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FIRST-PERSON: Is it ministry failure to see a counselor?

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Attending to our mental health is essential to overall wellbeing. Unfortunately, there is still somewhat of a silent stigma around mental illness and the need for treatment among Christians –especially among church leaders.  

As I sit with ministry workers and church staff in my office, I hear common objections and concerns that therapy indicates one’s inability to handle their ministry tasks or their being inadequate or incapable. Some even see mental health as a “sin” issue or simply not trusting Jesus sufficiently. This would make sense if we were in control of what thoughts and feelings we have on any given day. But that would be the equivalent of choosing the physical pain level we subscribe to when getting into a car accident.

So instead of protesting the “rights and wrongs” of counseling, let’s start from a point of agreement that our health contains aspects – physical, spiritual, intellectual and emotional– that God created and that are thus worthy of our care. This means we must be able to understand factors that take away from our health, how to care for our mental and emotional health, and finally how to be aware of symptoms that indicate our need for care. 

Helping others takes a toll

It is inevitable that as soon as you step into a role of service or ministry, you will be a target for other people needing support, help, guidance, a listening ear or even counseling for their heartaches. This has the potential to suck your energy along with your time. It’s not that you don’t care about others, but you realize the clock only allows so much time.

In the bestselling book Boundaries, Christian counselors Henry Cloud and John Townsend concisely remind the reader that whatever is allowed to take up your time is really denying the attention you could give to something else. Sometimes that means a person must choose where the time and attention is most needed and willing to be given. In other words, helping others will take a toll on your own wellbeing.

Getting help for mental health is not a weakness

Does your need for mental health discredit your leadership? Does this make you a bad leader? No, it actually confirms your humanity – just the way God designed you. Did you know your limited-ness is actually a good thing?

In the Bible, Jesus often exemplified self-care by retreating to renew and refresh Himself in prayer and rest from others. Indeed, limitations actually point you in the direction of the One who can help – the One who knows how to navigate troubling storms of the holistic self. It is truly by design that limitations are in place, and there is an appropriate response when feeling anguish. So why would anyone think they are without limits or that limitations are a mark of poor leadership? 

Assessing mental and emotional health

The ability to recognize a need or limitation in oneself is a healthy quality that far too few leaders possess. Too often, I see leaders trying to play the role of Superman or Wonder Woman, believing that the world rests on his or her shoulders alone. This actually causes burnout and sets a poor leadership example for others to follow. If this is your precedent, then your ministry is set up for failure.

Here are a few signs to consider whether you or the ministry you care about is struggling:

  1. You no longer enjoy the tasks or dynamics that previously brought you joy or were energizing.
  2. Your other priorities are not being cared for well (e.g., family, friends, personal goals, etc.)
  3. People around you act reserved or unengaged (could be you are perceived as too stressed and not as approachable).
  4. Praying “harder” hasn’t relieved the symptoms. (God cares but is not a genie to grant your wishes.) God does allow others in your community to help you (i.e. professional therapists), just like a dentist or doctor would be sought out when seeking physical care.
  5. Are there feelings of restlessness or helplessness? It may be an indicator that you need help navigating your feelings more than you would like to admit. 

God requires you to be a good steward of what He gives you, which includes your own life and health. Counseling is a valid form of self-care, and seeing a counselor is a priority for improved health. It is a subtle strength that allows vulnerability.

As I like to remind my clients: We are only as vulnerable to the degree we are courageous. Be courageous enough to be vulnerable. Invest in your ministry by seeking mental and emotional health counseling.  

Jesse Masson lives in Kansas City with his wife, Julie, and their three children. In 2020, he started Connected Counseling, LLC, a Christian counseling practice that offers professional in-office and teletherapy sessions. This article first appeared at research.lifeway.com.

    About the Author

  • Jesse Masson