A Conversation on Depression, Loneliness & Anxiety with Pastor Chris Hodges from Church of the Highlands
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Depression. Loneliness. Anxiety. They’re becoming recurring health issues in our culture—even among church leaders. The danger is the secret, being in the condition alone.
Lifeway Research found that 23% of pastors say they’ve had personal struggles with mental health. Still 49% said they rarely or never speak on the topic to their congregation.
Last year, my team at The Unstuck Group and I attended Gateway Conference in Dallas, and we heard Pastor Chris Hodges from Church of the Highlands give a compelling, practical talk on this subject.
I’ve shared my own struggles with seasons of anxiety throughout the years. Chris’ talk stood out to me because it was so well-researched, thoughtful and honest.
In this episode, Chris and I talked about some practical things he thinks all pastors need to know—both for your personal mental health and to guide your congregations through these prevalent challenges. Ruminating is one of the most dangerous parts of depression because you're dwelling on the negative and you're not involving anyone else in the discussion. via @chris_hodges Click To TweetMore than half the battle of any step of freedom is the acknowledgement of it and bringing it out into the open. via @chris_hodges Click To Tweet
In this conversation, we discussed:
- The role lifestyle plays in creating mental health challenges, the culture of comparison so many pastors live in, and how even your greatest victories can lead to your lowest lows
- The importance of changing the conversation and making it “ok to not be ok”
- Ruminating—what it means, how pastors are particularly susceptible to its damaging pattern (especially on Sunday night), and why it’s one of the most dangerous parts of depression
- Why you should be talking about mental health from the platform
- 4 practical next steps for leaders struggling with anxiety or depression, with personal examples from both Chris and me of how we have addressed these issues in seasons of our own lives
About Pastor Chris Hodges
Chris Hodges is founding and senior pastor of Church of the Highlands with campuses all across the state of Alabama. Since it began in 2001, Church of the Highlands has grown to more than 50,000 people attending and is known for its life-giving culture and focus on helping people on a clearly defined spiritual journey.
Leader Conversation Guide
Want to take this conversation back to a staff or senior leadership team meeting? Here are some sample questions and strategies to help you navigate the conversation:
- Are we talking about the issue of mental health in our church at all? Enough?
- Does our leadership have enough accountability and support in this area?
- Is our church a safe place for people to talk about mental health issues without stigma? How can it become better?
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We use #unstuckchurch on Twitter, and we start a real-time conversation each Wednesday morning when the episode drops. You can follow me @tonymorganlive and The Unstuck Group @unstuckgroup. If Facebook is where you spend your time, I’m there, too.
Links & Resources from the Episode
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Sean: 00:02 Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast where each week our team’s having a conversation about getting churches Unstuck. I’m your host Sean Bublitz and today on the podcast Pastor Chris Hodges from the Church of the Highlands, joins Tony for a discussion on mental health and church leaders. In this conversation, Tony and Chris share some new insights when it comes to mental health as well as address some of the misconceptions, especially when it comes to pastors and leaders in the church. It might help you as you listen to the episode to check out the show notes and download our leader guide to work through the content together with your team. You can find those at theunstuckgroup.com/episode 80. To make life a little easier. You can now subscribe to get the show notes in your inbox each week. You’ll get links to all the resources mentioned during the show, so you don’t have to write those down. You’ll get bonus resources not mentioned during the show to go deeper on the topic, you’ll also get that leader conversation guide to help you take the conversation back to your next senior leadership team, board or staff meeting. Just go to the theunstuckgroup.com/podcast. And now here’s the conversation with Tony and pastor Chris Hodges.
Tony: 01:02 Chris, it’s good to be with you today. I’m looking forward to today’s conversation. It’s actually based on a session I heard you teach when you were at the gateway conference last fall. And because of that, the focus is going to be on mental health and I’m going to jump into those questions in a moment, but because we’re talking about mental health and you’re from Birmingham, I’m wondering how you’re doing after the national championship game this year.
Chris: 02:03 Okay. So you can’t let anyone else know, but I’m actually doing extremely well because I’m an LSU Tiger and I real like it when The Crimson Tide loses. I could never tell my church that, but that’s, that’s the truth. So they’re not doing well, but I’m doing fantastic.
