By Eddie Pipkin
I received an email in response to last week’s blog, “The Twisties,” which expressed disappointment in my take on the topic. The writer understood my interest in promoting mental health ministries for local churches but lamented the lack of guidance for leaders who are finding themselves in the grip of The Twisties right now. The first blog was about Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, her frank revelation that she was dealing with a mental health issue that was preventing her from competing, and a broader discussion of the role of the local church in helping people face their own mental health struggles with courage and hope. Well, if you are a leader who is dealing with your own mental health issue right now, Simone Biles’ path to recovery offers a solid template with useful lessons we can all put into practice.
Tracking the dramatic development of Biles’ story, there was significant discussion in the international news media about the importance of acknowledging mental health concerns, their impact on athletes and other professionals, and the need to take them seriously and seek professional guidance. This discussion was good. Our blog last week, in fact, became part of that worldwide discussion – the focus was on building a culture within our organizations that takes these mental health issues seriously and empowers people to deal with them honestly and receive support when they do so.
What was covered less in the media and may be helpful to leaders who are currently dealing with their own mental health struggles is Simone Biles’ response to her own flare-up of The Twisties and how she dealt with them so that she could move forward with renewed health in her personal and professional life. She did this (as she has done before, we discovered, as more of her story was revealed) with the guidance of trusted coaches. She took a specific series of steps, and they are steps that could be generally applied to anyone facing any version of The Twisties, regardless of profession or context:
- She withdrew from what she felt was an unsafe space. She removed herself from the setting that she perceived was unhealthy and risky. This was not an easy decision. There was a lot at stake, and the pressure to perform was intense. She understood – and critically, she was supported in her decision by other people around her who understood – that the danger outweighed the potential benefits of taking the risk. So, she dropped out of the competition, despite the enormous expectations that her team and her nation had placed upon her.
For ministry leaders, when we are facing a mental health crisis, it can be equally important to take a step back from our duties. Sometimes this should take the form of stepping back completely for days or weeks. Sometimes it might mean stepping back in limited form, perhaps only from the duties that are causing the crisis. Preaching comes to mind, since it is an excellent example of a performative duty that carries outsized expectations. It’s also a duty that is manageable to step back from for a time if we are humble in asking for help. And help is critical to this process – the process of stepping back from any of our assigned responsibilities.
It is important to note that while we tend to frame this decision in terms of the harm posed to ourselves if we continue in an unhealthy environment, we have a fiduciary responsibility to the people we shepherd to realize that an ongoing undealt-with mental health issue means we might be making decisions that put other people at risk or do lasting damage to our teams. This was, in fact, one of the metrics that Simone Biles cited for withdrawing from competition: she thought a poor performance might cost her teammates a medal.
What might our refusal to deal with our own mental health issues cost our teammates and the people we have been entrusted to lead?
- She retreated to the circle of people who could protect her and hold her best interests at heart. She relied on trusted allies to support her and trained professionals to tweak her training in ways that would move her forward. This is the means by which she was able to ignore the cacophony of commentators and casual sports fans with a ‘hot take’ on her very personal decision.
For ministry leaders, it is essential that we have a trusted circle of allies who will support us – who hold our best interests at heart – who have our backs – and who also are familiar enough with our professional obligations that they are able to offer sound advice. If you are part of a connectional system, there should be a clear framework in place that offers this kind of help and support. There are optimally people above us in the command chain and partnered with us at the local level who can help navigate this territory. A strong Staff/Pator-Parish Relations Committee can make all the difference, and the groundwork for building a functional SPRC really pays off in times of crisis. But it should be noted that the reality is it is ultimately up to us as leaders to build that circle of trusted, safe advisors, mentors, colleagues, and friends to whom we can reveal our authentic selves with our authentic struggles. By doing so we insulate ourselves from those times we will inevitably find ourselves in dysfunctional contexts.
If you find yourself facing a mental health crisis, and you do not find help in the organization you are serving, and you have not built an independent network of support onto which you can fall back safely, try to identify at least one or two persons who can serve as an emergency resource. Do not be shy in seeking such assistance.
- She spoke honestly and authentically about her struggle. Even under an unimaginably intense media glare, she told her story. She did it with grace. She did it succinctly. There is freedom in being able to tell our story honestly, difficult though this kind of sharing always is.
Talking about it is the crucial first step. We must promote cultures in which people can share without fear of judgment.
For ministry leaders, this can be a hard step. We must come clean about our struggles. We can do this in steps that make it easier, coming clean first to our most trusted confidantes (which hopefully include a spiritual director or some other person with whom we are regularly engaged and fully honest). If we need to, we take our story to the appropriate organizational leadership and ask for their support and help. If we need to, we tell a version of it to the congregation we serve. This final step is courageous because of the vulnerability it requires, but it may also be a witness to an issue that holds down many of the people that we serve. In freeing ourselves from the shackles of things we feel have been previously unsayable, we may be giving them permission to break their own shackles.
- To get past The Twisties, she returned to basic disciplines in a safe space in order to regain the kinesthesia required for a safe return to competition. In Simone Biles’ case, she found a local training gym that allowed her to practice routines with deep padding all around, so that she could fall safely as she re-trained her brain.
We all need a safe place to fall when we’re struggling. We can all benefit from faithfully returning to our most basic disciplines when we are struggling. Our safe circle of advisors will help us figure out the best strategy for easing back into the familiar (and suddenly frightening) routines. We withdraw – we take a time-out – to get healthy. But this does not mean just checking out completely. Perhaps a small season of that kind of full-scale withdrawal can be very useful. But taking Biles as our guide, the reestablishment of our skills comes from practicing them in fundamental form repeatedly, just in a safer environment.
I love that word, kinesthesia, by the way. It refers to the muscle memory that builds up over time, when performing a discrete physical skill. So, too, we can go back and explore the basics of leadership and pastoral skills, thus renewing our first love and remembering what we do well as a path to moving past the challenge before us.
- She returned to competition. She did this in a limited form that embraced risk, but in a manner that eased her back into the pressure and stress of her calling. In her case, she chose to compete on the balance beam, and in the end, she won a bronze medal for that performance. Doing a routine on the beam was safer than flying through the air while twisting and tumbling. Still, it was not without risk. After careful consideration and the requisite work, she faced that challenge with style.
For ministry leaders, a mental health challenge does not need to mean the end of the road. We do not need to be so debilitated that we give up. Nor do we need to be so stoic in ignoring the clear signs of our struggles that we implode in self-destruction. Sadly, we have all seen that happen to colleagues we loved and respected. Let’s do what we can to keep it from happening in the future. Let’s uplift and encourage one another to face our mental health issues with honesty. Let’s do the hard work of recovery and healing together.
As leaders, let’s look out for our own mental health, understanding this self-care as a spiritual good – understanding that so many people depend on us to be a good example and to take care of ourselves so that we can provide the best possible (and most holy) leadership.
Let us also pledge to build leadership systems within our congregations that promote mental health: places where people can honestly share their struggles and get help and support as help and support is needed.
These steps, as demonstrated by Simone Biles, can be applied in any local ministry context. Yes, they will take different forms. Yes, the challenges will be wildly different in different communities, different leadership structures, and different levels of expectations. But the principles will be the same.