Mental Health for Church Leaders: A Recap from ENGAGE Conference 2020

This blog post comes from Dr. Henry Cloud’s presentation at ENGAGE conference. Dr. Cloud shares four dynamics that affect ministry leaders’ health and wellbeing that must be addressed before leaders can be completely whole and lead their churches into wholeness.

As a ministry leader, the people under your care are looking to you to pour into them. As a result, the myth of “It’s lonely at the top” has developed. This saying is a myth because we do not see loneliness in the Trinity, which represents the very top of all things. 

However, it can be difficult for ministry leaders to find a place to talk about our issues because we are surrounded by stakeholders in our leadership. Over the course of 25 years of leadership retreats with high level executives and ministers alike, Dr. Cloud repeatedly asked, “Where can you go where you can be 100% transparent and where the focus is on you—your growth, wellbeing, and health?” More than 80% of the total number of those leaders admitted that they had no place like that in their lives. A similar percentage admitted to experiencing something—anxiety, stress, depression, etc.—that reached a clinical level within the previous year. 

While leadership was never meant to be practiced in isolation, leadership can be isolating in terms of your health. At the same time, our churches are filled with individuals who have their own mental health struggles. While these issues are common, the Gospel fully addresses them. In Dr. Cloud’s book, Churches that Heal, he argued that to have a church that heals, healing must begin with church leadership. Leaders often haven’t dealt with their own issues, which makes it difficult for them to lead others to do so.

There are four dynamics that affect leader health and wellbeing:

1. Connection/Love

Think about a baby. During its first year of life, its primary job is to develop attachment with its primary caretakers. God is the only being that is able to draw life from Himself, but even He is not alone in the Trinity. Everything we know about the known universe is that it comes from relationship and community. Leaders must take their needs and look outside of themselves to draw life from the support that is given us. The Bible calls this love. This type of love only comes from a place of vulnerability. Ministry leaders can struggle with this because of experiences that have led them to believe that they simply can’t trust people under their care with that level of vulnerability. For their own mental health, ministry leaders must find an environment in which they can practice this level of vulnerability. All of our mental health issues—depression, anxiety, negative thinking, etc.—are fruits that are being produced from the trees of our lives. We must cultivate relationships with people who can express love to us down in the levels of our hurt.

2. Freedom/Boundaries

Remember our example of a baby. After the initial stages of developing connection with its caregivers, babies move into a phase of becoming more autonomous. While we are connected to others through relationships, we are also distinct individuals apart from them. Boundaries define you and what is not you. They free you from what you are not. If you don’t learn to say “No,” everyone is going to be living on the farm of your head. Others will define you and consume your time if you do not learn to say, “No.” Self-control is the only control humans were designed to have. As we re-establish personal boundaries many of our negative emotional symptoms dissipate.

3. Forgiveness/Grace­

Humans don’t deal with our own failure well. We cover up our sin and we hide our shame. We try to solve our problem by becoming good or achieving higher. But the opposite of bad is not good. The opposite of bad is loved. Where do you go to take your fig leaf off to admit that you have messed up? Woundedness can also occur just from living in a fallen world. We are called to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn, to enter into the deep pain of the world as agents of God’s grace and love. Ministry leaders must find a safe place to process their pain and failures and have it metabolize with the grace and love of others. Mindfulness is incredibly popular today, but mindfulness is simply non-judgmental observation of yourself. Ministry leaders should identify a place where the badness in themselves, both the things they have done and the things that have been done to them, have the sting taken out of them.

4. Authority

We have all had negative experiences with authority figures, be they strict parents, teachers, or sometimes even ministry leaders. Authority can be unhealthy when we have a view of authority where someone is in power over us exerting their will on us as if they are superior. True authority occurs among equals. The Gospel reconciles authority into its proper use where it is about roles, not about someone being inferior to someone else.

Are you developing a church where people have connection? Where they have total forgiveness and they experience a complete absence of shame? Are people growing up to be all that God created them to be?

These are deeply spiritual dynamics. There is no separation between spiritual and emotional dynamics. The Gospel addresses all areas of the fall, encompassing spiritual, physical, and emotional dynamics. Churches that heal begin with leaders who are healed and thriving.

As a conclusion, the four dynamics that affect a leader’s overall health and wellbeing are:

    1.  Connection/Love
    2.  Freedom/Boundaries
    3.  Forgiveness/Grace
    4.  Authority

Praying you can explore one or all of these dynamics to move yourself toward greater wholeness and, ultimately, do the same for your church family!