The Church, Leaders and Mental Health

You might wonder what mental health has to do with leadership skills.  Well, mental health affects performance, and that’s what a leader is always looking to improve in his/her staff.  It not only affects the person, but others around him/her.  And what does mental health have to do with the Church and ecclesial leaders?  The Church is a locus of healing, the place where the healing presence of Jesus Christ can be heard, felt, shared and celebrated.  For that to have tangible expression means that ecclesial leaders need to recognize particular mental health categories and then be able to offer Jesus’ healing touch in those situations, while at the same time encouraging help from mental health professionals.   Jesus was a healer.  The Church is a healing place.  Ecclesial leaders are the hands and voice of Christ.  So the Church is in the business of growing leaders who can identify where Jesus’ healing touch is needed, enable better discipleship and promote health and wholeness.

With that in mind, we’d like to continue our sharing of ideas we heard from leadership experts at GLS2021  Today, we are going to tell you what we took away from Dr. Henry Cloud.  He is a clinical psychologist, leadership expert and best-selling author[1]

But, you say, “I am not a mental health professional.  How might I identify what’s happening with fellow members of the Body of Christ?”  Dr. Cloud suggests being familiar with the following kinds of injuries will help all leaders respond with empathy.

  1. Connection vs emotional isolation. Symptoms of disconnection include:
    • Depression, mood swings
    • Anxiety/fear
    • Acting out or impulse problems
    • Distorted thinking
    • Addictions

You can help your parishioner to get connected by helping them to:

  • Realize the need for connection. Jesus speaks of this need often, indicating that love for God and neighbor is the essential component of Christian life.
  • Be vulnerable (a hard one, especially in a politically charged atmosphere). Jesus invites us to come to him (and by association to his people) to lay down our burdens.  We help one another carry our loads.
  • Find a safe place with safe others. Spiritual directors, sometimes the confessional, sacramental friendships and small Christian communities are all avenues for creating safe places with safe others
  • .Move toward others in a safe place. Train staff and key lay leaders to be empathetic listeners. 
  • Make it simple to connect with safe people in your parish.
  1. They lack boundaries. They say yes to everything even if overwhelmed.
    1. The symptoms of this are similar to #1. However, you can add
    2. Co-dependency/enabling
    3. Powerlessness/blaming

These staff or parishioners  need to learn how to set boundaries (and Dr. Brene’ Brown’s work [2] can help you learn techniques to set boundaries).

  • Teach them how to take ownership and responsibility
  • Develop the ability to say “no.” It’s not a 4-letter word.
  • Set limits on bad behavior, control, and manipulation.
  • Respect others’ freedom

Ecclesial leaders can help boundary setting by creating within the parish systems and structures that ask for responsibility, accountability and succession management so no one gets overwhelmed or stuck.  Church leaders can create a culture where a sound “no” is as respected as an enthusiastic yes, honoring the boundaries and asking when it might be appropriate to ask again.  Accountability, assessment and ongoing conversation will enable parishioners and staff to have the regular place where they can reveal others ‘ bad behavior and have their own corrected, in love with practical replacement behaviors.  Finally, respecting others’ freedom to say no, to set boundaries and to step away are part of a healthy organization.  Healthy organizations also do not protect others from the natural consequences of them exercising their freedom to choose.

  1. Acceptance of imperfections vs denial of imperfections. Symptoms of this are:
    1. Perfectionism
    2. Depression/anxiety
    3. Unresolved grief or pain
    4. Lack of emotional regulation
    5. Addictions

This is a hard one.  Everyone needs to belong but it’s sometimes hard to figure out how to go about it.  You can recognize acceptance when you can:

  • Help them embrace vulnerability. (Another that Brene’ Brown can help with).  Confess your faults to one another.  In a highly politicized environment, this will take courage to do.
  • Process pain and grief
  • Develop a growth mindset
  • Monitor the tone with which you address imperfection in yourself or others.
  • Forgive, forgive, forgive

Ecclesial leaders are responsible for setting up cultures that intend to help all those who come within the doors to experience the expansive acceptance that characterizes Jesus, and then to bring to others Jesus’ forgiveness, his accompaniment in pain and grief, and his intention that all human beings live free from the things that bind us, enslave us, and prevent us from living whole lives. 

  1. Adulthood vs remaining a child. The psychological symptoms of this are:
    1. Feelings of inferiority, need for approval or people pleasing behaviors
    2. Anxiety/depression
    3. Black and white thinking.
    4. Comparing yourself to others
    5. Addictions

How do you raise an adult to be an adult?  Well, you can teach them the following:

  • Own their own opinion and disagree with authority
  • Take people off pedestals and stop comparisons
  • Try, fail, and learn process
  • See yourselves and others as equal but different

Again, ecclesial leaders are responsible for creating cultures where difference is an expression of God’s creative hand, and opinions and perspectives are valid for the person who expresses them, for all see from where they stand.  Ecclesial leaders also foster a climate that seeks to see more clearly by looking at differing perspectives, knowing that no one sees clearly except God.  They embrace try courage, always seeking to learn from failures and successes.  Finally, ecclesial leaders respect the hierarchical nature of the Church while at the same time deeply embrace Jesus’ intention that leaders eat last…always.

None of these patterns can be solved by ecclesial leadership, but that does not absolve them from being able to identify what may be at work, and to create church cultures that offer healing places while at the same time encouraging  mental health care.   Dr. Cloud made it clear that spiritual guidance along with psychological help can go a long way to healing the person with these behaviors.  Many of the “solutions” to these 4 mental health challenges are contained in the way the Christian community cares for one another.  Ponder these questions as you seek to embrace healing culture:

  • Do we make sure people are welcomed and accepted for just being a child of God?
  • Do we teach them that they deserve dignity and respect, as do all people?
  • Do we practice gentle correction so they can safely be vulnerable and confess their faults?
  • Do we teach them to own their responsibilities and faults?

Dr. Cloud said in his remarks that, “Psychological problems can be helped with spiritual work.”  As leaders, the mental health of our  parishioners and staff is under our purview.  As Christians, it is also under our purview in our call to heal others.  Healing is something Jesus spent a lot of His time doing.  Shouldn’t we?



[1] Dr. Henry Cloud is an acclaimed leadership expert, clinical psychologist and New York Times best-selling author.  His 45 books, including the iconic Boundaries, have sold nearly 15 million copies worldwide.  He has an extensive executive coaching background and experience as a leadership consultant, devoting the majority of his time working with CEOs, leadership teams and executives to improve performance, leadership skills and culture.  His newest book, The Power of the Other, debuted at #5 on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list.  https://www.drcloud.com

[2] Braving the Wilderness is Dr. Brown’s first book where she writes of the gift of vulnerability.  She is a research professor at the University of Houston where she holds the Huffington Foundation Endowed Chair.  She is also a visiting professor in management at The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business.  She’s spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. https://brenebrown.com


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As I write this, it’s just under a month until the first phase of the Church’s Synod on the process of synodality is to begin.