In my first 5 years of ministry I have learned a lot, been blessed in countless ways, and struggled with mental health.
That’s right – I’ve struggled with my mental health because of my ministry.
I’ve struggled with my mental health since college. Through counseling I found that I have burn out tendencies (perfectionism, struggle with failure, etc.). In college a roommate had to take me to the ER because we thought I was having a heart attack; I was having a severe panic & anxiety attack.
My 2nd year of ministry was tumultuous. I was experienced intense conflict with a group of parents. So intense that our Elders’ felt it necessary to give me a unanimous Vote of Confidence that was published in our bulletin and newsletter. In that season I struggled with fear of failure & my job. I was so anxious and stressed that I only slept for around 4 hours a night, often waking up at least once a night from a nightmare in a cold sweat.
In the 3 years following I’ve continued to struggle with stress & mental health. Certain activities, environments, and conversations with parents are accompanied with fear, trembling, and anxiety that I had not experienced in the past. I’ve struggled with being on the verge of burn out, feeling that I need a break, and even wanting to step away from ministry completely. Serving in youth ministry professionally or as a volunteer is a awesome vocation, but it can also be incredibly difficult.
Perhaps you have felt those same emotions too. Maybe you have a deeper battle with mental health.
I will not claim to be a professional, but below are some tips I have received from professionals and my own experience that have helped me maintain my mental health.
Pray & Be with God
When Elijah faced intense conflict with Queen Jezebel, he ran and wanted to die. Elijah actually prays that to God (1 Kings 19:3-4). God answered his prayer by providing what Elijah needed: rest, food, and water. When a crisis comes, remember that God is Lord of All. He provides for us in so many ways. Spend time with Him in His Word. Worship and take communion. Pray & let Him know what you are going through.
Get Professional Help & Know your Benefits
If you are experiencing mental health issues or struggles, get professional help. See a therapist, counselor, or doctor. You know what, even if you aren’t experiencing mental health issues or struggles, get professional help. God has created an awesome vocation & placed incredible people in roles that can & will help you in ways this article can’t. Make sure to check your healthcare benefits when you consider seeing a professional. Many health plans offer mental health checkups, either at reduced costs or for free.
Talk to Your Pastor
I hope that you have a good relationship with your pastor. My pastor & I have a very unique relationship (I serve my home church; he’s the dad of two of my best friends; etc.). However, being able to talk to your pastor about when you are struggling with mental health in an open and honest way is crucial. That might be weird for you, but I encourage you to let him know the situation you are in, what you are experiencing, etc. If your pastor doesn’t know you’re struggling, how will he know you need extra love, grace, patience, guidance, care, and rest?
Your pastor may be a great resource too! He might be able to pass on insight from his own experiences. He might be able to tweak the schedule, or convince the board, church, and leaders to give you a slight reprieve or set up ways to help you navigate your mental health crisis.
Spend Time in Silence
In college I spent a year in weekly counseling with one of the Rev. Dr.s on campus. I arrived early to one of our sessions and spoke with his secretary. She said he was in his office and to poke my head in. I turned the corner, saw him staring towards the door, smiled & waved. He did not acknowledge me. Surprised, I asked his secretary if he was okay. She said, “Oh, yeah he’s good. He must be finishing his quiet time.” When we started our counseling session, he let me know that he spends at least 15 minutes a day in complete silence, void of all thought, save for a Bible opened to a passage of the day. He found the idea in an article and said it allows the brain to decompress. Take time to be in silence and give your brain a needed break.
Get a Hobby
One night at the dinner table my wife looked at me and said, “Blake, you need a hobby.” My day off consisted of me cleaning our apartment and watching Netflix. That often lead to me thinking about work or other obligations that stressed me out. Having a hobby allows you to do something you enjoy. A good hobby keeps you just busy enough when you’re off. You may have a hobby already. That is awesome!
If you don’t, consider a hobby that tickles the creative side of your brain or helps you learn a new skill. My hobbies consist of making YouTube videos and creative writing. My wife reads, cross-stitches, and sews. Find something you can do regularly, isn’t too expensive, and gives joy in all seasons of life.
Many people go to the gym, run, or workout for their hobby. Good for them, but I cannot say that my workouts are always a positive experience. But you should get some regular exercise. Whether it’s walking, lifting weights, yoga, biking, swimming, or something else, exercising releases chemicals in your brain that help make you happy! You should also make sure you are getting adequate sleep! Depending on your struggle or season, this might be difficult – but getting sleep when you can take it is 100% needed! Read 1 Kings 19:1-9 for a great example on why we need to keep good care of ourselves.
Have Someone to Open Your Heart To
Find someone you can go to in confidence and empty your heart, struggles, pains, and joys with. If you are finding yourself struggling because of something happening at church (as I did in my 2nd year of ministry), I suggest this person should is someone not emotionally invested in your church. The last thing you want to do is sour the reputation of your church by sharing your pains and struggles. If your married, your spouse should certainly know your pains & struggles. Find a mentor you can share with that will not judge you but lead you to the cross.
Count Victories, Not Losses
A retired church worker named Lee goes around the North Wisconsin District and does mental health visits twice a year with the DCE-types. Lee is a treasure-trove of wisdom. At the height of my tumultuous 2nd year of ministry, He made a special visit to me. We talked about how I was journaling, but it wasn’t helpful; Most of what I was writing were negative emotions and thoughts I was experiencing. He shared that doing that wasn’t bad, but that he wasn’t surprised it wasn’t bringing me peace. He told me to “stop counting losses, start counting victories.”
He encouraged me to take time to write down every positive thought, memory, or event that happened daily or weekly. Had an awesome conversation with a parent? Write that down. Notice something positive in your life? Write that down. Have an event that went well? Write that down! Count victories instead of losses to remind yourself that God is still working wonderful things in difficult seasons.
Ultimately, that is the best tip I can give. Remember that God is in all things & holding them together. He doesn’t become less when we struggle. He doesn’t disappear when we are weak. He is made stronger in our weakness.