At the tail end of 2020 I was chatting with a friend who is a counselling psychologist and she said something that really struck me. She shared that never in her life had she been in a situation where the things that her clients were unloading were the very things that she herself was also struggling to carry and process. Fortunately, clinical best practice recommends that therapists have therapists—those with whom they can unload their own burdens and process their work and lives. But it does beg the question: what do we do when we, who are in caregiving or leading roles, are struggling ourselves?
Some of us lead and care for others as part of our professional and personal lives. I wonder if you have wrestled with how to offer any semblance of support when you yourself are struggling? I have. In my early twenties, I became the senior pastor of a church where I served for about eight years. Over that time, I reached a point where I was emotionally bankrupt. I was completely numb; I had no framework to understand what I was going through and no language to speak about what I was feeling. I had well-intended, well-meaning, loving, and supportive people around me, but what was missing was an implicit framework for understanding a long and debilitating season of struggling with my mental health—especially as a pastor, a role which is commonly expected to model a strong and unwavering faith.
My own languishing was the inevitable consequence of a whole range of circumstances: unprocessed grief, bereavement, a sense of powerlessness, a boundaryless role, and some very difficult personalities that I worked with on a daily basis. My age and inexperience meant I also didn’t yet know my own strengths, limits, and boundaries very well. At the time, I wasn’t able to openly share about what was happening with me.
Yet sharing these kinds of experiences with one another can have great benefits. Researcher Brené Brown has famously elevated the role of vulnerability as a wellbeing-inducing commodity for individuals and communities. According to her research, when we are vulnerable, we offer a chance for others to find healing and rest as they realize they’re not alone, and it’s okay not to be okay.
The message of vulnerability stands contrary to the implicit and explicit messages we grow up with, especially in the Church. As Christians, many of us have been shaped to live triumphant, hope-filled lives that exude a sense of perpetual confidence that all will be well and therefore we need not worry. And yet this all-too-common narrative stands in stark contrast to our Lord pleading with God in the garden of Gethsemane or crying out to God from the cross as his life ebbed away. We might ask: why do we place such stifling expectations of positivity on ourselves? These monumental acts of vulnerability from Jesus—captured in Scripture for us to see, read, and proclaim—demonstrate that God incarnate knew what it is to be human and to suffer. I have experienced how vocalizing our struggles can be the start of new life bursting forth.
And this is why we must find a way to share our stories of pain and uncertainty when we haven’t yet reached the conclusion of our story. I know the temptation to only share stories of hardship when we feel we’ve moved past a difficult season or experience and reached a place of triumph. I’m not saying we shouldn’t share these stories—they are important—but equally important are the stories of suffering and languishing that have not yet resolved in the way we would like. By listening to stories like these, shared within a safe and supportive community, we are challenged to sit in a liminal space and acknowledge together the present suffering while holding on to our future hope. As a local priest in Vancouver, Canada once said, “difficult lived experience stories can serve as grit that causes us to slow down and make our theology meaningful.”
If you are moving too fast to notice the pain that you’re carrying, it is undoubtedly time to slow down and let your theological framework catch up with your lived experience. I believe that in our experiences of languishing mental health, there is much that God can teach us about who he is and who we are. If we can make safe places in our communities to talk about our experiences, bring them to light, process them together, and provide accompaniment and support (including supporting someone in receiving professional mental health care), then I believe we will learn a great deal.
As we seek to hold our lives faithfully with God and with others, the gifts of friendship, space, and support can be a vitally healing posture that invites people back into a relationship that removes secrecy and shame. As we offer and accept these gifts in community, we offer God’s peace, presence, and love at the point of greatest need. This gift of love will not provide an answer to all problems and questions, but it can create a sturdy foundation upon which a person can reorient to a trajectory of flourishing wellbeing.
If we can learn to live into our more authentic selves for others to see, even the difficult parts, I believe that our caring will speak more to mutuality and reciprocity, which will bring healing to us and others, and spare us the painful folly of trying to live up to an unrealistic goal that Jesus himself denounces by his own vulnerability displayed for all to see.
Daniel Whitehead, MA, ThM
Daniel is a Regent College graduate and ordained minister with over ten years of full-time vocational church ministry experience in the UK. He has traveled extensively overseas working on various humanitarian projects and is a certified mediator with London School of Mediation. Daniel studied the role of majority world theological perspectives in shaping a theology of mental health in his ThM research. Daniel is adjunct faculty at Regent College; member of the International Initiative for Mental Health Leadership; committee member of the International Network on Theology and Mental Health; and advisory group member for the Centre of Spirituality, Health, and Disability.