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FIRST-PERSON: Pastoral ministry and mental health


ALCOA, Tenn. (BP) — Last week, Seacoast Church announced that former Southern Baptist pastor Darrin Patrick passed away from what “appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound.” The news sent shockwaves through social media. Patrick’s passing is a devastating blow. We seem to have lost another one of our brothers to the crisis of mental health.

Patrick’s death serves as a somber reminder that the effects of the coronavirus outbreak are not only physical: isolation feels ever-present.

Because 2020 has gone awry, an entire generation of pastors feel (perhaps for the first time) the need for pointed, calculated and faithful leadership. Pastors have a lot of stress right now. And in the midst of this, they can’t even hug one another as a reminder of the brotherhood they share in Christ.

The dangers of our Protestant work ethic

Even before accounting for the stress of “how to do church during coronavirus,” pastors tend to have an unspoken weight of responsibility placed on them: to take care of themselves. Often, our churches don’t merely assume a pastor will look after his mental health; instead, our churches expect a pastor to look after his mental health.

This expectation is detrimental to the well-being of our pastors.

Modeling his ministry after Christ, the biblical pastor makes himself “last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). The pastor centered on the Gospel takes heed of Jesus’ words in Matthew 20: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26–28).

In devoting himself to the congregation, the pastor shaped by the Shepherd fields criticisms without defense, surrenders family time for pastoral responsibilities, and puts the emotional weight of others upon his shoulders. In the name of biblical fidelity, the pastor who truly believes the Gospel will self-sacrifice until he sacrifices himself along the way.

The pastoral duty can morph into self-destruction before we can blink our eyes.

Ask not what your pastor can do for you

I want to be careful and clear here: there are many aspects of poor mental health that are best left to professionals. Counselors, psychiatrists and others specializing in emotional and mental health ought to be seen as resources for the church — not its opponents. So, when we ask what we can do for our pastors, we need to be sure our answer doesn’t leave professionals out of the picture.

With that in mind, here are a few suggestions for how we can help our pastors maintain adequate space and permission to care for their mental health.

— Ask your pastor how you can best serve him. It sounds simple, but pastors are normal people with normal schedules and normal struggles. He may say something like, “Actually, I need a date night with my wife soon. We haven’t had one in forever. Could you watch the kids for us?” And if you can’t, find someone who can! It’s that easy. Pastors are often never asked how they can be served because they are busy with requests to serve others.

— Consider whether you need to voice your complaint, dissatisfaction, or frustration with the pastor, or if there is somebody else you can take it to. In other words, ask this: “Can I talk to another staff member, ministry leader, or a trusted community group member about how I feel before approaching my pastor?” When doing this, make sure you aren’t doing so in such a way that sows discord or causes division.

— Ensure that part of your pastor’s compensation includes coverage for counseling, psychiatric care, or other expenses related to emotional health. If your church can afford it, include coverage for his family. Being a pastor’s wife or child is uniquely difficult.

— Allow for regularly scheduled times when your pastor and his family can clear their heads, when he can read for leisure, when he can spend time with friends or get out of the city for a day. Even if they’re infrequent, a regular habit of “soul care” for the pastor can go a long way in preserving the pastorate.

Here’s the final word I’ll give to this: Show your pastor that you support him. Listen to what your pastor says about his life. Ask how his family is. Ask what he does in his free time. Ask what he enjoys about his days off. Show that you want to be his friend, not only his congregant.

Don’t assume he has it all together. Statistics show he’s likely burned out; he’s likely lonely; he’s likely exhausted. Help him catch a break by showing him the love of Christ, who will never turn us away for our emotional difficulties.

    About the Author

  • Cody Glen Barnhart
    Cody Glen Barnhart, of Maryville, Tenn., writes at www.counterculturing.com and is a student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary where he is pursuing his M.Div. Read All by Cody Glen Barnhart ›