Some Practical Tips for Church Leaders to Cultivate Mental Well-Being in a Time of Stress, Anxiety, and Panic

I recently had the opportunity to participate in an online workshop presented by the Center for Congregations on the topic “Supporting Others in a Time of Stress, Anxiety, and Panic.” The guest speaker, Dr. Hillary McBride, a licensed therapist, presented numerous practical ways in which church leaders can help their congregations and community with the stress and worry they may be feeling during these anxious days of Covid-19. Dr. McBride pointed out that while we cannot always change our environment or circumstances, we can control our reactions; we can adjust how we respond to stress in healthy ways. Dr. McBride first shared some tips for how leaders can cultivate mental well-being in their congregations and communities, and then she also included some self-care tips for church workers. Here is a brief summary of her suggestions:

How to Cultivate Mental Well-Being in Your Congregation and Community

  • Lead with Vulnerability: First, church leaders should be open to acknowledging their own feelings, fears, and concerns in an honest and calm way with their congregation members. Dr. McBride refers to this as “leading with vulnerability.” When church leaders model the ability to pinpoint and call out their emotions in a coolheaded way, it helps others realize they are not alone, that what they are feeling may be normal, and it allows them to also open up and talk through their feelings instead of stuffing them down or covering them up in unhealthy ways. An example might be: “I’m feeling frustrated because there are a couple of people in the hospital that I cannot visit now due to Covid-19 and I really want to provide them with spiritual care in their time of need.”
  • Allow Others to Talk it Out: One healthy way for people to discharge stress is to talk it out in a safe space with another who is willing to simply listen. Is there a shut-in or other member in your church who lives alone who may be feeling extra isolated in this time of physical distancing and could benefit from a phone call? In the course of your conversation, see if you can help the other person verbalize God’s continued goodness in the midst of difficulties. You can ask, “How have you seen God working in your life lately even in the midst of what’s going on around us?” The other person may respond with something like: “I am blessed to have some good neighbors. One of them has checked in with me by phone and brought me dinner one evening. I really appreciated that. I can see God is caring for me through my neighbor.” Naming our blessings helps break the cycle of negative thinking and self-talk that often contribute to our anxiety or depressed mood.
  • Exhibit Empathy and Normalize Responses When Responding: To help those feeling anxious to relax and feel connected, church leaders can listen with empathy and normalize responses. As you listen try to pinpoint the underlying emotions the other person is trying to describe and the reason(s) for it, and then reflect it back in a statement, such as: “You feel scared because you have COPD and that makes you more vulnerable to the virus.” Then normalize the response by saying something like: “Your response is natural and makes sense.” Or “That’s a normal reaction in these circumstances. Thank you for sharing that.” These types of responses calm anxiety because they make others feel as if they’ve been heard and understood and that they are not alone in what they’re experiencing.
  • Encourage Creative Expression as a Healthy Outlet for Stress: Expressing ourselves in creative ways helps the brain make sense of things and helps discharge the stress from our bodies. Encourage people to sing, play an instrument, dance, doodle, paint, journal, etc. Visual Faith Ministry has some wonderful resources for journaling, coloring, and creating visual art as a way to reflect on God’s faithfulness in our lives. These resources can be accessed on their website:
  • Guide Others in Lament: Now is a great time to study some of the Psalms of lament, the book of Job, or the book of Lamentations. How could you weave some of these Biblical texts which show us how to express our lament to God into your online sermons, devotions, Bible studies, or newsletter articles?
  • Teach Grounding Skills that Release Stress: Our bodies hold stress in a variety of places and the body releases stress signals which affect the brain and the way we perceive and think about things. There are some physical things we can encourage others to do to relieve this stress and decrease anxiety levels. Perhaps you can include some of these suggestions in your next email, video recording, or newsletter to your congregation:
    1. Breathe deeply from the belly by slowly breathing in through the nose, holding your breath for a second, and then slowly exhaling through the mouth. Repeat these cleansing breaths several times. This improves circulation, allowing oxygenated blood to flow into the places of tension in the body.
    2. Touch: Touch releases the hormone oxytocin that promotes the feeling of well-being. Getting the amount of physical touch we need to feel good may be more challenging for some people during this time of physical distancing. While at home hug your partner, and your kids as you are able, and give your dog an extra belly rub. If you live alone, give yourself a foot massage, rub your neck, massage your temples, apply lotion to your hands and rub it in slowly, or hug yourself. Research shows that self-touch also releases oxytocin in beneficial levels. This is great information to share with your members living in nursing homes!
    3. Exercise: Stretching, doing housework, puttering around in the yard, taking a walk around the block, etc. all help flush out stress hormones to some degree. The point is to keep moving.

Church Worker Self-Care Tips for Mental Well-Being

Dr. McBride also offered suggestions for church worker self-care during this stressful time. Church workers are often so focused on caring for others that they often neglect to take time to take care of themselves Dr. McBride recommends that church workers schedule regular self-check-ins involving the following:

  • Track Your Own Emotions: Take time to self-reflect on how you are feeling and own those feelings. In caring for another, did what that person say or do trigger an emotional response in you that you could not express at the time? Take time to reflect, acknowledge, and release those emotions in some of the healthy ways mentioned above.
  • Allow Yourself to Receive Care and Ask for Help as Needed: For church workers, the old adage “It’s easier to give than receive” often rings true. If a member of your congregation has offered to bring you a meal, help with phone calls, or assist in any way, graciously accept the offer. In doing so, you will bless that person and you will be blessed too. If you are feeling overwhelmed, what small task might you be able to delegate to another staff person or congregation member in order to ease your load?

The concern for people’s mental and emotional well-being during this time of physical distancing as a result of Covid-19 is growing stronger, especially since the time frame for when we might be able to meet again in person and conduct regular worship services is being extended. By communicating and practicing some of the above-mentioned tips, church leaders can help promote the mental well-being of their church members, community, and also themselves. Perhaps some of what we implement now will have a lasting impact for the greater good above what we can even imagine. May God grant it to be so.

Written by: Deaconess Carole Terkula, Ministry Associate at The Lutheran Foundation