Emotional Breakdown in Church Leadership


With churches increasing their attention on the emotional and mental health of their congregations, it is inevitable that leader mental health will move into the spotlight. Debra Fileta’s important article, “4 Myths Christians Should Stop Believing about Depression,” certainly caught people’s attention on social media. The testimonial style affirmed what so many of us know to be true; mental health issues don’t fit into neat theological boxes and leaders have no priori immunity from their grip. 

LifeWay[i] research from 2014 concluded that 23 percent of protestant pastors acknowledge they have “personally struggled with mental illness,” and half of those said the illness had been diagnosed. Indeed, it would appear that church leaders carry an even greater vulnerability to emotional breakdown than many other professional people. At the same time, the levels of guilt and shame relating to emotional and mental health issues leave them less likely to receive appropriate support than the people in their congregations.

In the UK St Luke’s Healthcare for the Clergy found that 12 per cent of clergy are “struggling or barely coping” with the pressure and more than two thirds sometimes contemplate leaving the ministry. In the US The Francis A. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development research[ii] from 1050 pastors polled, stated that 802 or 71% were burned out, and they battle depression beyond fatigue on a weekly and even a daily basis. Three hundred and fifteen (30%) said they had either been in an ongoing affair or a one-time sexual encounter with a parishioner.

The reason for putting those two final statistics together, is to illustrate that emotional breakdown is far more diffuse and complex than a clinical diagnosis. The reality on the ground is that emotional illness is often disguised by the ‘moral failure’ that is manifested in the church. As a result we tend to miss the majority of instances that should prompt us to look at the emotional culture of leadership. To be clear, emotional health problems are not an ‘excuse’ for moral failure, but at the same time, if we don’t explore what lies behind destructive behaviors we will never learn if they could be averted.

Emotional breakdown in ministry can be manifested mentally, morally and even spiritually but we have often dissected these things into simplistic categories like ‘sickness, weakness or faithlessness’. The reality is that emotional breakdown is never limited to a single area of a leaders’ life and it is rarely a surprise when we look at the preceding rhythms of their ministry. It just suits us all better to point at the individual than honestly explore the culture that we prescribe to. When I collapsed with acute anxiety in 2005 none of my colleagues fell off their chairs in surprise, in fact a pastor friend commented, “I am so glad you have had a crash, given the pace you were working at I had begun to wonder if there wasn’t something wrong with me!”

Whilst there are many things that we can do to recover from emotional breakdown; psychological, spiritual and physical, there are four particular vulnerabilities that are common to leaders stories of decent into emotional turmoil. They certainly aren't the most commonly sighted, but somehow over the long-haul, they very often make way for more obvious negative experiences and behaviours:

A Simplistic Theology of Suffering

Without a robust theology of suffering in the Christian life leaders are at far greater risk of emotional breakdown. This is because we cannot endure the denial of suffering in the Christian life over the long-haul without splitting ourselves in two. Over-realized eschatology invariably leaves us believing that life is always getting more heavenly (unless our sin or disbelief in involved.) The reality is John 16:33, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows.” Heaven will be amazing, but this just isn’t it.

You Are Not The Model, Jesus is

Many leaders suffer from emotional breakdown because they become the ‘model' rather than pointing to it. Leaders feel unrealistic pressure to exhibit joy, victory and holiness. As a result that may suppress their true feelings of despair or depression, they may claim a victory when they are really suffering defeat or hide their sin rather than seek forgiveness. Rev Adrian Chatfield, a leadship mentor reflected, "Many have been shipwrecked by hiding the darkness within us from the light within us." 2 Corinthians 4:7 says, But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

Bible Study Isn’t Just For Preaching:

Many of our leaders are ministering out of emptiness. A surprising number have no daily devotional time and read the bible only when they are preparing their sermons. With the invention of the Smart Phone leaders emotional health has further declined with an absence of restorative quite. With an increasing number of leaders now using digital bibles, the enemy of the quite time is actually also the facilitator of it. Luke 5: 16 says, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” We definitely need to too!

‘My Church is Bigger Than Your Church,’ is a Game for Losers

I have been to enough leaders conferences to pick up all of the subtle translations of the same statement. Competition in church leadership is real and dangerous. Maybe it is a clear sign of how poor we are at affirming our leaders, that they need a tangible sign of their ‘successes’. The reality is that measuring success by the numbers of people responding to our ministries is a guaranteed road to emotional breakdown. Luke 9:62 says, “No man (or woman), having put his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God.”

The work of plowing is our business, the work of measuring its fruitfulness, that’s God’s. Ultimately unless our identity is found fully in the being children of God we will attach it to our performance and quickly loose heart. Brennan Manning[iii] said, “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is an illusion.” This is good advice for anyone who wants to protect their emotional health in Christian leadership.

[i] http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2014/september/1-in-4-pastors-have-mental-illness-lifeway-focus-on-family.html
[ii] http://www.intothyword.org/apps/articles/?articleid=36562
[iii] http://www.amazon.com/The-Rabbis-Heartbeat-Th1nk-LifeChange/dp/1576834697


Will Van Der Hart, 07/03/2016
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