Sitting in my office on a brutally hot afternoon in Florida, I was having a difficult conversation with one of my most capable small-group leaders. She shared with me that the stress of her schedule was causing depressive symptoms in her life. Having a history of depression, she understood her triggers. Consequently, she knew she needed to step away from her small-group responsibilities so she could rest and regain a more manageable schedule. Serving in a local church, working full-time, and caring for a family is stressful for anyone, but when you have a mental health challenge, you're particularly vulnerable to stressors.
I'm blessed to serve at Bayside Community Church. We're a multi-site church with thousands in attendance and over 300 groups. As the Pastor of Small Groups at the East Bradenton campus, I'm charged with training the small-group leaders of our 90 groups and starting new groups. But my primary responsibility is pastoring those groups and shepherding the leaders—including walking with group leaders who are struggling with mental health.
Mental health disorders affect tens of millions of Americans each year. Because they're so common, it makes sense that we have leaders who are affected. As a former mental health counselor, I'm an advocate for eliminating the stigma and stereotypes of mental health issues that are common in the church. Sadly, the suicide of Pastor Rick Warren's son, Matthew, who suffered with depression, has caused churches to discuss how to help members who struggle with mental health issues. We still have a long way to go.
How should we help leaders who are struggling? I must confess that it's a difficult question to answer. Few churches have clear-cut protocols or standard operating procedures for dealing with mental health situations. But I'm thankful that more churches are beginning to take the issue seriously, putting strategies into place. I'd like to offer some suggestions to help you minister to leaders who are suffering. It's an issue close to my heart, because I suffer myself.
Start with Prevention
One of the most powerful things we can do to help is prevent triggers in the first place. This involves promoting healthy leadership from the very beginning, avoiding the common triggers of stress, isolation, and overwhelming responsibilities.
The first aspect of healthy leadership is simply letting leaders know we love and support them. We must communicate that our leaders are valued beyond what they do for our ministries. They need to know that we care more about them as people than the role they play in what we're trying to accomplish. John 13:34 encourages Christ-followers to love one another—our relationships should always trump tasks.
By establishing healthy supportive relationships with the small-group leaders in our care, we set a foundation that helps people feel safe, affirmed, and more apt to share when life is overwhelming or stressful. Then when leaders share they're struggling, we can help them navigate a plan for healthy resolution. Often, mental health issues such as mood disorders, anxiety-based disorders, or addictions manifest when our lives are out of balance—that's when people feel overwhelmed and stressed. Helping leaders maintain healthy balance in their lives is vital.
The second aspect of promoting healthy leadership is supporting healthy priorities. We do our best to make sure our leaders put their relationship with God is first, then their family relationships, and then their role in small-group ministry. This helps leaders maintain emotional health—whether or not they're prone to mental health issues. Maintaining margin in our lives through prioritizing is important for self-care, especially when life is stressful.