As a pastor and CEO of GracePoint Institute, a Christian counseling agency specializing in counsel and care to professional church workers, I have seen first-hand how hard the last couple of years have been on the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health of church leaders. Our clinicians have seen a significant increase in the anxiety of workers as well as the churches and schools they serve. One worker said recently, “It feels like there is a big decision hiding around every corner, and it is hard not to anticipate the fallout.” Necessary decisions in the last two years about in-person worship/school versus virtual; masks versus no masks; vaccine policies; what stance to take on social upheaval and elections; how to integrate PPP loans into a budget knowing that its temporary aid; what to do with a 40% drop in participation – these are a very small percentage of the real list of leadership decisions. What’s more, these workers are not only leading congregations and schools, but they are leading their own families through challenging times. In all of this we have seen a faithful God see his people through yet another set of difficult circumstances, but many are still dealing with the fallout of the journey.
It is also true that many leaders are thriving in these anxious times. My team and I began to notice that the gulf between thriving workers and struggling workers seemed to be growing over time. Even as things stabilized and got back to “normal” (whatever that is), those with anxiety weren’t emerging mentally and emotionally and those thriving continued to grow and experience joy. I became quite curious as to why this was taking place. There are two concepts that help to explain this and help to illuminate a path forward.
The Windshield Effect
The first is called The Windshield Effect. Here in Nebraska the windshield repair business picks up a lot of business after the first cold snap. This is because many windshields enter winter with chips in them and when the glass gets cold and the streets become full of potholes windshields crack. Many individuals, families, churches, and schools entered the “winter” of the pandemic with chipped mental health windshields. They were functioning with low margin of health across the domains and the stress of the pandemic and the social unrest pushed them over the edge and cracks began to form. Once the integrity of the mental health windshield is compromised it requires repair, and many weren’t able to receive care until the damage was already done. The main point here is that preventative maintenance is critical. Healthy sabbath rhythms of body and spirit, safe and meaningful relationships, and access to ongoing mental health and medical professionals are vital for avoiding the slide into burnout cycles and despair.
Anti-fragility and CBT
The second concept to help explain the ever-growing gulf between the struggling and thriving is called Anti-fragility. In their 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff lay out an argument for how critical anti-fragility is for mental health. They focus primarily on forming that capacity in children, but for decades psychologists and therapists have been applying the same concepts in treatment through the principles and practices of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Tea cups are fragile. We don’t want our mental health to be like tea cups. I have a dog chew toy in the yard that is very resilient. It has been chewed on by more than one dog and run over by the mower a few times and it is still recognizable as a chew toy. Resilience is good and we should strive for resilience in the face of challenging circumstances. But anti-fragility is different. Anti-fragility is being able to gain strength from stress.
A human muscle fiber is anti-fragile. If it is stressed in a workout and given what it needs to repair, it becomes stronger because of the stress. Our minds can function in similar ways. Many leaders have it in their minds that they should just be resilient to challenges and stress. They should just be able to “take it.” This illustrates, I believe, the growing gulf between those who have been thriving for the last two years and those with ever increasing mental and emotional challenges. As soon as the chew toy left the package it began to decay. But God made us differently. Thriving workers seem to see challenges as opportunities to grow stronger and wiser and closer to those around them in the name of Christ. They view suffering as a refining and strengthening agent in light of the Gospel. Those sliding into despair view suffering as fatal and to be avoided at all costs.
Deal with the chips before they become cracks.
During this month of mental health awareness, take the opportunity to call a time out and do some self-assessment. If you have some chips in your windshield, deal with them before they become cracks. In addition to the preventative mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual measures noted above, I recommend finding a counselor trained in CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) to help you sort through the ways you are thinking about the inevitable challenges and sufferings of life and leadership on this side of heaven. Ultimately, as Christians we have the firmest spiritual, emotional, and cognitive leg to stand on: eternal life is ours through Christ. After all, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us.” Roman 8:18