Pastors are human too: The mental health struggles some church leaders face
Screenshots from interviews with Pastor Andre Tan and Jennifer Heng.
* TRIGGER WARNING: THIS ARTICLE MENTIONS SUICIDE *
He was a newlywed and a newly appointed pastor. She was a go-getter leader, pregnant while pioneering a new church.
They were each leading seemingly picture-perfect lives – people others would never have thought to be suicidal.
But mental illnesses do not discriminate. At what others would deem as the peak of their lives, both of these individuals fell into depression.
Conversations to reduce stigma and overcome misconceptions when it comes to mental illnesses are sorely needed today — especially within the Church.
That is why Pastor Andre Tan (31) and former pastor Jennifer Heng (45) opened up about their mental health journeys to fellow church leaders at the Christian Mental Health Conference earlier this year.
Pastor Andre was only 27 years old when he took over a congregation of 250 people.
Eager to prove himself, he would spend many nights in his first year of pastoring the church working into the wee hours.
Even though Pastor Andre saw the warning signs, he thought he did the “right thing” by further burying himself in work.
“I thought to myself, ‘If I were to leave my church, what would happen to my people?’” he shared.
“If people actually knew I was struggling, would they still have confidence in me? As a leader, they would gradually lose respect for me.”
Similarly, Jennifer was also going through a number of life transitions when mental illness struck.
Describing herself as a workaholic with a strong inner drive, Jennifer took on the challenge of pastoring a new church in the same year that she was pregnant. She was concurrently planning to release a book of her own too.
Joking that she was giving birth to three babies in the same year, she initially enjoyed the challenge. However, things took a turn post-pregnancy.
“When my daughter was born, it was both exhilarating and frightening,” she confessed. “I barely slept, and there were days when I would leave my baby in the cot, go to the next room and just scream.
“I thought I was going crazy.”
Stress and guilt continued to pile up as Jennifer struggled to juggle her different commitments.
“Every evening I spent with my church was an evening away from my young baby,” she recalled. “And I cried every time I could not tuck her into bed because I was in a meeting with someone else.”
“There were days I felt like a hero and there were days I felt like zero,” she confessed.
I’M NOT OKAY
While Pastor Andre and Jennifer were aware of their declining mental health, they both didn’t realise they needed help until serious health scares struck.
Pastor Andre was preaching a sermon when his wife received a call from the doctor who urged them to get to the hospital as soon as possible.
“The doctor was surprised to see that I was still functioning because my blood work suggested that I would show up delirious and severely weak at least,” recalled Pastor Andre. “It actually showed that I was at risk of a stroke.”
Ironically, Pastor Andre had been preaching about the power of God and unanswered prayer that morning.
“I remember it was a whirlwind of a day,” he recalled. “I was also trying to reconcile what I had just spoken about that morning with what was happening to me.”
The following day, Pastor Andre spiralled down a rabbit hole of negative thoughts. For the first time, he contemplated suicide.
It seems irrational now, he admitted, but death felt like the most “logical” decision then. After struggling for a few hours, he decided to turn to social media to distract himself.
That was when he received his wake-up call: “I believe it was divine provision that I chanced upon an article about a young lead pastor — who was about my age — who after a prolonged bout of depression with mental illness, committed suicide in his office leaving behind three boys and his wife.
“And I thought to myself this is not this is something that I absolutely don’t want to do to my wife – we were newly married!”
The signs were even more apparent for Jennifer. Suicidal thoughts would often linger from a few minutes to a few days, crippling her.
“On my worst days, I’ll be lying in bed, curtains drawn, way past lunchtime, terrified of getting out of bed,” she said, recounting how she feared she would act on her suicidal thoughts if she got out of bed.
While Jennifer began confiding about her mental state to her husband and her friends, they initially didn’t think that it was a problem – she had always been a strong and optimistic person, and had bounced back from major setbacks in the past.
But as the dark thoughts continued, Jennifer became both irritable and impatient.
At work, she also struggled with making decisions and recalled sitting in front of an email for an hour because she was too emotionally overwhelmed to even type a simple reply.
The realisation that she needed help came after an uneventful day at work.
“I remember standing in the train, holding the handle and suddenly my hands began to tremble uncontrollably,” Jennifer described.
“I knew that was definitely not the Holy Spirit. So I sent a text message to a close friend who was also a professional counsellor. The life-saving reply that he sent back was: ‘Do you want to come and see me tomorrow?’”
After that visit, Jennifer was diagnosed with depression.
THE FIGHT OF THEIR LIVES
Following his wake-up call, Pastor Andre began to take care of and work on his mental health.
“Growing up, I heard things like ‘you don’t burn out, you burn on’,” he recalled. “And so, I always believed struggling with burnout was incompatible with faith.”
Pastors go to church more than anyone in the congregation, Pastor Andre pointed out. But they are not immune to emotional brokenness or mental health challenges.
Pastors go to church more than anyone… but they are not immune to emotional brokenness or mental health challenges.
“And so our goal of mental wellness cannot be separate or distinct from our goal of spiritual maturity,” urged Pastor Andre. “If we desire to experience the promise of Scripture – of life in all its fullness – then we must be whole in our body, soul and spirit.”
To do so, Pastor Andre embraced exercise and counselling. He began keeping the Sabbath, learnt to rest and started talking to different pastors.
Even though Pastor Andre is much better now, he still struggles from time to time. But that’s when the disciplines he implemented help him to cope.
As for Jennifer, she went on hospitalisation leave and decided to step away from her role as a pastor to focus on her recovery.
It was a huge decision to make — becoming a single-income family — but a necessary one. This decision freed Jennifer up to focus on what really mattered to her.
Taking one day at a time, she found that what motivated her to “stay alive” were her family and writing her book.
“That gave me hope. I wanted to stay alive. I really wanted to,” she revealed. “I want to see my daughter grow up and see this project take off. And now with the help and support of those around me, I had a fighting chance.”
A year after being diagnosed with depression, she was reassessed by her counsellor, and the results showed that she was in the clear.
It’s been six years since then. Today, Jennifer is the Director of Safe Place, which helps women with unsupported pregnancies make life-giving choices.
She maintains a three-day work week and has a lot more capacity to manage the demands of her work and ministry.
“I have not had a suicidal thought for years and I love life,” Jennifer said proudly. “Even on the hardest days, I now have greater awareness of my emotions and weaknesses, and I can reach out for help when needed.”
Encouraging fellow pastors and church leaders in the session, she closed with a special word of encouragement.
Jennifer shared that when people are in a dark place, they think they’ve been buried — but they’ve actually been “planted”.
“When I crashed and landed in that dark valley that I could not imagine getting out of, I thought it was the end,” she said. “But what I thought was the end was actually a new beginning.
“So I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
If you’re feeling troubled and would like to chat with someone, help is available at these centres:
- Samaritans of Singapore (SOS): 1-767 (1-SOS) (24-hour) | [email protected]| m.me/SamaritansofSingapore
- Institute of Mental Health: 6389-2222 (24-hour)
- National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868
- Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
- Care Corner Counselling Centre (English and Mandarin): 6353 1180
- TOUCHline (Counselling): 1800-377-2252
- Fei Yue’s Online Counselling Service: ec2.sg
- Tinkle Friend by Singapore Children’s Society: 1800-274-4788 | tinklefriend.sg (online chat)
- Silver Ribbon Singapore: 6385-3714
THINK + TALK
- When was the last time you checked in on your pastor or church leader?
- What are some ways you can support your pastor or church leader?
- Pray for your pastor or church leader today, then go and be a blessing to him or her this week.