#31: Mental Health and Ministry

Ministry presents many unique challenges for individuals struggling with mental health. And it’s not limited to pastors. Often, wives and children struggle with the burdens of pastoral ministry as well. Listen in as Michael Crawford talks with Eliza Huie about the important topic of Mental Health and Ministry.



Michael: Welcome to The Peculiar People podcast. And today, we have my friend Eliza Huey. Thank you for coming.

Eliza: Thanks for having me.

Michael: And so, just off the bat, why don’t you tell people who you are. I already said your name but especially what you do.

Eliza: So, I work primarily at Life Counseling Center. I’m the Executive Director there. It is a ministry that serves churches and individuals with professional counseling. I am also the Dean of biblical counseling for Metro Baltimore Seminary. That’s a new role that I just stepped into this year so I am excited to be a part of that as well.

Michael: So, what made you decide to participate in the podcast besides the invite?

Eliza: Besides the invite. The invite is very persuasive but really the topic. The topic was very important. Obviously, in the area where I work. Not just mental health but mental health and ministry. So, those two things combined make a very important podcast and very important issue to address.

Michael: Yeah. And I think one of the things that you can bring to the table in this podcast is not just some of the questions surrounding pastors and their struggles and their challenges and how the church can deal with it but also, you see often their wives and kids. And so, Dr. Rogerson was in here talking about how this goes farther than just the pastor. So, we’ll get to that. But what do you see as some of the challenges people in ministry are facing with mental health?

Eliza: Yeah. It’s a good question to broaden it to ministry because while pastors, I think have a very significant struggle because of the role that they have. Other people in ministry also have some of those same struggles, like we’re all in this. And I think one of the biggest challenges is the stigma that does come along with it. The stigma has been there in the church for a long time but I think the stigma of it with leadership is even greater.

So, a person in the congregation coming in to get counseling. We’ve had it. We’ve had people want to know if we have a back door and how they can come in at certain hours to not be seen. That’s just lay people. So, multiply that if you’re in ministry. If you’re a ministry leader, if you’re supposed to be the person, whether it’s the pastor or maybe the women’s Bible study leader or the pastors children coming in. The stigma is there of what’s wrong with that person or are they really qualified to be in the role that they’re in if they’re needing counseling and care in that way.

Michael: Wow. And I would imagine that stigma has all kinds of impacts, mostly bad. Not good relationally with God and people. Why is the church in this place where this is such a stigma? What do you think?

Eliza: I think some of it does have to do with just the history. We have in history, really classified any kind of mental health issue, mostly related to sin that has been the area where it’s always fallen into. In fact, Lifeway did a survey recently, well in the last few years and they surveyed that. I think it was like 48% of the people surveyed said that they believe that mental health issues like depression and anxiety can be fixed through prayer and Bible study. And while I believe and I know you do too, that prayer and Bible study are a big part of our wellbeing. Just that creates that stigma of if that’s what people believe then if I’m struggling with depression then maybe I’m not reading my Bible enough or praying enough or maybe it’s actually… Basically to sum it up, putting it into a spiritual category only. I think there has been a problem with that.

Michael: Yeah. And I would imagine that whether they’re a family member or a child, it’s probably pretty tough for them to walk around with a stigma.

Eliza: Yeah.

Michael: There’s all kinds of hiding and, “I don’t want to get out.” And I just can’t imagine that’s good for the church. I just can’t imagine how that’s healthy.

Eliza: That’s a really good point because the thing about it is if we can begin to talk about it as something that is not this negative thing but just a part of health and part of wellbeing, the body is blessed. As we’re talking here, people who are listening, who are hearing like, “Hey, this is actually something that Christians deal with,” that helps to encourage them to realize, “Maybe I can actually work through this myself with somebody who can give me the care that I need and it not be a ding in my Christian witness,” if you will.

Michael: Yeah. I think ministry leaders and pastors especially are really on guard about, “Man, am I qualified? Am I okay?”

And we should be but sometimes we’re so amped up about that, that maybe we just don’t want to be vulnerable and that can lead to all kinds of bad stuff. Do you think that this… It seems like a lot of pastors in particular are struggling with mental health and it seems… And I don’t think this is entirely true but it seems like it’s on the uptick. We’ve been talking to other people on the podcast about whether it’s an the uptick but you’re functionally in the game. You’re in the arena on the field with people who are in the game wrestling with it. Does it seem like that? And if so, what do you think is going on?

Eliza: My opinion is I actually think it is on the uptick. Mostly because of some of the things that are contributing to it, which weren’t there in the past. The connection that we have with people, it is good in many ways but it also contributes to a lot of this struggle that people are having if pastors already or ministry leaders or even just Christians, are already feeling a sense of, “I need to measure up to a certain standard.”

