Pastors open up about mental health struggles

April 24th, 2020 / By: David Roach | TEXAN Correspondent / comments

Two years ago, Micah Meurer’s lifelong struggle with mental health came to a head. Constant panic and anxiety attacks led to an eight-day hospitalization to get the psychiatric care he needed. Thankfully, through medication, counseling, a healthy lifestyle and walking with God, his mental health improved. He was even able to resume his duties as assistant pastor at Paramount Baptist church in Amarillo.

But his mental health journey didn’t end there. When an opportunity arose to preach at Paramount last summer, he knew what God was calling him to do. “I felt like the Lord wanted me to share my testimony,” said Meurer, who also serves as a field ministry strategist for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

He did, and the response was overwhelming. Of some 1,100 people in attendance at Sunday worship, more than 300 contacted Meurer about the sermon, including many who confessed their own struggles with mental health.

“I was a pastor and I’d gone through it,” he said. “So they felt like, ‘I can talk to him.’”

At least two other SBTC pastors have joined Meurer in sharing their struggles with mental health: Danny Forshee in Austin and Byron McWilliams in Odessa. They urge all pastors to speak openly about mental health—regardless of whether they struggle with it personally—because such openness creates opportunities for ministry.

Pastors & mental health

Mental illness is not uncommon among pastors. LifeWay Research found 23 percent of U.S. Protestant pastors say they have experienced some kind of mental illness, a percentage similar to the mental illness rate among the American population at large.

Over the past decade, the rate of mental illness has been met by emphases on mental health within both the Southern Baptist Convention and the SBTC. In 2013, the SBC adopted a resolution “on mental health concerns and the heart of God.” A year later the SBC Executive Committee formed a Mental Health Advisory Council.

Last year, the SBTC adopted a resolution “on mental health, the local church, and the need for gospel compassion.” The convention also held a panel discussion on mental health at its 2019 annual meeting in Odessa.

Attention also has been drawn to notable ministers, past and present, who have dealt with mental illness. The Puritans wrote much related to mental health, including Richard Baxter’s A Christian Directory, which chronicled hundreds of mental, emotional and spiritual problems he encountered in pastoral counseling. Some have speculated that 19th-century Baptist pastor Charles Spurgeon would have been diagnosed with clinical depression had he lived a century later. Pioneering American Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson likewise struggled through dark periods emotionally.

More recently, prominent Southern Baptist pastor Rick Warren addressed mental illness following the suicide of his adult son. Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California, fought to remove the stigma from mental illness after his son Matthew took his own life in 2013.

Yet despite the heightened emphasis on mental illness, many pastors don’t feel comfortable broaching the subject from their pulpits. According to LifeWay, 66 percent of pastors seldom speak to their congregations about mental illness. Health care professionals and pastors who have opened up wonder if enough ministers will address mental illness to improve mental health among churchgoers.

Chuck Hannaford, a Tennessee clinical psychologist who counsels ministers in his practice, told LifeWay Research pastors need not share the details of their diagnosis, but they may want to consider acknowledging that they struggle with mental illness.

“It’s a shame we can’t be more open about it,” Hannaford said. “But what I’m talking about is just an openness from the pulpit that people struggle with these issues and it’s not an easy answer.”

‘Even my pastor deals with this’

Forshee, pastor of Great Hills Baptist Church in Austin, has told the congregation about his longtime struggle with anxiety and depression. He also has preached a sermon on mental health at several guest speaking engagements over the past two and a half years. In addition, he has shared his mental health journey with the SBTC Executive Board, which he chairs.

Today, Forshee takes a mild anxiety medication daily and says his wife and the Holy Spirit “have kept me sane in ministry.” But he hasn’t always done so well. During a previous pastorate, he once pulled his vehicle off the road on the way to church and thought, “I don’t know if I’m going to make it into church to preach.” On another occasion, he had an anxiety attack while lying in bed and thought he was dying.

Sometimes church conflict brings on anxiety and depression, Forshee said. Sometimes heavy sadness and discouragement come on almost inexplicably.

“The pressures of ministry intensify” depression and anxiety, he said. “Oftentimes I’ve dealt with it on Sunday morning … It’s not nearly as frequent now. It used to be every Sunday morning.”

The clinical depression and anxiety disorders faced by these pastors are distinct from normal sadness and worry, even intense and prolonged sadness and worry. Some common symptoms led both Meurer and Forshee to conclude they were facing true mental illnesses. The sadness became debilitating, it didn’t wane when circumstances improved and it made them want to withdraw from people.

The problem is part physical, part emotional and part spiritual, Forshee explained. So the solution is multifaceted too. For Forshee, that has meant medication, exercise (marathons and triathlons specifically), observing a weekly Sabbath day and spiritual accountability.

He has discussed both the problem and the solution with the people he pastors.

“My being open and transparent about it empowers people,” Forshee said. “It lets people go, ‘Wow, I’m not alone. Even my pastor deals with this.’”

McWilliams’ struggle with anxiety hasn’t been a lifelong battle, like it has been for his two colleagues in ministry. But it has been intense and inhibiting. Four years ago, he began to feel the pressure of ministry in a new way. It hit him acutely on a hunting trip with his son while sleeping outdoors in 25-degree weather.

“I felt a sense of anxiety and panic that I’d never felt before,” said McWilliams, pastor of First Baptist Church in Odessa. Despite the freezing temperature, “I just had to come out of the sleeping bag because there was just a sense of great panic and dread and anxiety upon me.”

Initial healing for McWilliams came after the hunting trip when a fellow staff member at First Baptist came to his house and shared about his own struggle with mental health. Later, McWilliams called his doctor and learned other ministers experience similar mental health challenges. A major part of his recovery has been setting boundaries—like turning off his phone from early evening until morning, being more protective of his time during the day and relinquishing some control of First Baptist’s ministry to the staff.

McWilliams has come a long way from an earlier phase in his ministry, when he viewed people with mental illness as somehow weak or deficient.

“I can remember standing in the pulpit and preaching that if you can’t manage your anxiety and stress apart from taking medication, then there’s something wrong with you,” he said. “I realized how foolish and stupid I was … When somebody comes to me with anxiety now, I get it.”

McWilliams has applied his newfound knowledge by preaching a sermon series on overcoming anxiety, this time with rounded counsel about spiritual, emotional and medical solutions.

How to minister

When openness about mental health prompts other believers to confess their struggles, the three pastors said, there are several steps pastor can take. First, listen to their story.

“If a pastor loves his people, listens to them, shares the Word of God with them and just empathizes with them,” Forshee said, “that goes a long way.”

Second, pastors should know the reliable Christian counselors in their area and refer to them individuals dealing with mental illness, Meurer said. When necessary, a counselor can refer a patient to a psychiatrist for medical treatment.

Churches also can provide classes, books and other resources on mental health. Among the books the three SBTC pastors have found helpful:

  • Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness by Matthew Stanford
  • Walking on Water When You Feel Like You’re Drowning by Tommy Nelson and Steve Leavitt
  • The Emotionally Healthy Leader by Peter Scazzero
  • Leading on Empty by Wayne Cordiero

As for Meurer’s personal mental health, he continues to do well through a regimen of physical, spiritual and emotional care, including biweekly visits to a counselor. While he’s glad “God can redeem our struggles for his glory” in this life, he also looks forward to eternity—when mental illness will be no more.

“Mental illness is real and painful,” he said, “but our God is able.”