Tony: 02:03 All right, well, as I mentioned this conversation, it started just sitting in the crowd listening to you teach at the gateway conference and you were sharing a session with church leaders there about mental health and I wanted you to just start today if you could share some of what led you to choose that topic for that forum.
Chris: 02:03 Well, I am at the age now, Tony. I’ll be 56 this year that I’m, I’m kind of in the stage where a lot of the ministry that I’m trying to focus on is helping the younger pastors and it’s not to say that I’m going to stop doing what I’m doing, but I really find myself most satisfied when I’m investing in any other leaders, younger leaders and, so I do a lot of mentoring and a lot of coaching and we have a coaching network and, it’s just become a recurring issue of people’s pastors, depression, loneliness, even in some cases suicide. And of course at the time of the gateway conference, there had just recently been a pastor had taken his life out in California. And so I just felt like, you know, when, someone like me gets the opportunity to speak to pastors, why not just get real and deal with the issue?
Chris: 02:57 And I think one of the things that I’m learning too is that as long as it stays a secret, like that’s one of the biggest dangers of the whole thing. The danger is not being in the condition, it’s being in the condition alone and no one else knowing you’re going through it. And one of the points that I’ve made is that, you know, if I told you I had the flu, you know, a part of my body was sick and I had the flu. You would think nothing differently about me at all. Now he just got sick. He’s still a man of integrity and got a great ministry. But, when my mind, which really is just another organ in my body, it’s just another part of my body. If I told you it was sick, it’s almost as if you’re, hey, well, maybe he shouldn’t be doing ministry. And maybe, maybe there was something really wrong with him and it’s amazing how there is no case can it be normalized to a place. So what does a pastor going to do because their ministry is so public, they’re going to tuck it in, hide it, and only gets worse when you do that.
Tony: 03:59 For sure. So, I know in preparation for the session at gateway, you explained that you’re by no means an expert when it comes to mental health issues, but it sounded like you did do a lot of research in preparation for that talk and I’m curious to hear and if you would be willing to share some of the things that you learned that pastors need to know when it comes to this topic.
Chris: 04:22 Well, one of the greatest things I learned, and I didn’t learn this from many Christian related materials, this was secular materials is that it’s very lifestyle related. So we bring this own ourselves by our sedentary life, by being indoors too much. Even some of the research that’s been done on this topic talk about how it never, like depression doesn’t exist in any form in cultures where people are gathering food or hunting for food, like there’s something about our indoor, the pace of life, even the screen time that we spend, all of that is pouring into this condition. And so that was probably not only one of the most eye-opening, but it was also one of the most encouraging because if it’s lifestyle, if it was created by a lifestyle situation then it can be fixed by lifestyle situation.
Tony: 05:17 That’s good. That’s good. Anything else as far as your research into the topic? Chris, you want to share?
Chris: 05:25 The main thing is that especially for pastors because of the social media culture, I call it the culture of comparison. Even when you’re on your best, you had your best weekend, you’ve had your, you had a great Sunday. I mean, people’s lives were changed, man. All you have to do is go to someone else’s post and you now all of a sudden feel bad about everything you’ve ever done and then you get in your own head and start having that self-talk that is so dangerous and you don’t share, and of course one of the illustrations I used in the session I did at gateway was Elijah had one of his greatest victories, you know, at Mount Carmel and then was ready to take his life the very next chapter and I think that’s what pastors and leaders face is that it doesn’t really necessarily come in the lowest of lows when something bad happened or it can actually come after your highest of highs.
Tony: 06:26 So obviously there’s a stigma and you’ve already referred to it around mental health issues. Culturally among church leaders is probably even more heightened. But how do we start to change that then as pastors and church leaders?
