is struggling with a mental health condition, their story should be told openly, not be swept under the rug. This, in fact, could help members of the church be more open about their own mental health conditions. According to Nami Alliance on Mental Illness 1 in 5 American adults experiences some form of mental illness in any given year. And across the population, 1 in every 25 adults is living with a serious mental health condition such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or long-term recurring major depression. This means there are members of congregations who are battling with mental health conditions needing their church families support. A study by LifeWay states, 1 in 4 pastors (23 percent) acknowledge they have personally struggled with a mental illness such as depression, and half of those pastors said the illness had been diagnosed. It's a major need to decrease these numbers. Pastors shouldn't have to suffer alone in silence. 

Meet Pastor Gabriel Harper

Pastor Gabriel Harper graduated with a Masters of Divinity in Christians Studies, in May of 2015 from Luther Rice University Seminary in Lithonia, GA. Pastor Gabriel Harper currently serves as the Pastor of Outreach under the leadership of Dr. E. Dewey Smith, Jr. and The House of Hope Atlanta. He also is extremely honored and joyful to travel the world as a National Presenter for Logos Bible Software, educating people on a cutting-edge tool in order to help them  grow deeper in light of Gods Word. Pastor Gabriel Harper launched G. Harper Ministries in April of 2014 to reach the masses with inspirational messages that will direct attention to Jesus Christ and ultimately help believers connect with their God-given purpose.  

What are some of the common challenges you face while working in ministry?

Not feeling valued, overlooked and not financially or emotionally supported while serving in the church faithfully. This is extremely difficult being dedicated to your calling and to your pastor. Sometimes serving in ministry will make you feel like you’re in a cycle and don’t know which way to go and when you don’t have the right support, you can get lost and feel like you are stuck. 

Have you experienced any personal battles with mental health? If so, how did you overcome it and how do you maintain positive mental health now?

I dealt with depression and mental anxiety when I experienced church hurt. It was a deep pain that I didn’t think I would overcome. I felt abandoned when I left. I served at that particular church for six years and it felt like my service wasn't valued. I felt like all the years of giving my heart and service, was for nothing. I became cold towards God, I disconnected from everyone and began to isolate into a season of depression.

It was this dark season in my life, where my tears were my water. I would go home after work, close all the blinds and lay on the couch for hours. I was not reading, praying, or connecting with a form of spirituality. Why? Because I felt like the very love I have for the church, had stabbed me in my back and I did not feel safe in the church and most of all I did not TRUST the church. I was depressed. It was at this critical place in my life, where I thought it was not worth living. Nothing was going right in my life. I had lost everything and my mind was telling me to give up because I would never make it out of this depression. 

I overcame my battle by taking a sabbatical season to refresh, recharge, and renew my mind. I spent time with loving friends and family to recharge. I took trips to the beach and places I always wanted to go to refresh. Ultimately, I talked with God, my spiritual advisers and I went to counseling to help renew me spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. Romans 12: 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. Secondly, I kept serving the community and helping people meet their immediate needs. Giving back gave me joy and strength so I held outreach events in Atlanta, GA to feed the least, the lost and looked over. I also wrote in my journal messages that went along with how I overcame depression and pain. I preached through some of my most painful experiences and I did my best to encourage other people to stay in the good fight of faith!

How can poor mental health affect ministry work?

Poor mental health can and will decrease your zeal for effective ministry work. When leaders are in a poor mental health space, it is extremely difficult for us to pour out, preach and give our best when we are not in a mentally and emotionally healthy place. What usually ends up happening is that we unintentionally pour out our pain on the parishioners. It can be emotionally taxing on the church when leaders are not mentally healthy and strong. The church can end up wearing the pain of the pastor.  

What are some common misconceptions you see with mental health in the church and Christian community?

That mental illness is not a sickness. Sadly the “Church Community” looks at mental health as someone being “Crazy” especially when someone commits suicide or overdoses on pills. People think that they are crazy because they have never suffered from a mental illness.

One of the major reasons why there are misconceptions about mental health is because the church has never been educated or taught on how to deal with mental illness, especially the pastors. Unfortunately, misconceptions have crept into the church because of the church’s lack of understanding on how to deal with mental illness and what productive methods to use to help treat the illness. Thus, we overlook it, we demonize the illness, and as a result, we neglect those that need our help, because of the lack of understanding. The Proverb states, "People parish for the lack of knowledge". This is just not figuratively, but literally.  

How can church leaders support other leaders and their pastors who experience mental health issues?

I believe true support comes by first removing all judgment and shame. Many pastors and leaders do not want to come forth for help because of the shame and embarrassment that comes with mental issues. Church leaders can support their pastors by providing them with a paid sabbatical and by providing resources that will help the pastor conquer the illness. Leaders could help provide resources for licensed therapists who can service pastors and also resources for other therapeutic services. This would be a great start towards helping with the recovery process. The church senior leadership team also needs to pray and fast on behalf of their pastor. The pastor needs to know the church has his or her back and is willing to fight alongside them the entire way.   

What advice would you give to others (those in the church and Christian communities) who are battling with mental health conditions?

Do not be ashamed to discuss your condition. Find someone to talk to and do not suffer alone. Know that you are not the only person dealing with a mental illness and please know that your life is worth living. Do not fall for any thoughts that your life is not worth living. Fight for your life, your legacy and for the Lord. The Lord will keep you as long as you continue to lean on Him. Do not run or refuse to get help. Do not be in denial of your mental illness. Get the help, write, sing, stay active and around people that love you and that will fight with you.

How can the bible and prayer help with building a healthy mental state?

One of my favorite scriptures that I believe will help build a healthy mental health is Philippians 4:7, "And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

Rest in the peace of God! Rely on the Power of God through your prayers.

Sometimes churches miss the chance to minister to those with mental illness and in return can hurt them. There are many church leaders and individuals in the congregation who need more emotional support, helping them feel more comfortable opening up about their mental health struggles. There is a need for more churches, leaders, and pastors to speak on the topic of mental health boldly, honestly, and purposefully to help end the stigma of mental illness within this community. Thank you to Pastor Gabriel Harper for being so brave and opening up about his story. I hope it encourages those who are silently fighting this same battle to seek out help. Remember you are not alone and God will always be with you!

For more of Pastor Gabriel, follow him on Instagram: @gharpermin Facebook: Gabe Harper Website: www.gharperministries.org

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