The Unspoken Burden of Pastoring With Mental Illness

November 3, 2018  •  Jonathan Greer

Depression. Anxiety. BiPolar Disorder. ADHD. These are all responses I received when I took an anonymous survey (Survey is still open if you have not taken it yet) to see how mental illness has affected pastors.  These are not things that come up in regular day to day conversations, even with other pastors, and many pastors feel they are alone in their struggles. These topics aren’t even likely to come up when you are gathered with your pastor friends. There are a multiplicity of reasons to not talk about it. Let’s look at a few.

There are easier Conversations to Have

There are plenty of other “easier” conversations to have. “How’s the church going?” “How’s your family?” “What do you think about  what this pastor or that entity leader is doing?” “Did you catch that game the other night?” Next thing you know you have consumed all your time together with small talk and solving all the problems in your denomination, and successfully avoided having a necessary, but hard, conversation.

They Won’t Understand

Often, because the topic is not discussed publicly, and very few popular resources exist to shed light on the topic, pastors feel like they are alone in their suffering. Because we aren’t talking about our mental health, our close pastor friends could be suffering as well and we would never know. A pastor struggling with mental illness, especially depression, is prone to think that everyone else is healthy, and thus they wouldn’t understand or be able to relate to their problems.

It’s Awkward

No one wants to be the buzz kill right? If everyone is having a good time and sharing in fellowship it feels like it will be painfully awkward to share about the havoc mental illness is wreaking on your ministry or marriage. We assume that people will be bothered by us confessing our struggles, so we continue on in silence.

While all of these negative reasons and more might keep us from talking to others about our mental illness I want to give you three positive reasons to speak up and not be silent about your mental illness.

Your ministry and family could depend on engaging in this hard conversation.

Yes, it is easier to talk about everything else in the world with your ministry friends, but keeping your struggles to yourself could lead to the end of your ministry, and the destruction of your family. You have an obligation before God to shepherd the flock that is among you. If you are being beaten down and eaten away by a mental illness it will be hard, if not impossible, to effectively fulfill your duty as an undershepherd without seeking help.

People can be more understanding than you give them credit for.

You will never know if someone understands your struggles until you open up to them. There is no downside to opening up to a friend. Best case scenario they are understanding and possibly have similar struggles that they have wanted to talk with someone about, but never had the courage. Worst case scenario they don’t completely understand or haven’t given much thought to mental illness, but they are still your friends and with your help they will grow in understanding in order to support you. So share your burdens and help them understand better how they can be a friend to you.

Awkward doesn’t mean unfruitful.

Any conversation that leaves you vulnerable will feel awkward, and revealing your mental illness to a friend definitely falls into the “vulnerable” category. But just because something is awkward does not mean it will be unfruitful. Actually, some of the most fruitful, spirit-filled, dynamic conversations I have ever had with brothers in Christ were when we were vulnerable and open with each other. Push through the awkwardness and have faith that your friends actually care about you and will help bear your burdens.

I want to encourage anyone reading this who suffers from mental illness to find a close friend, another pastor you trust, and open up to them about your mental health. Have the hard conversation, fight through the awkwardness, and help them understand the burden on your life. It will benefit you, your family, and your congregation for you to have support in this most intimate manner.  In the coming weeks we will continue to walk through the results of the survey I’m taking and hopefully shed some light on this unspoken burden.

Editor’s Note:
If you are struggling with mental health issues and would like someone to talk you can call LifeWay’s LeaderCare Helpline at 1-888-789-1911 or Focus On the Families Pastor to Pastor Hotline at 1-877-233-4455 for counseling and referrals.


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