Chris: 06:41 Well, I think what I tried to do is just say hey, let’s talk about it. And then one of the phrases that I said that I want to keep saying to not only to pastors but also the members of our church, that it’s okay not to be okay. It’s just okay not to be okay. And the reason why it has to be okay not to be okay is because none of us are okay. And so if it’s not okay, then none of us can be none of us. I mean, because depression is actually defined as a mood disorder characterized by Anhedonia, sadness, sleep problems, loss of appetite, hopelessness. Well, I have that. So if I don’t acknowledge something, then I can’t be free from something. I truly believe that more than half of the battle of any step of freedom is the acknowledgement of it. And just kind of bring it out in the open, you know, I mean Geez. But in the Bible James says in chapter five that if you’ll confess your faults one to another, you’ll be healed. And it’s interesting that when you take the step of not having it, even between you and God, if you have the courage to bring it out even to someone else and say, I’m not okay. I believe you’re already far along in the pathway to healing.
Chris: 07:59 So one of the things that jumped out to me, and this is honestly Chris, based on some of the mental health challenge I’ve personally wrestled with in the past and primarily around issues of anxiety. And this term jumped out to me because of that experience because it was really something that drove anxiety issues that I have faced in the past. You specifically talked about the term ruminating and I was hoping you could unpack that. What does that mean? Why did you specifically call that out and how, how does that express itself, especially in church leaders?
Chris: 08:39 Well, ruminating is a medical term, a scientific term that doctors and psychologists use about your self-talk and they call it ruminating from ruminating animals like a cow. A cow chews it’s cud. So a cow will grab a piece of grass, chew it up, swallow it, and regurgitate it, chew it some more, swallow it, regurgitate, chew, chew it some more. Okay? That’s, that is ruminating. So we all have bad days, everybody and we all have things that are going on that they wish they wish wouldn’t have happened. But when we start ruminating, what we’re doing is, is we’re chewing it, lets me go sit here and think about it for awhile and at the start, Tony, that’s not bad, but it can get very bad very soon because now I’m thinking about it and usually when you think about it, it never gets better.
Chris: 09:28 It only gets worse. So, but then you swallow it. Okay, I’m going to tuck that away. But then we regurgitate it, we bring it back up and think about it some more. And as I pointed out in that session, every time you regurgitate it, it gets more gross. It’s just, it’s just gross. Like. And so here’s the definition. Rumination is the focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, opposed to focusing on the solutions to your distress. So when you’re ruminating, you’re not even thinking about how to solve it, you’re only thinking about how it got there and it just never leads to a good place. Now let me give you my confession and I think this is true of a lot of pastors and that is, I ruminate almost every Sunday night because even again on our best Sundays, I thought, wow, if we had done this song instead of that song and if we would have abandoned, I preach too long here and man, if I wouldn’t have said that sentence, oh, and I forgot to say this sentence, that was my best line.
Chris: 10:25 And next thing I know I’m in this self-talk of, again, focusing on my distress instead of solutions, not celebrating the good things but the bad and it just never gets better. And next thing I know, and I’ve told my wife this Tony, my darkest times are on Sunday nights, Monday mornings from the weekend, even when we’ve had amazing services. And so I think ruminating, all the research I did own ruminating is, it’s one of the most dangerous parts of depression. Because you’re dwelling on negative and you’re not involving anybody else in the discussion.
Tony: 11:02 All right, so with this foundation in mind, Chris, would you mind just highlighting a few of the strategies that you shared to help leaders protect their mental health?
Chris: 11:21 Well, based on the secular research I learned since it is lifestyle related, you have to first look at your own personal lifestyle. Are you getting out in the Sun Enough? How’s your diet? I mean all the things people don’t really need me to tell them, but maybe just remind them that all of that, your sleep patterns, all of that plays a major role in your mental health. So you have to get healthy physically. Now I’ll just be very honest for me to get healthy physically, I’ve always had to involve somebody else. I hate working out. So I pay somebody months I even give them months of installments. Not, not, not, not individual installments. Because once that brother has my money, I’m going to show up. I’m showing up for that workout because he’s got my money and I didn’t do it because he knows how to work out. He did. This trainer isn’t better at working out that I can do it on my own. I’m not buying his insight.
