Anxiety, Depression & Avoiding Pastoral Burnout

Anxiety, Depression & Avoiding Pastoral Burnout


Rhett Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Executive Coach in Plano, Texas. He is the author of The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? and works with churches and organizations to help improve their relationships, wellness and performance. Currently he is part of a collaborative effort to equip pastors and ministry leaders to help bring healing to those in their ministries suffering from anxiety and depression. He lives in Texas with his wife and two kids. You can check out his work at www.rhettsmith.com.

Q: As someone with a background in both pastoral ministry and mental health, what do you think each uniquely brings to the table when it comes to restoring people and relationships to wholeness? What are some ways the two can work together more effectively? 01

My mental health background equips me with the best tools and practices and my pastoral ministry background equips me with faith in the work of God in people’s lives. I chose an American Psychological Association–approved seminary to do my theology and psychology work in order to get the best of both Christian and secular tools and practices, and to learn how to integrate my faith into the implementation and practice of them. The integration of these two—mental health / psychology and pastoral ministry / theology— provides me with two different lenses to view people’s struggles in a more holistic way, and to help me frame healing and recovery from a holistic perspective.

I encourage those in pastoral ministry not to automatically judge secular mental health practices as unviable options for restoration, but instead use wisdom to find tools, practices and models of recovery that connect to their theology. I also encourage them not to simply hand over their expertise to those in the traditional healing practices (doctors, counselors, psychologists, and so on), but to value their training and expertise as giving them insights into the whole person that others may not have. And I encourage those in the mental health fields to realize that people’s physical, emotional, mental and spiritual lives all need to be addressed in order for healing to happen—and pastoral ministry can provide rich wisdom in those areas.

Ultimately, I see mental health and pastoral ministry as perfect partners in the work of healing people and relationships. They see being human with different lenses—but when united, they reveal a fuller and clearer picture.

Q: Researchers asked people what challenges impact their most important relationships. Across the board, anxiety and / or depression were the most frequently reported challenge. In your experience, what are the most common ways anxiety and / or depression impact relationships? 02

Anxiety and depression are not feelings, but coping behaviors that a person resorts to when there are underlying violations around love (identity) and trust (safety). So first, anxiety and depression impact relationships on a behavioral level. For example, sometimes people become perfectionistic in order to soothe their anxiety. Often that perfectionism has all kinds of impact on their relationships with others, creating conflict. Or if someone is depressed, they might withdraw and become emotionally flat and listless—and you can bet that has a huge impact on how someone relates to them.

Second, anxiety and depression impact relationships because the underlying core feelings that trigger those coping behaviors impact how a person sees themselves. For example, if someone feels not good enough or emotionally unsafe (two huge underlying feelings that can give rise to anxiety and depression), that feeling can become their identity. Being in relationship with someone who feels that way about themselves creates all kinds of relational issues.

Simply put, anxiety and depression impact relationships because they distort how we see ourselves and others. And that’s a recipe for relational issues.

None of us are immune to anxiety and depression. If we haven’t already, we will all experience the relational struggles these bring about at some point in our lives. The good news is that mental health and pastoral ministry can provide a beautiful model of healing for those who are suffering. The model I love and use is Restoration Therapy, and it has brought healing to tons of people.

Q: In Barna’s 2017 The State of Pastors study, we found that one in five U.S. Protestant pastors (21%) says they frequently feel mentally or emotionally exhausted, and about one in six (15%) rates their emotional health lower than excellent or good. What are some ways that pastors and other Christian leaders should care for their mental health? 03

I typically encourage pastors and other Christian leaders to do three things. First, make sure to have a good practice of self-care for your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual life. It’s important to sustain these four areas in a regular rhythm. For example, I might encourage a pastor to (physical) exercise three times a week, (emotional) have a date night with their spouse once a week, (mental) set aside time to read and learn and (spiritual) engage in a daily practice of prayer in solitude.

Second, I encourage them to see a therapist or spiritual director—someone who is trained to understand them holistically who can provide a confidential and safe place for them to be themselves. A place where they don’t have to be the pastor or leader. This is essential. I’m surprised by the number of pastors who have never done therapy or sat with a spiritual director. How can pastors and ministry leaders encourage others to seek out help if they haven’t done it themselves, haven’t experienced firsthand what it’s like to be the helped instead of the helper?

Third, I encourage them to have an intimate community of trusted friends where they don’t have to be pastor or ministry leader. Find a group of friends who ask tough questions and aren’t “yes people.” I wrote a paper in seminary about the moral failings of ministry leaders, and what I found in my research was that most hit their crisis point when they became isolated and exhausted.

If pastors and ministry leaders employ these three practices, they set themselves up for a more successful journey through the ups and downs of life and ministry.

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