In a recent interview, Kayla Stoecklein, widow of Pastor Andrew Stoecklein, shared her advice on how ministry leaders can care for their mental health. One of her main points was that it is easy for pastors to focus so much on other people that they forget to take care of themselves–and this neglect can have serious consequences.
“As a pastor, as a leader, you carry so much,” said Kayla. “And you’re trying to be everything for everyone. And you forget that you’re human too.”
Kayla’s husband, Andrew, took his own life in late August of 2018, leaving behind his wife and three young sons. Andrew was the lead pastor of Inland Hills Church in Chino, California, and had struggled with anxiety and depression. After he died, Kayla realized she hadn’t understood the depth of the spiritual attack and pain her husband had been experiencing.
Yet in the aftermath of that tragedy, she began praying that God would use her story to encourage others struggling with mental illness. And God has been doing exactly that. Shortly after her husband’s death, Kayla wrote, “The stories flooding in are lifting me up and holding me up…Your story is paving the way for an even bigger conversation about how the church can better come alongside people with mental illness, including pastors. God is using your story and this tragedy to do miracles in the lives of other people.”
Protect Your Mental Health in Ministry
Based on her experience as a pastor’s wife, Kayla believes that a lot of church leaders are not good at taking care of themselves in many areas of life. She says, “We often encourage others to seek counseling or exercise or rest or eat better, and we don’t actually do it ourselves.” She emphasizes that pastors must do better at self-care. Otherwise, they won’t be able to minister to other people and then, “it’s just a matter of time before, like Andrew, we hit the wall and we burn out. We must give ourselves permission and margin to heal and rest.”
One of her husband’s favorites books was called Leading on Empty, and some of the advice Kayla has to offer comes from that book. First, like anyone else, pastors need to take a sabbath, no matter how driven or hard-working they are. Andrew eventually realized this and would set aside Fridays to do activities that were life-giving to him. Kayla stresses that a sabbath is not a day for pastors to catch up on all the work they can’t normally get done, but a day for them to truly rest by doing what they enjoy.
She notes that ministry can be intense and overwhelming. Because of how draining their vocation is, it’s important that pastors make regular time for celebration. “Make room for fun,” says Kayla. She also believes it’s helpful for pastors to take personal retreat days, which she distinguishes from sabbath days. Retreat days are intentional times with God when leaders can re-catch His vision for their lives. Kayla says, “It’s a day really just to sit and be with God.”
Kayla also highly recommends counseling: “Counseling is the best thing you can do to care for your mental health.” Even if leaders don’t feel like they need counselling, she believes everyone can benefit from it. Pastors help people all week, but who do they have to listen to them? “You’re nobody’s pastor at counselling,” says Kayla. “You just get to be you.”
Kayla also has some advice for church staff. She encourages those in ministry to pray for their lead pastors, calling prayer the most important thing they can do for them. “From my experience as a lead pastor’s wife, I know how lonely it can be at the top, how hard it can be at the top. I see the emails that come in at the top. And the criticism that comes in.” Kayla notes that today’s pastors are under a lot of pressure to perform and to present themselves a certain way, even online. She has observed that a lot of the pain pastors experience comes from their staff, even more than the church body, so she encourages people to do what they can to respect their senior pastors and to help them rest.
Finally, Kayla emphasizes the importance of leaders telling another person if they are struggling with depression, suicide, or other mental health issues. Whether or not that person is their counselor, leaders need to have one or two “safe” people in their lives whom they can tell everything they are going through. The enemy’s goal is to isolate leaders and to make them feel worthless, says Kayla, “But I’m here to tell you, you are loved and you are valued more than you could ever imagine. And God has a plan for your life no matter who you are, no matter your past, no matter your mistakes, no matter your mental health. God’s got you. God’s got this. And God can do impossible things.”