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Mental health for pastors: Three ways Jesus practiced self-care

Darrin Patrick, a megachurch pastor, speaker, and author, has died. According to Seacoast Church, a multi-site megachurch in South Carolina where he was teaching pastor, he died of what appears to be a “self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

A longtime friend of Patrick noted that pastors often don’t know what to do when they struggle. They attempt to keep up appearances and handle their struggles on their own. “We don’t feel like we can ask for help,” he said.

Mental health is being even more challenged in these days of pandemic and isolation.

A recent mental distress survey found that participants were eight times as likely to screen positive for serious mental illness as participants in a similar survey two years ago. The vast majority of the 2020 participants, 70 percent, met criteria for moderate to serious mental illness.

An article in the New England Journal of Medicine noted that during public health emergencies, “emotional distress is ubiquitous in affected populations.” And counselors warn that the isolation created by stay-at-home restrictions can especially contribute to psychological harm.

As a pastor and a theologian, I am not qualified to offer medical advice or professional counseling to those suffering from anxiety and depression. But I can point us to Jesus. His example highlights three principles that offer pastors and other church leaders help and hope in these hard days.

One: Social distancing can be reframed as an opportunity for spiritual growth.

Jesus prayed alone at the beginning of his day (Mark 1:35) and at its end (Matthew 14:23). He agonized in solitary prayer before his arrest and crucifixion (Matthew 26:36–46). Times of isolation became opportunities for worship as he sought the strength of his Father.

Praying, fasting, reading Scripture, and meditating on the word and works of God are gifts we give ourselves in solitude. And they position us to experience the joy and peace of the Lord (Philippians 4:6–7).

As Christian leaders, much of our time with God can be a means to the end of doing our work. When last did you make significant time to be with your Father for no reason except to be with your Father? When next will you?

Two: Gratitude in hard times can lead to great joy.

According to research reported by the Harvard Medical School, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. My purpose here is not to encourage naivete: the crises of our day are unprecedented in living memory.

But the One who came to save all of mankind faced challenges we cannot begin to imagine. And yet he lived a life of worship and praise: he gave thanks for his food (John 6:11; Mark 14:22–23); he praised his Father for revealing his will (Luke 10:21); he thanked him for hearing his prayer (John 11:41).

If we choose to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18), we will seek reasons for gratitude amid our challenges. For example, we can thank our Father for his presence in our pain (Matthew 28:20). We can thank him for healthcare heroes fighting this pandemic, researchers who are working to end it, and workers who are supplying essential services.

These days are especially difficult for our churches as they are forced into strange routines. Many are struggling financially. But God is still good and his grace is still powerful.

Would you identify and thank God for a specific gift of his grace right now? If you do, you will testify that “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).

Three: Our physical health directly affects our mental health.

The Risk Index for Depression shows that an individual is more likely to become depressed if their diet is poor and they do not exercise. According to the Sleep Foundation, sleep is especially important during a time of crisis as it empowers our immune system, heightens brain function, enhances mood, and improves mental health.

Jesus modeled such self-care throughout his life. He rested beside a Samaritan well (John 4:6) and slept in a boat even during a storm (Mark 4:38). He ate with Matthew and his friends (Matthew 9:11) and with his disciples (Luke 22:14–15). During a season of intense activity, he led his disciples to “come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31).

Paul similarly prayed: “May your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). As you minister to so many who are sick or otherwise in need, will you make Paul’s prayer your personal intercession today?