Leadership is a privilege. Those of us who have been in positions of leadership within the church know the joys of seeing people learn to follow Christ in ways that advance God’s kingdom.
Leadership is an honored place of service, but great leadership is difficult. Christian leaders shepherding people understand that leadership is trench work and there’s blood in the trenches. Samuel Chand, in his book Leadership Pain, shows how leadership and pain are interwoven. Diane Langberg, in her book Suffering and the Heart of God, writes about the trauma of personal suffering and the church’s responsibility to be present with people in their suffering. The reality of suffering is evident throughout Scripture.
More than any other institution, the church must know how to suffer with people. Jesus suffered for people by emptying Himself and entering our brokenness so that we can overcome. We represent Him when we suffer with others in their pain.
As leaders we recognize that this ministry requires knowledge of the Scriptures and the power of the Holy Spirit, but we can inadvertently be trapped into relying on our own strength and this only exacerbates our struggles. Physical illness, depression, anxiety, self-doubt, isolation, family strife, and spiritual dryness are common, interconnected struggles in the lives of Christian leaders.
We must know how to take responsibility for our personal pain, but we are often hesitant to even acknowledge our struggles. If leaders are struggling, what does that communicate about the Gospel and the abundant life that Jesus provides? Does personal suffering impugn the legitimacy of our leadership? As leaders we need to model health and freedom for others.
If leaders do not honestly acknowledge and address their own struggles, they will ultimately be overwhelmed by burnout, moral failure and, in extreme cases, self-harm and suicide.
My focus in this article is on psychological health, or soul health, and Christian leadership. Our souls are comprised of the mind, will, and emotions, and psychological health pertains to the optimal functioning of all three components. Below are several principles I believe to be foundational in the life of every Christian leader who wants to be a healthy and effective servant. I have been learning, experiencing, and teaching these principles in my years of guiding people as a clinical psychologist and pastor. I pray that they will bless you.
Principle 1: What we seek first organizes the rest of our lives. Years ago, I learned this principle, based on Matthew 6:33, while attending Freedom Training at Gateway Church. We often seek solutions to our problems in the absence of routine time with God, but if we routinely seek Him first, He will reveal solutions to our problems and struggles through the light of His presence and the power of His voice. His peace guards our hearts from chaotic thoughts and emotions. We do not ignore our struggles but we do make it our priority to seek Him first.
A good next step is to build daily rhythms of Scripture reading, prayer, and worship in your life. A great resource is Adele Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook.
Principle 2: Know your “why”—your mission and values. Leaders often experience the chaos of psychological struggle like a ship caught in a storm. Mission serves as a compass. Our psychological health as leaders is intimately rooted in our understanding of mission.
When we lose sight of our why, we increase the likelihood of distraction, which leads to confusion and feeling lost. I have met with many leaders who feel they have lost purpose in ministry, and I’ve observed how these feelings often lead to frustration, depression, anxiety, and a sense of defeat. These attitudes and feelings eventually affect family life and ministry, sabotaging our relationships and our God-given purpose. Knowing our mission helps us weather the personal struggles and challenges related to ministerial leadership and serves as a firm anchor from which we can lead and model health. I believe Christian leaders must know why we are, as much as whose and who we are!
A great next step is to read Simon Sinek’s Know Your Why. A more in-depth approach is finding a coach to help you critically think through mission, or becoming involved in Dr. Mark Rutland’s National Institute for Christian Leadership.
Principle 3: Psychological health in leadership is rooted in wholistic self-care. Emotionally healthy leaders know that wholistic self-care is stewardship, not selfishness. Wholistic means that we proactively take care of our physical health, we practice soul care and emotional health, we develop authentic relationships with healthy boundaries, and we engage in personal spiritual formation.
Wholistic self-care is preventative and serves as a core strategy that supports our mission. It generates longevity in ministry and leadership. I have seen pastors, CEOs, and top Christian leaders cut short their lives, families, and ministries because they have neglected self-care. Insecurity or misguided values can drive ministerial progress for a season, but it only builds a house of cards. To foster well-being in your life, family, and ministry, practice wholistic self-care.
First, leaders must create healthy rhythms of self-care that are sustainable and organized by values (rather than reactionary chaos). Rhythms of self-care are like gardening: We must tend them daily, constantly weeding our souls of struggle and sin to prevent invasive shoots from destroying the garden of our souls.
Let me give you a few examples of healthy rhythms. Research indicates that healthy rhythms of eating, sleeping, and exercise have profound, positive effects on our emotional health. Psychologically, positive emotions like gratitude can guard against depression and move us from a poverty mentality to a provision mentality. Gratitude journaling is a great way to nurture this positive emotion.
Fostering emotional health and maturity involves four key, interconnected components related to our experiences: awareness, regulation, understanding, and response. Response is based on mission, identity, and values rather than impulsive reactions to suffering. Relationally, setting appropriate boundaries and building authentic, trusting relationships with others can help foster hope and guard against depression, anxiety, isolation, and even pre–mature death. Spiritually, we must value and implement daily spiritual disciplines for the sake of our own souls, not just to be effective leaders and ministers.
A worthwhile next step is to explore our 16-module video series called Rhythms (www.mywellclinic.com/rhythms). We have developed this series to help leaders implement this principle.
Principle 4: Practice confession often. The Greek word for confession is homologous, which means “to agree with.” Confession involves acknowledging to ourselves, Christ, and others when we miss the mark or are struggling. It involves agreeing with Christ about our sin and struggles, in faith that He will forgive us and strengthen us. Do not wait until sin and struggle have grown to destructive forces in the garden of your soul, but rather make frequent confession a life rhythm. Confession cultivates psychological health because it builds insight, fosters self-reflection, helps develop spiritual revelation, and leads to personal responsibility. Confess often the hope we have in Christ.
A great step in the process is to find a trusted friend or mentor with whom you can talk on a regular basis. You both should understand that the role of the person receiving confession is to listen in confidence and pray. Advice and counsel are not expected of the listener.
Principle 5: Seek the type of help you need when you need help. Seeking help requires leaders to cultivate humility. Researchers define humility as having an appropriate view of self—not too high or too low, teachability, and consideration of others. Authentic, healthy leadership is rooted in both victory (celebrating wins) and vulnerability (humility). As we build awareness, humbly admit our struggle, and then seek appropriate help, we experience God in the pain, grow through the experience (sanctification), and testify to the goodness of God. We model health for other leaders, thereby cultivating—and not just talking about—a culture of health in our lives, our families, and our ministries.
A great next step is to build a relationship with the right person before you need the person. Start doing research now. Interview the person. You’ll be glad you did.
Dr. Andy and Melody Yarborough founded The Well Clinic (Baton Rouge, LA) in 2015 with an emphasis on treating the whole person: body, soul, relationships, and spirit. Together, their team of clinicians and consultants guides people into hope, wellness, and life. Dr. Yarborough attended Regent University (Virginia Beach, VA) and moved to Baton Rouge in 2008 with his family to complete his doctoral training in psychology at LSU (Geaux Tigers!). He has been a licensed clinical psychologist since 2011 and served on staff as a pastor at Bethany Church for several years. Dr. Yarborough works often with pastors, church leaders, and missionaries to promote well-being and thriving. To learn more, visit www.mywellclinic.com.