The predominate culture in Christian communities of shame and silence about mental illness leads to unnecessary suffering. Today I’m particularly mindful of the stresses on pastors and their families. Christmas and the weeks leading up to it are (apart from Holy Week and Easter) the most stressful times for pastors and their families. Speaking from my own experiences serving congregations for a decade…it is rough. Rewarding, yes! But also uniquely challenging.
So added to the common stresses of planning and preparing worship for the season of Christmas, pastoral care obligations (which tend to be unpredictable), and leading council and committee meetings and stewardship campaigns. Added to this are the additional dynamics of the pastor’s own family. I’m referring to pastors who are not single, but in a committed relationship such as marriage.
When a pastor’s significant other lives with a mental health challenge, this creates an additional layer of stressors on the pastor. Yet, often congregations are not informed about this significant issue because the pastor does not disclose this information. The pastor may not think the church needs to know. The pastor may be protecting themselves and their partner from judgement, questions and stigma. The pastor may see no reason for the church to know these personal details.
I wonder, though. I wonder about a Christian culture that allows for such significant dynamics to fly under the radar. I wonder about a church that doesn’t know the whole story. I wonder about a pastor and their partner who are not fully known and accepted by the church.
Is this okay? Is this how we want things to be? I wonder. What would it look like if churches knew that their beloved pastor had a generalized anxiety disorder and was on medication? What would it look like for a church to know that the pastor’s wife was hospitalized for a psychotic episode once?
What would it look like for the pastor and the spouse to get support from the congregation and the wider church?
I can tell you more about what it looks like for all this to be silenced, secret and hidden in the shadows of shame and stigma. It looks like burnout for pastors. It looks like overtired and weary pastors. It looks like isolated and depressed pastors. It looks like pastors who wonder if they’ve made the right choices.
It looks like me, who didn’t feel safe revealing my spouse’s mental health challenge with depression and anxiety to my congregation. I thought doing so would make me look weak, like I was a bad wife. I feared that, for some reason, it was all my fault. I thought we would be judged and ultimately rejected. Sadly, these fears prevented me from living authenticly. Looking back, I realize now that my church would have been understanding and compassionate.
But living with uncertainty and fear is not healthy for pastors or for their families. We can do better. When pastors and their loved ones flourish, then congregations flourish.
Jesus’ wish for the church is that we may all enjoy abundant life. This is possible for pastors who are supporting a loved one with a mental illness. But pastors cannot enjoy abundant life in ministry alone and apart from authentic relationships.
How can congregations show support to pastors whose spouse has a mental illness? As with other diseases, it requires special consideration and care. Open and honest conversations in the beginning between pastors and church leaders can lead to a partnership where issues can be shared without fear.
Given that mental illness is so common (one in five persons will experience mental illness in a given year), it can be safely assumed that either the pastor or the spouse (or family member, such as a child) might live with a mental illness. What is your church prepared to do to support them? Does the church offer them personal or family mental health days as part of their benefits? In these extra busy and stressful holy seasons, is your church making sure that your pastor and their families are well cared for by their flock?
This Christmas season, reach out to your pastor and their family with a symbol of Christian love. A handwritten note of appreciation, a hot meal, or an extra measure of grace when things seem not up to par. Encourage your pastors to take time away from church to renew their spirits. Mental health is so closely tied to our spiritual health. Giving your pastor extra time off after Christmas might just be the best Christmas gift of the year.