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Humans make the best pastors

by Sara Correnti, Manager, Health & Welfare Member Wellness Products

As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to close, I want to share some more mental health perspectives from pastors – Rev. Dr. Darrell Zimmerman, a former parish pastor who now serves as the interim President and CEO of Grace Place Wellness Ministries, as well as Rev. Dr. Dwayne Lueck who serves as North Wisconsin District President.

Emotions of a Pastor | “I’ve got so many places to go, but no time to stop for the gas I need to get there.”

Our expectations of pastors set them up to feel like they can’t be a normal human – one that is full of sin and error like the rest of us or one that has human limitations and requires attention to self-care.

Rev. Zimmerman served for 30 years as a parish pastor, “I made all sorts of mistakes in that time – pushed too close to the edge and wasn’t functioning well. I was too frazzled.” The pressure from the parish, his personal life, the rollercoaster of emotions he routinely rode coupled with self-care not being a priority nearly led him to burnout.

Rev. Zimmerman said emotions pastors experience is similar to a secondary trauma, much like what first responders and military personnel go through. However, the biggest difference is that it’s not only the hard times of someone’s life you’re invited into, but also the good ones. “It’s less the emotions themselves but the swing – often very rapidly – from high to low that takes its toll. You find yourself praying at a sick person’s bedside Thursday night, spending time rehearsing a wedding on Friday, conducting a funeral Saturday morning and then officiating the wedding that afternoon. You’re left wondering why you have nothing left come Sunday morning.”

This constant emotional fluctuation requires self-care, but pastors don’t always feel encouraged or allowed to take the time to do so. They feel like they have so many places to go and so many things to do that they don’t have time to stop and get the fuel they need to get them there. They often feel guilty for stepping back from work to rest or recharge in any way.

Rev. Lueck has been a district president for more than 40 years. He spoke of the reality that some pastors aren’t supported and encouraged to take care of themselves yet are called to take care of everyone else. Rev. Lueck knows that his wellness affects his ability to lead and ignores any disapproval he may sense for taking care of it, “Pastors need to advocate for themselves.” After all, you can’t serve well without being well yourself.

He went on to share that while he encourages wellness, his role sometimes prevents him from supporting his church workers as well as he’d like, “People don’t call the District President.” Often times, especially in the case of addiction, church workers who don’t have trust built within their district staff feel that they can’t be vocal and get the help they need. In those instances, Rev. Lueck has this gentle reminder, “Ask yourself if you are working as hard to care for yourself as you are for others? Maybe your district president isn’t someone you feel comfortable going to today, but know they care for you and want to encourage you to care for yourself so that you can continue to joyously serve on God’s mission.”

Coping – Whose oxygen mask goes on first?

Rev. Zimmerman and Rev. Lueck were in agreement when the topic of selfishness of self-care came up. “It’s not self-serving or selfish to care for yourself,” remarked Rev. Zimmerman. He pointed to an analogy they use in Grace Place Wellness retreats: airplane oxygen masks…” Whose do they tell you goes on first? YOURS! You can’t care for anyone else without caring for yourself. You can’t pour out to others from an empty cup. Not that a pastor’s needs take priority over to anyone else, but balance has to occur. For many pastors, they give more to care for others than they do for themselves.

When Rev. Zimmerman was living a life lacking self-care, he got to the point where he knew something had to change, but he was nervous to reach out for help. He knew the Employee Assistance Program through his Concordia Plan benefits was available but debated calling for weeks. He explained it like this, “Since I publicly represent Christ and proclaim His healing powers, [I felt] I had to have it all together.” He didn’t feel comfortable being vulnerable and saying or showing he was struggling. It wasn’t until he heard other pastors who said they too were struggling and had used the EAP service that he felt comfortable pursuing help. Once he did call, he rejoiced in how simple and comfortable it was – and how much it was helping him better serve on God’s mission. He saw that God provided healing and support through His Word and through others, such as a counselor. Not only did getting that support for himself help him, it had a ripple effect on those around him. He noticed that when he began taking better care of himself, that his congregation did too!

