Rev. Austin Adkinson
I’m not going to say everything went perfectly. I’m not going to say it was easy. But about three years ago I asked my District Superintendent for help with my anxiety disorder, and I’m glad I did. I said yes to the request to write about my experience in this column with the hope that you or someone you love might get help sooner rather than later.
I’ve tried to be fairly public about why I went on medical leave. It would have been my right to keep my medical information private. However, too many people suffer through mental health issues feeling isolated and alone for fear of judgment, stigmatization, professional repercussions, and myriad other reasons that tend to only make their problems worse. Clergy are no exception to this. In fact, we are more vulnerable to mental health problems than people in many vocations, in part because of the ever-growing stresses of this work and our perceived need to appear as if our lives are in perfect order.
I’m not going to throw a bunch of statistics about clergy mental health at you. Deep down, I think we all suspect how prevalent the problem is even if we don’t know what to do about it. If you’re one of the people who needs the encouragement to ask for help, you probably know the problem is real but fear what trouble stating the problem aloud might bring.
I was afraid of the damage that asking for help might do to my standing with the appointive cabinet and the future of my ministry in our conference. But what I learned was that being transparent about my anxiety disorder has made me a better leader, not worse. We follow Christ, who in their time on earth modeled a leadership of vulnerability, “to the point of death— even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8, NRSV).
Showing my weakness has opened others to sharing their vulnerabilities with me, and together we have the opportunity to step into more fulfilling ministry. This has extended beyond mental health concerns into other types of shared vulnerabilities, but for the purposes of this Clergy Wellness Corner I’m going to focus there. I can’t even count the number of colleagues who, after I began disclosing my condition, told me they too have anxiety and how they work to manage it. Others have asked me if what they or a loved one is experiencing sounds like anxiety. The richness and life-giving opportunities those conversations provide far outweigh any stigma or career sidetracks I faced. Looking for help sooner rather than later can make all the difference.
If I had learned more about anxiety and recognized it sooner, I might not have needed to take time away from pastoring a congregation. Personal relationships that were damaged because of my delay in treatment might have gone better. I’ll never know what might have happened, but I’m choosing not to worry about the past, because finally I am able to let it go. I pray that if you are someone in need of care for a mental health concern God will help you find the courage to seek it. Or if in the course of our stressful ministries you end up noticing symptoms in yourself that you would recommend someone else seek help for, please heed your own advice.
I don’t think there is any good reason that would be worth preventing a pastor from seeking mental health services, but I know many of the barriers that feel like they stand in the way. We have fairly reasonable mental health coverage through our conference insurance, so the cost of therapy doesn’t have to be as hard as it feels like it might be. Congregations are much more understanding than we give them credit for. Naming your weakness doesn’t mean it will be used against you. I’ve been open about my condition from day one at my current appointment, and it has opened so many doors. Also, when I was on medical leave, I received 70% of my previous income with the cabinet working hard to make sure I got that benefit. Money was tight, yes, but the quality of life more than made up for the difference.
The greatest barrier for me was anxiety about whether the cabinet would trust me when I returned to the appointment system. I’m pleased to say that I’m now in my second year of an incredible appointment, doing ministry that is well aligned with my calling. Life is better on the other side.
Blessings as you face whatever challenges stand between you, your well-being, and your best ministry. We’re in it together. It is an honor to serve in this conference with each of you, so let’s plan on being well enough to do so for many years to come.
Rev. Austin Adkinson serves as pastor of Haller Lake United Methodist Church in Seattle, Washington.