Pastors share progress, pathway to hope after opening up about personal struggles
Near the beginning of the COVID quarantine in the U.S., the Texan spoke with pastors about mental health and their experience in addressing their own mental health needs. In the 18 months since, pastors and churches have faced increasing difficulty as new challenges rose while they sought to minister to members and communities.
Many pastors report added stress from learning new technology for remote worship services, seeking to comfort ailing and bereaved church members even as hospitals and nursing homes restricted visitation, member care, discipleship, and preaching—all the while sharing Wi-Fi with children at home attempting remote learning in the next room.
These common situations have piled on top of the challenges pastors faced prior to 2020. In a 2019 survey by Lifeway Research, 23 percent of pastors expressed a belief that they were struggling with mental illness (half of those pastors had been diagnosed by a doctor).
The Texan revisited two of the pastors we spoke with in spring 2020: Danny Forshee of Great Hills Baptist Church in Austin, and Byron McWilliams of First Baptist Church in Odessa. In the November 2019 meeting of the SBTC Executive Board, McWilliams (a former SBTC president) shared his testimony of having a mental health crisis and seeking help in dealing with it. Forshee, chairing that board meeting, mentioned briefly that he, too, had sought help to maintain his mental health.
Both men speak now of how they addressed the special ministry and personal challenges of the past 18 months. McWilliams has increased his delegation of some ministry duties and committed to take all his vacation in 2021.
“I did this in front of the church so that they would understand when their pastor is out of the pulpit that he’s taking much needed family time,” McWilliams said. “Making this commitment publicly has helped me be accountable to my family and my church. I am a better pastor when I am a better me!”
Forshee also mentioned some ministry challenges that have arisen at Great Hills as he “acclimates to the ‘new normal’” in church life. His church is examining matters of ecclesiology as some continue to participate online only. “More people are tuning into church online, which is good,” he added, “but how we reach them and help gather them is an opportunity for church leadership to really address.”
Personally, Forshee cited transparency with his wife and a renewed joy in praise and worship as sources of strength for him.
He added, “Helping and serving others go a long way toward our own health and healing.”
The response the pastors received regarding their openness about their own struggles points to a need for greater understanding among our pastors and laypeople. One key to greater understanding is transparency.
“Just recognizing the reality of mental illness/health/depression/anxiety and that these issues exist in many churches and among pastoral staff … is helpful,” Forshee said.
McWilliams agrees, stressing “transparency, with no judgment attached.” He added, “Continue to inform that mental health is no different than physical health and both must be managed in order to be the best person one can be. If that means taking an ongoing medication long term, so be it.”
Although the article did prompt some helpful conversations with other pastors, McWilliams related a story about a pastor who was critical of his response to his own mental health needs, suggesting a greater commitment to personal devotion and prayer might be the problem.
“I experienced this [negative judgment] personally when a fellow pastor called me out for taking anxiety medication. His attitude expressed to me in an open forum was meant to shame me for taking the medication and not relying more on the Lord,” McWilliams said. “No responsible minister would ever tell a diabetic to stop taking insulin, or someone suffering from high blood pressure to get off their medication. This attitude must change before true progress can be made in the area of mental health.”
McWilliams also noted that his ministry with those who suffer from mental illness has become more effective since his own experience with anxiety.
“Before I faced real anxiety myself,” McWilliams said, “I could not fully understand what someone was experiencing and would wrongly take the attitude of some today wherein I just encouraged a stronger walk with Christ. That is always a part of the solution, and perhaps the main thrust, but seeking the assistance of a healthcare professional is not a weakness, but a strength.”
Forshee noted the same advantage in his own ministry.
Mental health discussions continue to be at the forefront of Forshee’s life and ministry, he said. “Having to continue to deal with anxiety makes me sensitive to others with the same struggles; God’s grace is sufficient.”
Lifeway Research discovered in its survey of pastors suffering from some serious mental health disorders that 69 percent of them believed that the primary way churches can help would be to know and share local resources available to help individuals address their mental health needs. Both pastors agreed that this is important, with McWilliams stressing that it is “naïve” for a minister to believe he should “impart mental health wisdom he does not have!”
Forshee additionally suggested that churches might provide subsidies for those who need professional or medical help to address their mental health. He also believes people can encourage their pastors in significant ways.
“Following the Holy Spirit’s lead is so important, he said. “An example is if you feel led to reach out to a pastor, then do so. A simple text or encouraging note goes a long way.”