Chris: 12:12 I’m buying accountability, and most of us just need some form of accountability in our lifestyle related things. That’s, that’s number one. The second would be, I would say is that you have to get honest. I truly believe that forgiveness comes from God, but healing comes from others. So first, John, one nine, if we confess our sins to God, he’s faithful and just to cleanse us from all unrighteousness, but James 5:16 says, confess to another person and you will be healed. So you go to God for forgiveness, but you’ve got to go to God’s people for healing. There has to be somebody in your life who knows your secrets. Let me say it this way. If you’re the only one who knows your secrets, you’re in trouble. Yeah, whoever’s listening to this, if you’re the only one who knows your secrets, you’re in trouble.
Chris: 13:02 And the third is, every time I’ve had a dark time in my life, vision has been the best thing to bring me out of it. So when I get a fresh infusion of a project or something I want to build, or I just feel like God’s still working through my life. And so that’s what you see by the way, in Elijah’s life after, after God nursed Elijah back to health from his depression moment, he gave him an assignment, next alright you’re gonna go see this king. Go see that king. And he gave him an assignment. And I think where there is no vision, the people perish. And so I think as I look back, every time I’ve had my darkest times it was just when my vision got stale, or I got complacent or I stopped dreaming. But every time Tony I start dreaming again. It’s truly, it’s powerful help how it works in our lives.
Tony: 13:57 Yeah. And for me personally, just to extend that a little bit, Chris, what I have found is when I am wrestling with issues of anxiety, it’s all the focus internally is on myself and the expansion of vision that I need is to look outward and to start serving others. And initially when I’m doing that, there’s nothing in me that wants to take that step. That’s what I have found is when I turned the focus out to others and start to serve them their needs using the gifts God’s given me, I start to lose the focus on my own internal challenges that I’m wrestling with. And there’s a healing that happens through that. So Chris, there are two reasons that I wanted to have this conversation with you today. One is just for all of the pastors and church leaders that are listening in and hopefully to be an encouragement for them to take some next steps. But my sense is this, these challenges for church leaders aren’t just for church leaders, that there are leaders in our churches that are facing the same challenge. And so I’m, I’m curious, have you had this conversation with people in your congregation at the Church of the Highlands and if so, how did you approach it?
Chris: 15:15 Well, interestingly enough, before I brought the message to the gateway conference I did a non-pastors version of it for our church and it now, so there’s been about five months that has now passed and it is our most rewatched message times about 30. So the need is massive for leaders like you and me and others to speak out on this because yes, this is not just a pastor issue, it’s an issue that our young people are facing at an increasing level, again, generated by indoors, sedentary a social media fast food laden type lifestyles and among other things, but you think about business leaders, men and women who have the pressures of their job and the pressures of their family know this is, in my opinion and many agree with this, the number one health issue in our country today.
Chris: 16:17 And so yeah, this is not at all, just to spiritual leaders. It’s for everyone and I think we ought to speak out on it. And I think that the most important step is to not demonize it, is as soon as when I say normalize, that I’m not saying to say, oh, it’s okay, it’s normal. I’m saying no, just make it okay to talk about, normalize it. And I think that’s the most important step.
Tony: 16:42 That’s a good word. Chris. Any other final thoughts on this topic today?
Chris: 16:47 The one thing I would want everyone to hear is please be sure you’re talking to someone. Just let someone else take a peek on the inside of your deepest thoughts. And honestly, Tony, this is women are a little bit more likely to do this than men are. So let me just call the men out and say, I’m talking to you too. It’s very important to share your deepest thoughts and even some of your deepest failures with at least one other person.
Tony: 17:11 Very good. Thank you Chris.
Chris: 17:14 My pleasure.
Sean: 17:15 Well, thanks for joining us today for this very important conversation for church leaders. We would love your help in getting this episode out to other leaders who might need to hear it. You can do that by sharing on social media and we have some easy ways to share on our podcast page at theunstuckgroup.com/episode 80. If you have any questions about this topic or any of our episodes, you can use the Hashtag #unstuckchurch and post them to your favorite social media channel. We would love to hear from you. As always, if you’d like to learn more about how The Unstuck Group is helping churches get unstuck, you can visit us at theunstuckgroup.com. Have a great week everyone.