Mental Health Boundaries from a Recovering One-Year Pastor

Post Author: Jo Schonewolf

This is part of a series on the intersections between pastoral care and mental health. Read the rest of the series by selecting the Mental Health and Ministry tag

This post contains brief discussion of depression, suicidal ideation, and church conflict. 

I knew I had made a mistake as I sat in a COVID-distanced circle with my district superintendent and the five people I trusted most in my church to discuss my future as their pastor. Well, really, I knew that I had made a mistake when someone I had counted as a supporter and friend said, “Just promise us that wherever you go next, you make sure the job offers healthcare. You know, because of your mental health.” 


See, I had been open about my depression in my first appointment. I was fresh out of seminary, where talking openly about mental health was a given, and I was determined to bring that kind of ethos to the local church. That determination had only increased in 2020 as the first months of the pandemic weighed heavy on us all. I wrote a sermon on manna for just this purpose, a sermon I never got to preach because it was interrupted by a congregant who left us all in stunned silence after rushing up to the chancel and telling me exactly what he thought I was worth. That incident had sparked a meeting with my staff-parish relations committee and my district superintendent, where everything about my ministry, including my mental health, was called into question. 

I’ve spent the past three years healing from this difficult call in a difficult season. I have taken a hard look at the ways I didn’t fit into this context and the events and responses that led to my departure. A more seasoned pastor may have been able to handle the challenges of that church and its people during the year that was 2020, but seasoned I was not. With that in mind, here’s what I learned about how not to talk about mental health as a young pastor: 

DON’T ASSUME. Seminary was tough on my mental health, but when I opened up about what I was dealing with and working through in therapy, I received an outpouring of support from friends, classmates, faculty, and staff. Most everyone around me was attuned to the effects of depression and anxiety. I even found others with whom I could have honest and open conversations about trauma and suicidal ideation. 

I assumed that because I had made these strides, most other adults had too. I assumed that because I was comfortable talking about my mental health that my congregation would be too. I assumed that my vulnerability and openness about being in therapy and taking antidepressants would be the key to opening up this conversation in my congregation. 

Well, we all know what assumptions do. 

INSTEAD, TEST THE WATERS. We hear it all the time, but context truly is key. Some members of your congregation may be beyond ready to tear down mental health stigma, but others may not. You won’t know who’s who until you know your context. If you’re going to assume anything, assume that discussing mental health in any capacity will require care and approach the topic with thoughtfulness and kindness. But truly, take the time to feel the congregation out.

DON’T TRUST TOO FAST. It’s taken me years to learn this one, but vulnerability is truly risky, and I think that in many congregational contexts, vulnerability is earned. Despite it being my first appointment, I was ready to jump in with both feet and be my authentic self, like I heard over and over again in seminary. I talked openly and candidly about my depression, about going to therapy, and about the search for an antidepressant that wouldn’t trigger my anxiety or leave me napping throughout the day. When the topic of suicidal ideation came up with a congregant, I shared that I had struggled with this as well. 

Even in retrospect, I don’t think that I overshared with my congregation. I presented the facts of my medication journey the way you might talk about pain relievers. I talked about strategies I was learning in therapy without discussing the trauma that had brought me there in the first place. I didn’t share any details about my struggle with suicidal thoughts, just the fact of their existence. I thought I was maintaining healthy boundaries and striking a balance between destigmatizing mental health discussions and discussing the specifics of my mental health journey with the people in my care. 

But in congregations that haven’t had these conversations before, any discussion of mental health, especially the pastor’s mental health, requires vulnerability and trust, and those things take time. I didn’t know that they had had another pastor right out of seminary about fifteen years before who had struggled with mental health and ended up leaving the congregation because of it. They didn’t know the work I had put into my mental health treatment plan and the support that I had that enabled me to do my pastoral work and do it well. We just didn’t know each other well enough for the trust we needed to have these conversations to be there.

INSTEAD, WAIT. We might want to bring our fullest selves to ministry (I know I did), but that’s just not always possible. This goes double for those of us whose fullest selves include a stigmatized mental health condition. Both congregations and pastors bring vulnerabilities to conversations around mental health. Handling those vulnerabilities takes trust, which takes time. While you’re building that trust, lean on your support networks where you can be a fuller version of yourself. 

DON’T DEPEND ON YOUR CONGREGATION FOR SUPPORT. I’ve heard of congregations who encourage their pastors to take sabbaticals and who treat mental health like physical health, with a depressive episode being given the same care as a flareup of a chronic illness. These are good stories that show us what the reign of God might look like. But this kind of support is far from every pastor’s experience.

Some congregations have done a lot of learning around mental health and how to support their pastor. Some still view their pastor as a sort of magical superhuman, and they’re not ready for that image to be shattered by something like a mental health condition. Some know that it’s a tough job and expect the pastor to take a break. Some think two Sundays off a year is more than enough. With this level of diversity in congregational attitudes towards mental health, you simply can’t depend on support from your congregation, either formal or informal. You’ll need to feel the situation out, know your governing body’s policies, and advocate for what you need when you need it.

INSTEAD, LEAN ON YOUR NETWORK. Regardless of your position, your best first line of support is your personal network. You were likely told to “preach from your scars, not your wounds” and warned against “bleeding on your congregation” at some point in our theological education and pastoral training. While the phrasing itself is stigmatizing in its own way, there is truth in these sayings. The parish is not the place for us to work out our trauma, certainly, and in some cases, it’s not the place for us to find support at all.

But we still need support. If you don’t already know who’s in your support network, here are some places you can start: 

  • Identify four or five people outside of your ministry setting (and maybe outside of ministry altogether) who you know you can go to when you need support. Write their names down somewhere obvious so you won’t even have to think about it when you need them. 
  • Dedicate time to finding a good therapist and maintain that relationship, even if you’re not going regularly. This search can be draining, so lean on friends and family to help you along the way. 
  • Seek out a mentor to whom you can bring difficult situations. It might be another pastor in your area, but it might also be a connection from seminary or from another time in your life. Not only will they be able to offer a listening ear, but they may have practical solutions you can put in place right away, or they might know what policies you can use to get the help and rest you need. 
  • Consider connecting with a spiritual director. If nothing else, a reaffirmation of your call can do a world of good for a soul weary of struggling against stigma. A spiritual director can help you find those places where you can be filled by the Spirit, or point to moments in Jesus’ story that may connect to your experience. 

You are not alone. You are not broken. You are a beloved child of God, fearfully and wonderfully made. Jesus has promised to be with you, alive in the power of the Spirit, until the end of the ages. As you navigate mental health conversations in your congregations, practice patience, build trust, and don’t hesitate to reach out to your network for support. Trust that as you and your congregation grow together, God will open up opportunities for you to normalize mental health care and bring us all one step closer to the world our hearts long for.

A photo of a church steeple silhouetted against an evening sky shortly after sunset.

Boundaries can make beauty.

Jo Schonewolf left a ministry call at the end of 2020 and has been wrestling with church, ordination, and Christianity ever since. She currently works as YCWI’s administrative assistant, among other things, and hopes to use her MDiv and MSc in Science and Religion professionally one day. You can find more of her writing at and more of her thoughts on the ministry podcast she cohosts, What the Hell is a Pastor.

Image by: Jo Schonewolf
Used with permission
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