2 March, 2024

Investing in Your Leader’s Mental and Emotional Health

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by | 1 January, 2024 | 3 comments

By Tim Harlow 

It’s worth pointing out that I was not asked to write about a deep doctrinal issue, or leadership, or how to respond to a difficult social problem. No, I was asked to share about the benefits of therapy for Christian leaders. 

I own it.  

I needed therapy. I need therapy. I have had very few seasons of my life when I had my stuff together.  

In fact, I wouldn’t be where I am today without the occasional counseling help I’ve received, specifically from the good folks at Blessing Ranch Ministries. 

I’ll share a specific example from a time when I reached the point of burnout. (I had heard about this sort of experience, but I was sure I wouldn’t experience it . . . until I did.) 

THE FIRST SIGN 

I was getting ready to go out and preach at our Saturday night service, and suddenly I wasn’t sure I could make my feet move me to the pulpit. 

It came out of nowhere. It was a good season, not a bad one.  

We had spent 14 years turning a church around and relocating it, and the church was finally fun and on mission. But my soul had run dry. As God would have it, the next week I was scheduled to go on a fun California whitewater adventure with a small group of ministry leaders and a counselor  

The counselor was Dr. John Walker, founder of Blessing Ranch Ministries (https://blessingranch.org/). Since 1996, Blessing Ranch has been providing professional intensive counseling services to Christian leaders around the world with the mission to help them live well, lead well, and finish well.  

As I reflect on this, I see it was such an incredibly timed blessing. I shudder to think about what could have happened if God hadn’t been working “upstream” to prepare for me some disengaged time away with an experienced counselor.   

I learned my lesson, so when my wife and I decided that the once-a-week counseling for our marriage wasn’t enough, we signed up for five days at the Blessing Ranch with John.  

It was a game changer, and Denise and I will be celebrating 40 years about the time this article is published. It didn’t save our marriage—we were (and are) committed to each other and to God—but it certainly helped us in ways I don’t think we ever could have worked through in typical counseling.  

RETURN TRIPS 

Another time, we had some challenging ministry issues, and we went back to Blessing Ranch for a week. I also occasionally spent time at the Ranch with other pastors in mentoring situations. Denise and I even were proactive and prescheduled a week with John for soon after we dropped off our youngest daughter at college and we were left with an “empty nest.”  

Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t be where I am today without the time I’ve spent at Blessing Ranch. We joke about having a dedicated Harlow “wing” there.     

I am a big believer in regular counseling and coaching. I think most of us need therapy in some regard. To me, not using professional mental help is akin to not using professional physical help. We all need a doctor from time to time.   

Intensity is the difference in a setting like Blessing Ranch. I can best describe it this way: Many of us have a medical issue to which we keep applying a bandage, but we know that more will be needed someday. We get shots and try over-the-counter remedies, but we know that eventually, we will probably need surgery. For me, rotator cuff surgery wasn’t fun. But I finally reached the point where I couldn’t sleep because of my shoulder pain, so I did it. And now I’m glad I did.   

But I don’t want to leave the impression that an intensive counseling week is only for “surgical” procedures. The “empty nest” week we spent at Blessing Ranch was a lot of fun and super helpful.  

It spurred us to make some decisions that maximized the final chapter of our located ministry.  

Denise and I started in youth ministry 40 years ago. We quickly learned that gathering students once or twice a week was great, but if we could get them to camp, CIY, or on a mission trip, it would exponentially change their spiritual direction.   

MAKE AN INVESTMENT 

My heart hurts for people who are lonely and anxious in our culture today, especially for those in ministry. The turnover rate is alarming. I know many are hanging on for dear life. If you are a church leader who is reading this, I encourage you to spend the money to help your staff stay healthy. It’s the best investment you can make. Patch up the roof another year; opt instead to help your ministry staff remain in the game! Counseling is much cheaper than divorce. It’s a lot cheaper than losing your minister and starting over. And it’s certainly a lot better than watching them go down in flames.   

The people in our church have no idea how much their investment in my mental and emotional health meant to our ministry. I’m grateful for that investment.   

This article isn’t intended as an endorsement of one place. There are many counselors and counseling centers available. But for us, it was essential to have people who understood ministry.   

As I retire from located ministry and move to other ministries, I’m thrilled to be getting the weight off my shoulders.  

It . . . was . . . heavy! I’m grateful to everyone who lifted my arms and kept the blessing coming when I couldn’t do it on my own. We need to work together to continue to make that happen for the next generation.  

_ _ _ 

At the end of October, Dr. Tim Harlow concluded a 33-year ministry as senior pastor with Parkview Christian Church, a multisite church in Greater Chicago. He is the author of Life on Mission: God’s People Finding God’s Heart for the World and What Made Jesus Mad: Rediscover the Blunt, Sarcastic, Passionate Savior of the Bible. 

3 Comments

  1. Thomas A Masters, MDiv, LPCC

    While a doctoral student I did one week of volunteer work at Blessing Ranch. John Walker and his crew are the very best. John provided me with some very wise words that have assisted me, and I have passed them on to my own clients. The folks at Marble Retreat in Colorado are also the very best. I was provided the opportunity to spend some clinical training time as an observer. Mike and Kari Mackenzie are professional Pastor Care practitioners. Ministry can be hard. I know firsthand as my father burned up emotionally within a local ministry context. Dr. Louis McBurney, M.D. many years ago wrote, “Every Pastor Needs A Pastor” it is a very helpful read. He went on to start Marble retreat. Thank you, Tim, for this much needed article. It is a task of effective spiritual formation to come to the ability to ask for help. We need each other.

  2. Harold Harker

    An excellent article about an issue that probably receives little thought from congregations.

    I believe small churches, that have a limited talent pool to draw from, have a tendency to burn out the talent they do have. Simply due to the fact the few who serve, serve regularly and for a very long time and often times without reprieve.

    Years ago, I met a new couple that began attending our church and after a few visits learned from them that they had basically fled their former small congregation because it seemed they were doing everything but preach. They had become exhausted to the point that their only escape was to leave.

    I believe there is something to the old saying that . . . “If you volunteer to do something, most will be happy to let you do it.” And the more you do . . . the more you will be asked to do.

    I believe part of this equation is in the lack of volunteerism that many churches are suffering from.

  3. Glen Elliott

    Thank you Tim for being vulnerable and transparent. I too needed Blessing Ranch at a critical time of challenge and it was life altering. My family, my staff and our elders were very grateful for the time I invested with John Walker. All of us need help at times.

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