3 things religious leaders can do to protect their mental health

dr.  Ayana Jordan
Dr. Ayana Jordan speaks at a faith-based mental health summit hosted by the Mayor’s Office of Community and Faith-Based Partnerships at the International Laboratory for Interfaith Research at Teachers College, Columbia University on March 16, 2023. |

Fueled in part by the suicide of her church-leading uncle in 2021, Dr. Ayana Jordan, a Christian addiction psychiatrist, recommended several things religious leaders can put into practice to ensure they are “functioning optimally” as they work to serve their communities.

Jordan, who is also Barbara Wilson Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine, shared her professional wisdom with a group of religious leaders at a religious mental health summit hosted by the New York Mayor’s Office of Partnerships Community and Faith-Based at the International Interfaith Research Lab at Teachers College, Columbia University on Thursday.

“Therefore, we are not immune to the social isolation and emotional and psychological pressure that we are experiencing. [during the pandemic],” Jordan told the group as he urged religious leaders to “think of the soul as the source of inner life.”

“What are we feeding our source of life with to ensure it is functioning optimally?” she asked.

“I think about the essentials of our existence. Our physical, emotional, social, psychological and spiritual well-being. We cannot be fully focused on our spiritual well-being if we are not focused on our emotional, our physical. How can you care for others if you are not fed?” she postulated. “If your diabetes is out of control, if you are depressed, if you have insomnia? Therefore, really understanding our source of life must receive attention in all these elements.”

Jordan then explained how practicing gratitude, spending time in nature, and self-compassion can help religious leaders achieve better mental health.


“Really waking up every day and having a feeling of gratitude, really practicing gratitude and saying out loud: I’m so grateful for this. All day [works],” she explained.

“It’s not just having gratitude for the sake of gratitude, but actually changing it, training our brain to release negativity and replace it with positive thinking. And that happens in the limbic system, it’s structured inside a vein on either side of the thalamus that really allows you to release negative thoughts and focus on positivity.”

Spend time in nature

Breathing in fresh air outside is also very therapeutic, she added.

“Really thinking about how you can spend more time in nature, marvel at the greatness of God, his beauty and wonder, but also really take that time to breathe in natural oxygen,” she said. “We don’t have to go into town later to go to an oxygen bar and pay for oxygen. But being in nature and having the opportunity to actually breathe oxygen, allowing our minds to function optimally, allowing our hemoglobin to carry oxygen to places in our organs that we need to thrive.”

self compassion

Practicing self-compassion, she added, can help religious leaders and people in general avoid burnout.

“So protecting and myopicly focusing on ensuring these essential elements are in balance – the spiritual, emotional, psychological, social and physical – is being compassionate with ourselves. Just because we have a free hour doesn’t mean it should be overscheduled,” she says.

“Sometimes I look at my calendar and remember to start talking to my project coordinator. I said, ‘No, I just need one day.’ And I used to feel guilty about it. Like are you kidding me for a day for a black woman in America? Yes, walking around Harlem and bird watching. Pigeons. And be grateful for it.”

AR Bernard
Pastor AR Bernard speaks at a faith-based mental health summit hosted by the Mayor’s Office of Community and Faith-Based Partnerships at the International Laboratory for Interfaith Research at Teachers College, Columbia University on March 16, 2023. |

The Rev. AR Bernard, leader of the 40,000-member Christian Cultural Center in New York City, who has nearly 45 years of ministry experience, was also on a panel discussing best practices for optimal mental health and praised Adams for “boldly declaring his relationship with faith and the role that faith plays in his life.

He also thanked millennials for their work in helping to destigmatize the mental health discussion in the public square.

“When 9/11 happened, I got a call for a clergy meeting. Because what they found was that the first responders who were being traumatized by what they were dealing with, on a daily basis, was very intense. They didn’t want to meet with… a health or mental health professional,” he recalled.

“They wanted to meet their Imam, their pastor, their priest, a rabbi. That was almost 22 years ago, a lot has changed. One of the reasons they wanted to meet with their clergyman is because of the stigma associated with mental health and seeking mental health care,” he explained. “Thank you Millennials for removing the stigma. So now you can say, I’m going to see my therapist, or as my therapist told me the other day and not let people look at you funny. We’ve come a long way. But it was very real. Because along with many, many clergy, some of you here, we feel the stress that the trauma that 9/11 brought.”

Bernard also emphasized the need for pastors to take vacations as part of their self-care regimen.

“However you organize your life creates a rhythm. This rhythm establishes a pattern. If that pattern is healthy, great, keep the arrangement. But if that pattern is unhealthy and causes you deep stress and mental anguish, then you have to go back to the way your life is organized,” he said.

“The Sabbath was first and foremost a principle to be practiced before it became a religious identification for people. Because it was during the days of creation that God worked and then rested before there was an Israel. He rested,” explained Bernard.

“If we don’t understand the need to rest, then we organize our life, our time, in a way that obliges us to rest because the work will continue to expand over the time given to it. And if you don’t control that, you’re going to burn out,” she added.

Surveys conducted by the Barna Group in January 2021 and March 2022 showed that more pastors facing stress, loneliness, political divisions and other concerns, such as the declining church, considered quitting their jobs.

The proportion of pastors who seriously considered leaving full-time ministry in the past year increased from 29% in 2021 to 42% in March 2022.

Joe Jensen, vice president of engagement for the Barna church, told The Christian Post at the time that the growing number of pastors now looking to leave their full-time positions is cause for alarm.

“This particular statistic is the highest we’ve ever seen,” Jensen said, pointing to the burnout he believes many pastors are experiencing in the wake of the pandemic.

“We’ve been tracking that in our State of Pastors report that we did with Pepperdine University in 2016, 2017. We didn’t have that exact statistic, but we were tracking burnout. [And] pastors were feeling drained and the risk factors involved,” said Jensen.

In his presentation, Bernard explained that pastors’ failure to properly incorporate rest into their work can lead to unintended consequences.

“I’ve worked with pastors who burned out, caught a few just before they burned out. A church and pastor in particular, he worked for 30 years and took vacations, but he never took a Sabbath. So we actually created a policy and incorporated it into the corporation, the church corporation that requires a Sabbath every seven years, which means the pastor needs to take time off, not a beach vacation, but time to cool off, to renew, to strengthen, which included professional mental health counseling,” explained the Brooklyn pastor.

“And we created a document, and the church had the budget (sometimes a pastor can’t afford it) and the church made part of the budget. We have established this in our church as well. And it’s called a sabbatical policy. And sometimes, if you don’t do it structurally, it’s not going to happen.”

Contact: [email protected] Follow Leonardo Blair on Twitter: @lebloir Follow Leonardo Blair on Facebook: LeoBlairChristianPost

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3 things religious leaders can do to protect their mental health

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