Our influence with social media and how present we are in everybody’s lives and how everybody is in present in our lives, viewing everything that we’re doing and liking it or not liking it, following it or unfollowing it. That contributes significantly. I really believe part of the increase has a lot to do with the way society is now. So connected. And so in the game of comparison. Everybody’s in that game from a very early on. So, you and I didn’t have those things when we were younger. Our children have grown up with that constant feel of, “Am I measuring up,” and not just in their mind. We might’ve had that but visibly seeing whether or not they measure up based on their followers or their friends or their likes or their, you know what I mean? So, I think that’s contributed significantly to where we are.

Michael: Yeah. A lot of people believe that we’re just living in more stressful times just for those factors. So, what do you wish the church knew about pastors and their mental health?

Eliza: That it’s a real struggle. That they are not in the subhuman category of people and that just like everybody else, they have difficult things that they face that cause them to go places in their thoughts, in their feelings that maybe they thought they never would be… That the role of the pastor or a person in ministry, the demands of that actually contribute significantly to burnout. Which then contributes to the decline in mental health, significantly. So, yeah. Just knowing that this role in and of itself actually contributes to the downgrade of mental health. And so, if that’s the case, then the church needs to be rethinking how they move towards caring for their pastors and ministry leaders and so forth.

Michael: And I’m just thinking about that and I’m thinking about this pastor’s wife and this pastor’s kids. Can you talk a little bit about the impact when dad is stressed out and dad is struggling? What are some things that might be carried on through to the wife and the children? What are some things they may be experiencing?

Eliza: Yeah. Especially with regards to pastor’s wives. First of all, they often have nobody to talk to that they feel safe talking to. And they have to, not only keep up their own appearance, but their husbands. And so, when their husband is struggling with something, where do they go? And there’s a real sense where there’s a loneliness in that. Not just to talk to somebody about what’s going on with my husband but what it’s like in her own experience of having to live somewhat in a glass bubble of, “Everybody’s looking at me but I have to keep up these appearances.” And I think just understanding the weight that has of just the inability to truly be able to, like you said, be vulnerable but also just be themselves and not be judged for struggling or even just for having a different opinion about how to handle their husbands struggle with mental health or depression or anxiety or whatever he’s dealing with.

Michael: Yeah. And you know, the more I’m thinking about it, I know that the North American Mission Board has commissioned Kathy Witten to really kind of intentionally press this area with church planners wives. And to be quite frank with you, I don’t know that we’ve done a really good job with this in terms of making the same resources available to a pastor’s wife because we’re very pastor centric. As in guy centric. We invest in them. We train them. It’s just been recently for me, we had a cohort this past week and we said, “Yeah, bring your wives. Bring your staff.” Sometimes the training is so specific that it might not apply.

But I’m just sitting here. You’ve made me think about something. I commonly give an invitation to pastors, “Hey, if you’re struggling, talk to us. You’re not alone. I know counseling costs money. Call us, text us, email us,” but I’m just sitting here listening to you going, well, what if the wife’s like, “Hey. Hello?” You know?

Eliza: Yeah. Which probably if the pastor is struggling then the wife is too. Let’s just put that on the table. And I think one of the things that I’ve seen be such a deficit in the church in caring for pastors and their family is just the whole idea of putting it out as, “Hey, let’s just assume you’re going to need this.” One of the things that I do in the role that I have at Metro Baltimore Seminary is designing the requirements for those seminary students.

One of the things I put in there is, “You’re going to be in counseling. That’s just the bottom line. We’re not going to wait until you’re struggling and really wondering if this is the calling that I really have. You’re just going to be in counseling.” And I think that is something that church can really do, not just for the person who’s in the leadership position but the family to actually create a package that says, “This is part of the way we care for you and your family. We provide this much towards mental health care and these are our resources that we recommend.” A lot of the churches don’t even have a resource list of, “Who do I point to.” So, start with being proactive, not just for the pastor but let’s just extend that to the family.

Michael: Yeah. That’s great. And what if you’re a child. I can imagine but it’s always possible, especially because it’s a podcast. Let’s say you’re a pastor’s kid or a ministry leaders kid and you’re watching this and you’re like, “Yeah, I’m struggling.” What would you say to them?

Eliza: First of all, and it may seem like a cliche but it’s absolutely true, is that you’re not alone in some of the struggles that you’re feeling and some of the thoughts that you’re having and some of the outlook that you have for your own life. You’re not alone. I’ve worked with missionaries for a while and there is a certain mentality with missionary kids that happens such as a certain mindset that they adopt just naturally. That they have to be a certain type of person. I’m sure it’s the same with pastors children as well.

