A Psychologist’s Open Letter for Pastors about Mental Health

Dr. Audrey Davidheiser

Published Mar 11, 2024
A Psychologist’s Open Letter for Pastors about Mental Health

When you’re used to assisting others, calling a counselor for your sake might feel awkward at best and sinful at worst. That’s why I’m highlighting the following three reasons pastors should seek help for their mental health. 

Dear pastor,

My parents and grandparents interacted with their pastors with affection—and the utmost respect—all my life. I’ve soaked this letter in the same sentiments. I hope it shows.

Back when my private practice was a couple of years old, I introduced my services to local churches along with an offer to conduct a mental-health seminar for free.

One female minister green-lighted my idea, but it wasn’t as though her church promoted my event. Three people showed up: said minister (who also chided my message), a woman I’d never met before, and a friend.

Then again, perhaps my friend felt obligated to attend. He had a crush on me.

I brushed off disappointment and tried again.

This time I tailored my free seminar to single Christians. I scoured the web for more churches around my office, compiled a list of three dozen, designed an attractive postcard to advertise, paid for postage, prayed over the entire batch, and deposited them at the post office.

What’s the outcome this time, you ask?

No phone calls. No email expressing regrets for having to pass. No-go.

Their solid silence shocked me.

I had assumed, given our shared faith, that pastors would welcome a partnership with Christian psychologists. When this naïveté fell splat on its face—twice—a seed of realization started to sprout.

Perhaps pastors aren’t as supportive of mental health as I thought.

I’ve matured some and can cite additional factors which might have contributed to this astounding affair. I was a no-name (still am). They were too busy to respond. I didn’t worship at their churches.

Still, heartbreaking news concerning pastors solidified my suspicion that pastors may not value mental health that much.

One pastor committed adultery

A lead pastor assaulted his assistant. He abruptly relocated his family to a different state and kept preaching, this time as an associate pastor. The man resigned only after his former assistant spoke up.

Yet another was caught half-naked with a similarly attired church staff.

Unlike the first two, however, this last man is still clutching his pulpit—but did advise the world of his plan to seek counseling.

What would’ve happened had he sought counseling beforehand?

Why Focus on Mental Health?

I’ll be the first to acknowledge therapy isn’t a panacea.

Having said that, therapy affords you a regular, hourlong respite from the non-stop pressure that defines pastoral ministry. In therapy, you can allow God, through a trained professional, to:

  • restore your soul (Psalm 23:3)
  • review challenges surrounding your job—without any judgment, and
  • recover from the brunt of ministry.

You won’t need to minister to the therapist either, because therapy focuses solely on you.

I can appreciate the seismic paradigm shift required to make this move. When you’re used to assisting others, calling a counselor for your sake might feel awkward at best and sinful at worst.

That’s why I’m highlighting the following three reasons.

1. Burnout

If it weren’t for the fact that it’d add to your already full plate, I’m sure you can write a book on your job’s demanding nature. I heard about a pastor who plunked out his own cash to renovate the church, tackled the construction himself (in addition to delivering regular Sunday sermons), and to express their appreciation, the congregation wrapped him a 5x7 picture of Jesus for Christmas.

Perhaps your congregation ranks way higher in generosity. Even so, ministerial stress can be staggering. Just scrutinize the summary concerning pastors’ well-being:

  • 25% don’t know where to turn when a personal conflict arises (while a whopping 70% don’t have close friends).
  • 40% of pastors admit suffering from burnout.
  • Half feel unable to meet the needs of their job.
  • 90% feel unqualified.

In addition, 3 out of every 4 pastors reported “severe stress causing anguish, worry, bewilderment, anger, depression, fear, and alienation.”

These alarming statistics deserve our attention for many reasons, including because constant stress succumbs us to temptation.

How come?

The answer has to do with our tripartite nature—spirit, soul, and body (1 Thessalonians 5:23). According to Jesus, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41). Your spirit may welcome the needs surrounding you as wonderful opportunities to minister God’s presence, but after a while, your body and soul will likely conk out.

And when the soul—the seat of your personality—reaches this point, it’ll push for anything to create respite.

Even if they involve ungodly or otherwise unwise choices.

2. Others

Your willingness to pursue mental and emotional welfare will benefit far more individuals than just yourself. Jesus referred to this principle in Matthew 26:31: “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.”

In other words? If you refuse to self-care, your stress level will continue to climb, which will make it easier to fall into temptation—or at the very least, embrace your role less and less—which will, in turn, impact those around you adversely.

Contrast that with this. If you strive for mental wellness on a regular basis—say, by seeing a therapist—you’re modeling a crucial message for observers around you: Christians are called to nourish not just our spirit, but also our soul—that is, our mind, will, and emotion.

Seen this way, seeing a therapist is a self-sacrificial act, similar to what Jesus expressed in John 17:19.

3. The Apostle Paul

The apostle Paul didn’t pen any exhortation along the lines of “mind your mental health, folks.” However, he resorted to a natural—instead of supernatural—strategy to help Timothy.

Here’s what I mean. The New Testament hinted that Timothy had to fight fear and anxiety:

  • What eventually became a famous verse—“God didn’t give us the spirit of fear” (2 Timothy 1:7)—started off as a personal encouragement for Timothy.
  • Catch Paul’s specific directive to the Corinthian church: “When Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am.” (1 Corinthians 16:10, italics added). Why would Paul emphasize fear concerning Timothy if there was no cause?
  • Paul urged Timothy to consume a little wine to “help your stomach trouble and the other illnesses you often have” (1 Timothy 5:23, CEV). Anxiety often manifests as stomach or gastrointestinal problems.

Since “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established (Deuteronomy 19:15, Matthew 18:16, 2 Corinthians 13:1), the above verses indicate that Timothy might have indeed struggled with anxiety.

If this stuns you, consider that 23% of pastors struggle with mental illness. This proportion almost equals the 25% rate in the general population.

Back to Timothy. Paul’s response to his spiritual son’s ordeal is worth noting. The spiritual giant could’ve exhorted Timothy to eliminate the issue by praying and fasting, but instead, he instructed Timothy to “use a little wine” (1 Timothy 5:23).

Emphasis on a little, right, Paul?

The point is, for Paul to prescribe wine for his young protégé means he supported the use of non-spiritual solutions. Which makes me wonder if Paul would’ve also nudged Timothy to try therapy if it had been available in their time.

“Polite. Poised. Proud.”

As an IFS therapist, I help clients transition their lives from being soul-led to spirit-led. Because my job both delights and also drains me, I often choose captivating Christian novels to rejuvenate.

During one such occasion, a line grabbed my attention: Polite. Poised. Proud.

The author used these adjectives to describe her heroine, but the trio reminds me of how everyone expects pastors to be polite and poised.

However, maintaining either posture is hard when ministry bombards you with unrelenting pressure and in the meantime, you also have no outlet to replenish yourself.

The thought of seeing a therapist may make you squeamish. I get it. But if you forgo therapy, I hope it’s not because you’re too proud.

And I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul (3 John 1:2, ESV).

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/PeopleImages

dr. audrey davidheiser bio photoAudrey Davidheiser, PhD is a California licensed psychologist, certified Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapist, and IFSI-approved clinical consultant. After founding and directing a counseling center for the Los Angeles Dream Center, she now devotes her practice to survivors of trauma—including spiritual abuse. If you need her advice, visit her on www.aimforbreakthrough.com and Instagram @DrAudreyD.