By Andre Radmall
I am a preacher. In my career I have also been an actor, psychotherapist, life coach and writer. All these occupations have their own challenges but the pressure of being a preacher can be unique. The mental health of the preacher is not always sufficiently considered, least of all by the preacher themselves.
Preaching is a potentially life-changing activity and occupies a unique space at the horizon of God’s Word and the lives of those we speak to. My approach to preaching is to include some reference to my own life, experience and thought. I know there is an argument for preachers to take themselves out of the message, but I believe we cannot help but bring ourselves into play when we stand before others. At the very least, people will hear an implicit message from our appearance, posture, tone of voice and energy.
It is because as preachers we bring so much of ourselves into our work that I think we need to pay attention to our own mental health. So I am going to outline a few danger signs to watch out for and some things we can do about them.
Let’s talk about burnout
The biggest risk for preachers is burnout. This can creep up on us without us noticing. The signs of burnout are: increased lethargy; stress; irritability; negative thoughts about yourself or your work; fearfulness; and even a growing sense of being a ‘fake’. At the heart of this is a profound exhaustion. Unfortunately it is possible to keep going for some time, even if we are running on empty. This may seem like dedication but is in fact a form of self-destructiveness. A lot of the symptoms of burnout may seem to be part of the ‘normal’ working pattern. We all get tired sometimes or have a bad day. Burnout happens when the bad day becomes a bad week, a bad month. Eventually this can lead to depression and overwhelming symptoms of stress.
One of the causes of burnout is multi-tasking. Pastors are particularly prone to this. Research shows that neurologically, our brains are not designed to multi-task. In fact, being able to do simultaneous tasks is a myth. What actually happens is that we switch very quickly between different streams of thought. These multiple switches exhaust the brain and rapidly deplete energy. So one thing we can implement to avoid burnout is to limit the amount of switching we do between different activities. Some of this can be achieved by diary planning where we allocate different parts of the week to specific focused activity. Of course we may have to respond to unforeseen issues but this should be the exception. This is an issue whether or not you work for a church. I have had to balance preaching with a private therapy and coaching practice, and a film production company. This takes planning!
It is also very important to take a sabbath rest in which we do absolutely nothing for a day. I find this very difficult. Even reading a book can lead to me taking notes for a project I have in development. Try to do nothing but eat well, go for walks and have fun with loved ones. On a day-to-day basis, it could be helpful to punctuate the day with mini-breaks, even of five minutes. It can also be helpful to have a trusted friend to pray with at the start of the day.
As preachers, another thing to look out for is allowing ourselves to be defined by the reaction of our listeners. It is normal to want approval from others but if we become over-reliant on this, it can compromise our sense of peace and balance, particularly if people seem unhappy about some aspect of our preaching. It is particularly hazardous if we have linked our sense of identity to the role of preacher. This can lead to stress, anxiety and even depression. This can be counteracted by ‘self-coaching’ and taking time out every day to be still and notice what thoughts and feelings you are experiencing. If there are feelings of loneliness, stress or anxiety, they would be picked up in these times. Doing some deep breathing and taking time to be quiet in the presence of God can be very helpful.
It is also essential to have a friend or spiritual director to process some of the feelings that may come up. This process makes it less likely that external approval [Andre: do you mean less reliant on external approval of the sermon? or external help from GP etc to deal with stress?] would need to be sought to deal with stress.
Once this emotional aspect of the work has been done it may be easier to come back to core questions relating to the text and the focus for preaching.
Checklist for preachers
Helpful things to do to stay mentally healthy:
• maintain friendships with people outside the congregation
• take regular and planned rest times (a sabbath is non-negotiable even if it’s on a Monday), protect your rest times
• be your own coach and take time to notice feelings and thoughts before they build up into stress
• plan carefully to avoid multi-tasking
• set clear boundaries about what you can and cannot do – don’t try to be all things to all people. Use the word ‘No.’
• have trusted advisors (spiritual directors or coaches or therapists) who will listen without judgment and pray; be completely honest with them about struggles and anxieties
• it is essential to take some form of regular exercise, preaching can be rather cerebral and static. Exercise is now being prescribed by GPs as an effective treatment for depression. I would recommend exercising at least three times a week.
Andre worked in mental health and as an actor before becoming ordained as a vicar in the Anglican church. He has worked as a psychotherapist and taught theology and counselling for seven years at London School of Theology. He is the author of Insight into Addiction (CWR). Andre preaches regularly at St Pauls in St Albans and is currently working on a book about storytelling and drama.