And just to help them realize that is the pressure that doesn’t need to be there. The church has a lot to do with that but it is a pressure that doesn’t need to be there. I would also just say from the standpoint of the parents. If you’re seeing stuff in your kids, to not let your ministry be what gets in the way of getting them help. Because I think that’s just really heartbreaking to say like, “Well, for the sake of the ministry, I’m going to sacrifice my kids wellbeing.” Get them help. If there’s concerns that you’re seeing, if they’re coming to you with certain things or if other people are coming to you saying, “Hey, I’m seeing kind of this. And I’m concerned about that.” Get in touch with those resources that can help you.

Michael: You have graciously been part of some panels at Freedom Church. The last one was Mental Health Sunday. And it was a great time. It was sobering and it was exciting and we learned how we could do it even better. And all these things, but I’m just sitting here thinking that maybe ministry leaders or pastors or pastors wives are going, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I want our church to be more,” fill in the blank. You know what I mean?

What kind of suggestions would you give to the church like wide in terms of like, “Hey, here’s some things you might want to consider,” in terms of creating an environment where there is dialogue, where there is exposure to resources and things like that.

Eliza: Yeah. And here’s the thing. The first thing I’m going to say is budget because the bottom line is you need the resources. Most of the time, pastors, in fact, even talking at your church, talking with Jeremy, he really felt the sense of, “I don’t feel equipped to handle these things.” He shared that with the congregation and I think budget. First of all, get it as a line item in your budgets too. Whether it’s bringing people in or training people or identifying people in your church who can be used as part of your ministry team. But that also falls into budgeting that for care and counseling that the church might actually have to provide the resources for the families who are needing that kind of care.

However, I will say just having conversations like we had at Freedom. One of my counselors who was with us on the panel, she said, “I have never been in a church that took a Sunday and actually talked about mental health and talked about it with the openness that was given on the platform that was given to be so open at Freedom.”

So, I think there’s a real sense where just doing things like that, speak about it. But I will say if you speak about it, be prepared to receive what kind of feedback you get as far as people who are actually really struggling in your congregation and maybe even in your ministry team who are struggling.

Michael: Well. Yeah. And Jason was doing the text questions. There were like 15 that we didn’t even get to. The other thing I would say too and tell me what you think about this. Sometimes you think about mental health and some people say, “Well, we have a struggle even defining what it is.” I think it encompasses a lot. I don’t think it’s just one thing. Right. We can get overwhelmed in the church and go, “Whoa. You know, I’m just a church planner. We only got a hundred people and we don’t have the money.”

And I think sometimes that becomes our out and I’m more of a proponent of, do something. Even if it’s small. Even if you’re just like, “You know what. We only have the budget to help with 10 counseling sessions.” It’s better than nothing. Maybe you only have a thousand dollars. A hundred bucks a pop or maybe it’s less than that. And you can just say, “You know what, we’ve only got 500 bucks and we’re going to divide that up.” Do 10 people or whatever for $50 or however you do it. And we’re just going to say, “We can contribute this amount. We can’t even pay the whole amount-”

Eliza: Starting somewhere.

Michael: Just start somewhere.

Eliza: Well, I would really say, “Here’s something that doesn’t cost any money at all.” Speak about it. Just speak about it. Begin to close the door on silencing mental health and let it be a subject that we actually speak about. So, opening that door up and being able to say like, “We’re going to talk about the hard stuff here. This is going to be a place that actually… This is where we get to engage it and it’s safe to do so here.” That doesn’t cost any money at all. So, just being able to open up those conversations is really important.

Michael: Yeah. So, my hope in doing this was that we might be able to help some people by talking about it and by interviewing and having some people on this podcast. And my hope is that someone’s going to watch it and someone’s going to be watching it saying, “You know what. I’m struggling right now.” I might be a wife. I might be a kid. I might be a pastor. I might be a ministry leader. What do you want to say to them today?

Eliza: Yeah, there is hope. There is hope. I wouldn’t do what I do unless I believe that without a doubt. And unless I’ve actually seen it. There’s a faith component to what I believe but I’ve seen how God restores and heals people who are struggling with some of the most challenging mental health issues. So, know that there is hope and that you don’t have to struggle alone. That this is just not an area to try to pull up your bootstraps. If we even have such a thing. To do that and figure it out on your own.

So, definitely reach out to those who are over you. Those who you can trust somebody who you can trust to get some resources. There’s a lot of places that are starting to really focus in on what does it look like to bring biblical care to clinical issues. And it’s really encouraging to see. So, there’s hope. God can help you along this journey and will redeem and restore you. Maybe not fully in this life because I want to be honest with that. Some of our struggles we do have till the last day but he does meet us in those places and care for us.

Michael: Well, as always, it’s a blessing to have you and I love your contribution to this subject. And I know that God’s going to use it to bless people, heal people, help people and direct them in ways that are good. So, thanks for coming.

Eliza: Thanks for having me and thanks for being a four runner and pushing forward with this subject. It means a lot.

Michael: All right. Grace and peace.