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(RNS) — For nearly his entire life, Ian Williamson played the part of someone he wasn’t. When his parents separated at a young age, Ian moved to a rougher part of town and found himself feeling powerless and afraid. He responded by building a false persona of toughness and used comedy as a mask.
Throughout high school and beyond, Ian found the right balance of drugs and alcohol that would make him feel safe instead of lashing out in aggression and fear. By the early 2000s, he had become a Christian, enveloping himself in prison ministry and pastoring. Now sober, he began to experience both the good and the bad of being drug and alcohol free.
Though he began to experience the blessings of each day, Ian also began to experience the pain and grief of a past that had been numbed through alcohol and drugs. He found his problems seemed to disappear the busier he became, and before long he had unwittingly replaced drugs with being a workaholic.
Ian thought he was doing fine until the COVID-19 lockdown drastically reduced his workload and his problems started up again. By September 2021 he realized “how little I trusted God and how little I knew of his love for me.”
Here’s a key fact of this story: Ian was, and is today, a pastor.
A recent Lifeway Research study showed that a majority of pastors in the U.S. (54%) say they have known at least one church member who has been diagnosed with a severe mental illness such as clinical depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. One in four of these pastors (26%) say they have personally struggled with some type of mental illness.
The good news for pastors and church leaders is that some of the stigma of mental illness has been removed. This is due to a few factors: COVID-19 and the collective trauma we all experienced; the rise of social media, which has allowed a person to share more openly than they may otherwise have; and the extraordinary rise in people talking about their struggles, which in some ways normalizes our experiences.
The bad news is that many in church leadership are still hiding their mental health problems. Even as many pastors and other church staff are more aware of our fragility and our emotions over the past few years, we don’t believe that the best and only way forward is to bring what’s in the darkness into the light.
To be clear, doing so can be risky. When our livelihood and community depend upon our ability to lead well, sharing openly that we are not doing well takes a leap of faith—sometimes an extraordinary one.
I know this risk firsthand. Several months ago, I shared my own story of being abused as a child and how some of those wounds have continued to this day. Many pastors are living under that veil of darkness. I needed to be told, as many pastors do, that it was okay for my congregation to know I needed help.
But Ian is doing something significant: He is sharing his story and healing alongside others in real time. His healing is not 5, 10, or 20 years old—it’s fresh and raw, and it’s changing not only him and his family, but also his church. “My validation was tied up in my ministry,” Ian said. “But people around me saw I wasn’t doing well. I needed to return to what it meant to be a child of God, not just a pastor. The former needed to be my first priority for the latter to work.”
We must debunk a myth that has saturated our thinking: that churches can’t be a place for healing for church leaders. The Lifeway study, in fact, shows that our churches are positioned well to help us heal: More than 4 in 5 pastors say their churches offer support for those with mental illness. This comes in the form of maintaining a list of experts to consult (68%), supporting families of those with mental illness (40%), providing training for encouraging people with mental illness (26%) and providing addiction recovery programs (26%), among many other things.
If you are in ministry and are struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental health challenges, consider reaching out to those around you who are able and willing to support you through it.
After all, if most of us are willing to care for those who are struggling, why would we think the reverse wouldn’t be the case as well? God doesn’t just want our preaching and leadership. God wants our hearts, wholly trusting and devoted to him. He can heal us, which includes mental healing, but we need to be willing to take the step to move toward that place.
Ian provides a first step forward for us: “I always need to remind myself that my responsibility as a disciple is to love God and to love those around me. I am accountable to the church and those I am preaching to. This means my preaching and life need to reflect the real me, even if it’s hard.”
The church is a body of Christ—our people need us, and we need our people. Never are we called to bear our burdens alone. We are in this together, pastors and all of God’s people.
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