Rev. Lueck shared his experience in dealing with vocational stressors, too. He leans on his faith and reminds himself of what he cannot control and what he entrusts to God to control, “Let go of what you can’t control.” He also mentioned how he uses Vitality for mental and physical health support – two parts of wellness that influence one another, “Pre-COVID, I was in the gym regularly. I’m a big walker, and I use the time to pray or reflect on situations.” He shares his efforts to care for himself through videos for his church workers in order to inspire them to do the same.

What we can do better.

As Rev. Lueck and I talked about stressors, the topic shifted to the different methods of coping and how that often leads to addiction. We need to be aware that addiction is very real in the church. Truth is, we’re all addicted to something, but the real measure is how harmful the addiction is to our health. For example, you can be addicted to everyday, life-sustaining things like food. Ultimately harmful to the body, yes, but not as dangerously destructive as the addictions such as gambling, pornography or alcohol. We need to get better at allowing space for our church workers, especially pastors, to take care of themselves to prevent the pursuit of addictions. But if addiction is hard-wired in someone and an active addiction is impacting any part of one’s wellness, we need to approach them with love and support to overcome that addiction.

Addiction may require more than spiritual support. It may also require professional mental health support. Pastors like to speak with Lutheran counselors who will guide church workers within the Lutheran theology at the core of their work. Unfortunately, not all Lutheran counselors are currently in the EAP network. The need for a well-maintained list of Lutheran counselors has been heard by Concordia Plan Services and we are working to make that a reality. Currently, one can find Christian counselors within the EAP network by searching online at MyCigna.com. Later this year, we will begin adding Lutheran counselors that pastors feel comfortable referring their workers to in order to offer them access to a Lutheran counselor without the worry of financial hardship.

Rev. Zimmerman noted that continued messaging around mental health from the LCMS would be ideal, “Encouragement from Concordia Plans, my district president, etc. were all what made it possible for me to get the help I needed.” The most ideal time to ask for help is different for everyone, so the focus will be to continually message the gospel that through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are forgiven for the times we don’t properly care for ourselves or succumb to harmful addictions. We also need to remind church workers of the resources that are available for mental health.

To give and to take.

We need to allow our pastors the space to care for themselves. Ask them about their mental health. Show compassion, love and support of any struggles they may be having. Tell them you want to see them taking time for exercise and mental health breaks – and that means using their vacation time and not working on their day off. They are our spiritual leaders, and in order to lead us well, they have to care of themselves well, too.

Rev. Zimmerman advocates for mental health through a variety of services like pastoral support, counseling and general total self-care. He knows every person’s situation is different and requires a different mixture of spiritual, mental or even medical guidance to overcome. He emphasized, “It’s the responsibility of each person to ask themselves ‘how am I doing?’” in the different areas of their wellness, most notably their mental wellness.”

He also points out the two kinds of righteousness – two ways we apply the gospel to our lives. The first is that it’s all from God and there isn’t anything we can do about it but receive His grace and blessings. The second, he explained, takes faith and is a partnership with God. You have to have faith and lean on Him while making conscious decisions about seeking help as guided by the Holy Spirit.

Rev. Lueck reminds you that Vitality and other CPS programs are available to members. He echoes Rev. Zimmerman’s call to check in with yourself by saying, “Be aware; know when you’re going into a risky area.” Always be honest with yourself and your habits. If you’re going down a risky path, find the safe places for you to be transparent and vulnerable to let other know about your struggles.

As you move forward in caring for your mental health and that of others, remember to:

  • Give space for others to care for their emotional health.
  • Take responsibility for your own emotional health.
  • Give encouragement to those who need it.
  • Take the help that’s available.

After our time talking was over, Rev. Lueck followed up to share with me a compelling piece of scripture that fits so well with mental health. These times are scary, but for some, times before now were scary, too. In Psalms 94, we hear how God will never desert us and how believing in His Word allows us to get over our worries. God will sustain us and will restore us. Rev. Lueck wants to remind you that God’s word offers hope, so believe God’s Word. Believe it.

Lastly, Rev. Lueck echoes what we’ve been saying all month: show appreciation. Send that encouraging text or note of gratitude to church workers. We’ve made it easy for you to do so with appreciation cards (Option 1 & Option 2) that you can print out and mail or send electronically through a social media message or text. Whatever works for you, use it to show appreciation for all church workers who are serving on God’s mission. As 1 Thessalonians 5:11 says, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”