Mental Health Awareness Month is a good reminder that you, pastor, need to advocate for your mental health in a community that will be supportive as well. By doing so, you can model and lead your congregation in caring for those with mental health needs through service that honours Christ.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month—but does that also apply to pastors?

As a pastor, you have likely thought and prayed about how you can meet the needs of your congregation by assisting them through their spiritual struggles, offering them wisdom and guidance through personal difficulties, or perhaps by engaging and collaborating with mental health professionals. Our consistent desire as pastors is to walk with our church members in their journey toward health and wholeness. What is worth noting, however, is your need to prioritise your spiritual, emotional, and mental health for you, your family, and the spiritual leadership you provide.

What the research shows

While leading LifeWay Research, I had the privilege to participate in a research project that included a question about how pastors struggle with mental health issues. In this study, we partnered with Focus on the Family and looked at three specific populations:

  1. We conducted a survey among Protestant pastors to see how churches viewed individuals diagnosed with mental illness.
  2. We looked at church members who had been diagnosed with mental illness.
  3. We surveyed family members of people with mental illness.

In the study, we also asked pastors about their mental health struggles. The findings revealed that almost one in four pastors (23%) acknowledged experiencing mental illness, with 12% having received an actual diagnosis. A more recent study by Lifeway Research found there was a slight increase in the number of pastors with some mental health challenges, reaching 26%.

Why don’t pastor’s seek help?

And yet, for various reasons, pastors often don’t speak of their own personal struggles.

I don’t think it is always appropriate for a pastor to share every detail of his mental health struggles with the congregation. However, I hope pastors would confidently confide with trusted advisors or church elders about their mental health journey so that the church can foster a thriving community together.

Years ago, a friend wrote a guest article for me about coming out of the “medicine cabinet.” He bravely confided with the elders of his church about his struggles and the fact that he was taking medication to manage his mental illness. This disclosure, unfortunately, led to his termination. He often indicated that he struggled in some ways with his mental health, but it turned out that the leadership was not a safe place for him to communicate that struggle.

On the other hand, I have found that some pastors have taken deliberate steps to articulate their journeys toward mental health. I’ve noted when pastors (helpfully) mention something about seeing a counsellor. We must normalise mental health as a shared reality we all face at some level. By modelling how we, as leaders, are getting help, we can also help others.

Your mental health is vital to your ministry

Truthfully, this may be the exact nudge you need to address some mental health issues you face. But please hear me out; it might also benefit your congregation to hear that you’re actively addressing these issues. This, in turn, may encourage them to see that confronting some of their mental health challenges could be very valuable for them and their family. Talking about these things and engaging in conversations about these matters is a good and positive development.

At LifeWay Research, we also found a significant gap between what’s available to church leaders for addressing issues of mental health and the awareness of these resources within the congregation. Surprisingly, two-thirds of pastors (68%) reported that they kept a list of mental health resources for their churches. But only 28% of families affected by mental health issues were aware of them. In other words, we discovered that the people who should most be aware of those resources had a much lower level of awareness that the resources existed.

We understand that there can be many reasons for this disparity. However, we must remember that we must help people see that our churches are the body of Christ, and together we bear each other’s burdens. The church must recognise its role in supporting others in their mental health journeys. This involves our active engagement in teaching and preaching.

Speak from the pulpit

I often say that when it comes to mental health, sermons break stigmas.

When we talk about it from the pulpit, and the staff addresses it, people will see mental health as an appropriate topic for Christians to engage. In a study we conducted years ago that gained significant attention, we found Christians believe at a higher percentage that prayer and Bible study alone can heal mental illness. [2] Almost half (48%) of evangelicals believed that with “Bible study and prayer ALONE, people with serious mental illness diagnoses like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia can overcome mental illness.”

To be clear, I firmly believe there are times when God miraculously intervenes in mental health struggles, just as I believe God miraculously intervenes in physical difficulties. God is still a healer. I’ve witnessed God miraculously heal physically, and that can happen with issues of mental health, illness, addictions, and more.

However, in most cases, God uses human means in our broken world to bring about a greater sense of healing. It is part of how he involves us in his mission. Almost always, when somebody has a diagnosed mental health illness, there will be a process involving multiple factors. Discussing these matters within the church is crucial, as they hold significant importance.

Allow me to give an example that may help, as I’ve changed my preaching regarding this matter. [Please note that this example contains comments regarding suicide]. Years ago, I preached through the book of Philippians, and then years later, I preached through the book again. My awareness of mental health changed significantly between the two-sermon series. In my years at seminary and the multiple graduate degrees I’ve earned, I had little education about mental health. After the tragic death of a dear friend from suicide, I realised I had been woefully unprepared to help people who struggled with their mental health. 

The difference in my preaching is evident now. When I preached Philippians 4:6-7 about two decades ago, I simply said that God calls us not to be anxious. However, my approach was different in recent years when I preached at Moody Church. I said, “God’s design for you is not to walk in this ongoing anxiety but to trust him.” But then I added, “For some of you, when you find yourself trapped trying to be obedient to the Lord and you can’t break out of a cycle of anxiety that overwhelms you, you may need to seek additional help.” I took the opportunity to explain some of the resources we had for them. That’s one paragraph of additional information in a 35-minute sermon that greatly encouraged some people with anxiety to seek additional help.

Don’t ignore the broken

Mental Health Awareness Month serves as a good reminder that a church that ignores the broken is a broken church.

In this broken world, no one is exempt from experiencing brokenness in some form. There are times when we need help. Sometimes, these challenges may manifest as more profound and recognisable as a diagnosis of mental illnesses. And in all those cases, regardless of what they are, we need the power of God, the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, the sufficiency of the Word of God, and the support of the community of God’s people.

Therefore, Mental Health Awareness Month is a good reminder that you, pastor, need to advocate for your mental health in a community that will be supportive as well. By doing so, you can model and lead your congregation in caring for those with mental health needs through service that honours Christ.

© 2023 Ed Stetzer. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is a professor and dean at Wheaton College where he also serves as Executive Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He serves at his local church,  Highpoint Church, as a teaching pastor. His national radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates. 

Tell your friends