I walked in and there she was: a college student from the church I serve. I couldn’t turn around. I couldn’t un-commit. I could have lied about why I was there, but that’s not ethical (right?). I was caught red-handed—seeing my professional counselor.
For the last decade or so, I’ve seen a professional counselor off and on. Sometimes, it’s been for no special reason. Other times, it’s when I’m in the midst of a crisis. Today, I go regularly to see my counselor and I think everyone—pastor, plumber, or professional wrestler—should consider seeing a counselor.
We’ve all got issues
Across 2019-2020, according to Mental Health America, one in five Americans – over 50 million individuals—experienced a mental illness of some kind.
Over 1 in 10 youth in the U.S. are experiencing depression that is severely impairing their ability to function at school or work, at home, with family, or in their social life. Some 16.39% of youth (age 12-17) report suffering from at least one major depressive episode (MDE) in the past year.
The number of people seeking professional counseling for such mental health issues is on the rise. That’s encouraging.
But because of persistent social stigma, financial barriers, and lack of coverage for mental health care, over half (54.7%) of adults with a mental illness do not receive treatment, totaling over 28 million individuals.
Many professional caregivers—such as pastors, social workers, first responders, and others involved in counseling and caring for others in times of crisis—avoid professional counseling for themselves. Despite high levels of stress, the prevalence of burnout, and the need for self-care, many caregivers do not enlist professional help. They do not seek a safe place where they can process and receive input from a professional counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist.
Push and pull factors
I get it. The social stigma can be tough. The costs can be prohibitive. And the fear of running into someone you know at the office can turn you off to the idea quite quickly. But hear me out. There are both push and pull factors that put me in my counselor’s chair frequently:
Fear of Burnout
Stress is a normal, and necessary, part of anyone’s life. Burnout—a stress-related emotional collapse or breakdown that can result in chronic stress—should not exist. Yet, many pastors and other caregivers burn out all the time. I’ve been there, and I haven’t even been doing this pastor thing for very long.
The good news is there is promise in the process. Scripture speaks to God’s care for the whole person, our “inmost being” (Psalm 139:13), our “souls and bodies” (Matthew 22:37), and our anxious hearts (Philippians 4:6-7). We are invited to “be still” (Psalm 46:10), share our burdens (Matthew 11:28), and transform and renew our minds (Romans 12:2).
We are told that no matter our fears and despite our dismay, there is strength and help to be found (Isaiah 41:10).
If you’re regularly exhausted, feeling like you don’t want to get out of bed to face the day, dreading that upcoming meeting, or wondering whether or not this job is for you, I believe you should consider seeking out someone safe to talk to about it.
Your family, your church, your community, and your soul will thank you for it.
Catharsis and Counsel
I’ve got issues. I’m pretty sure you do too. We all need a place, or a person, where we can dump the feelings of resentment, anger, disappointment, failure, insecurity, inadequacy, and loneliness we feel in the course of our life and career.
There are different ways we can seek catharsis—a psychological concept that refers to the release of pent-up emotions or tension through activity or experience. Originally a Greek word (καθαρσις), the term literally refers to being purified, cleansed, or set free.
With all the muck and mess, no wonder we need some form of catharsis to wash the stress and strain away and make us human again.
Some may seek this feeling through activities like writing, painting, or other forms of creative expression. Others may find catharsis through physical activities like exercise or sports. Some people may also find catharsis through talking about their emotions and experiences with others.
But dumping our stuff on the wrong person or the wrong place can cause us, and countless others, untold anguish.
For catharsis, a counselor is perfect. Catharsis is a key component of the therapeutic process, as it helps individuals to better understand and cope with their emotions. It can also help to reduce feelings of anxiety, stress, and other negative emotions.
Counselors are trained to take the venting, to engage in role-playing, or help us grow as we share our vexations. Our drinking buddies, stuffed animals, and the steering wheel of our car are not.
Learning Empathy and Best Practices
Like anyone else, pastors, clergy, and other religious leaders may experience a range of emotions and challenges in their personal and professional lives. They may struggle with stress, burnout, relationship issues, mental health concerns, and other personal difficulties. Participating in counseling can help them to work through these challenges and find ways to cope with them effectively.
Beyond the personal benefits of seeing a counselor, counseling can also be beneficial for religious leaders as they seek to support and care for others.
Henri Nouwen’s concept of the “wounded healer” suggests that those who have experienced and worked through their own struggles and challenges are better equipped to help and support others who are going through similar difficulties.
Sitting on the other side of counseling gives pastors and other caregivers an opportunity to see what it’s like to sit “on the other side of the room.” As I feel those sensations of anxiety, insecurity, and of being lost, I can gain a deeper understanding of what it’s like to struggle and can offer more empathetic and compassionate care.
Moreover, someone who has gone through counseling may be more attuned to their own boundaries and more capable of setting limits with others in order to take care of themselves. This can be especially important for religious leaders, who are called upon to support and care for others on a regular basis.
In the end, and for whatever reason, counseling can help individuals to be more resilient and better able to handle the challenges that life throws their way. This can ultimately make them more effective at the job they love doing—pastoring, shepherding, and loving those entrusted to their care.