How does mental health relate to Christian leadership? How can we recognize the signs of burnout or compassion fatigue, and what can we do to avoid these issues?
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In this episode, Holly and I talk with Laura Howe, social worker and founder of Hope Made Strong, an organization that brings mental health resources to the church. You’ll learn how compassion fatigue is different from burnout and how you can prevent both. Laura also walks us through the common mental health challenges leaders face and what we can do.
Laura’s Leadership Journey
Laura started Hope Made Strong as a way to equip and strengthen Christian leaders toward positive mental health. The organization began as a “download from God.” Laura had been a social worker for 13 years when she started feeling compassion fatigue so she took time off and attended a women’s conference. There, she told God she was willing to do anything. God prompted her to bring her clinical training to the church.“Churches act like first responders.” Click To Tweet
Churches don’t have the knowledge, space, or support that mental health professionals do. So she decided to combine the Bible, clinical best practices, and research to help church leaders deal with the mental health challenges many of them face.
Laura’s Personal Experience with Compassion Fatigue
Laura has first-hand experience with compassion fatigue, and it affected all areas of her life. She was incredibly tired, irritable at home, and isolated herself.
Laura realized that there was a real problem when she realized that she stopped a patient from sharing trauma and silenced her healing. This lead to her work and professional ethics being compromised.
Laura’s boss told her to take time off so that she could recover. She thought she’d be back in two weeks, but it took two months for her to be ready to return to work.
Dealing with Burnout, Compassion Fatigue, and Mental Health as a Christian Leader
How Laura Sees Compassion Fatigue in the Church
She notices it a lot in volunteers when they struggle to find people for the programming the church offers.
Within the context of the greater church, many churches are not affiliated with a larger denomination so the church feels the pressure of reaching every lost person.
Church leaders feel the weight of being available 24/7/365. While seminary may train leaders to give sermons and study the Bible, there isn’t training for working with people.
“There is strength and there’s a way out. There’s a second chance at life, ministry, at being a parent and a loving husband or wife. It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Why the Church can be Resistant to Mental Health
- Natural distrust of science and the medical system
- Misconceptions of how mental health is defined
- The cultural shift in demanding mental health services
“What people don’t know, they fear.”
Ways the Church can Support its Leaders and Congregation
Laura doesn’t want to tell pastors exactly what to do and how to provide support to their staff and congregations. However, she does believe that there could be more training provided to individuals in terms of how to deal with the pressures of ministry.
She also sees that there is a fear of being vulnerable. However, she notes that it’s important for leaders to be vulnerable and acknowledge their challenges.
“You build trust and you build connection when you are vulnerable and share your own experiences.”
Specific ways churches and ministries can focus on mental wellness in their workplaces:
- Take the Finding Hope in Helping online course offered by Laura about compassion fatigue. (Use coupon code CWLP20 for 20% off the course). [affiliate link]
- Use your flex time
- Actively listen
- Practice low-impact debriefing
- Recognize that people are people
“Everyone experiences some level of mental health concerns or struggles. Once we realize that there’s no shame in struggling, because we are all human, then we can talk about it.”
Mental Health Challenges Christian Leaders Face
- Addiction – This can be subtle and doesn’t always look obviously like addiction. Think needing sleep medication to come down after a hard day or coffee to stay “up.”
- Anxiety and Depression – due to the expectations to be “on” and available constantly, and the belief that you are your job.
We need boundaries as Christian leaders in order to safeguard against some of these challenges. (See episode 23 for 3 reasons why we need boundaries).
Difference between Burnout, Compassion Fatigue, and Vicarious Trauma
- Burnout – overwhelm due to constant stress; linked to hopelessness and helplessness; situation feels out of your control; may be relieved by a change in workload or position.
- Compassion Fatigue – eroding of empathy for others because of your role as a caregiver.
- Vicarious Trauma – a shift in your worldview due to the trauma experienced by others.
How Leaders Can Protect Themselves from Burnout, Compassion Fatigue, and Vicarious Trauma
- Set boundaries
- Practice self-care
- Build and maintain relationships
- Be creative – volunteer with projects rather than people if necessary
- Evaluate your hobbies
- Transition on your way home
“Self-care can look very different for each person, and it doesn’t have to be eating kale, doing yoga, and going to the gym.”
When you struggle, remember it’s because you’re doing a good job. The devil will try to use your struggle to bring shame and guilt.
Jesus invites us in Matthew 11 to assess if we’re weary or burdened then to come to Him so He can give us rest.
Leaders are Learners
Habits to stay healthy:
- Going out once a week with girlfriends
- Using the Abide meditation app
- Taking a walk
- Playing music
- Buying a rotisserie chicken so she doesn’t have to cook at least once a week
Advice for Younger Leaders
- Remember that what’s inside of you is for real. Trust your instincts.
- Find a mentor.
- Invest in yourself.
“The leader sets the tone for the church or the organization as to what is okay to talk about.” – Esther Littlefield
What Laura’s learning
Other Episodes Mentioned:
- Episode 20: Three Reasons Boundaries are Critical for Leaders
- Episode 36: Ditching Balance for Surrender – How to Reduce Overwhelm as a Leader
- Episode 68: What You Need to Know About Becoming a Confident Leader
Connect with Laura Howe:
I’m Laura Howe; I’m a mompreneur who loves to go hiking and be in my garden, but I’m a bit of a clutz. Not the best combination.
I have been working as a registered social worker for 15 years and specialize in mental health, trauma and addictions. Facing difficult stories and a community with never-ending needs and tragedies I personally faced burnout and compassion fatigue.
Those were the most difficult 2 years of my life. But what the devil meant to destroy God used for good.
God birthed the idea of bringing the message of hope and His strength to the church as faith leaders are in service to their congregations and communities every day facing similar tragic stories and needs.
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