“Today pastors are generally more open about their struggles than previous generations, but we still sense there is a threshold that is not to be crossed. People want open, honest and real, but not too much. Generally churches want just enough so they feel safe with you, but not so much that it spoils the expectations they have of you.”
-Matt Boswell, 10 Things Pastors Hate to Admit
What happens when the person who is supposed to be a shepherd and guide to healing for others is sick and in desperate need of healing himself?
This is the story of my friend, Tim Guptill.
In 2016, Tim’s church in New Brunswick, Canada did a series on fear and anxiety.
Each of the 4 weeks, a different pastor at the church shared their own journey in that area. (Sidenote: There’s a stigma which infects church attendees across the country. Matt Boswell mentions it in the quote above. The stigma goes something like this: “Surely, a pastor wouldn’t battle the same things I battle.” These pastors were doing their part to break the stigma.)
Tim’s got up one of those Sundays and told his story.
“On my Sunday, I talked about different times when I thought I was dying. One time I was drowning, another time was when I felt like I was having a heart attack and was rushed to the emergency room. I had set up the punchline where people were waiting to hear what happened. I told them ‘it wasn’t a heart attack; it was a panic attack.’ People saw me differently after that day. They realized I was human, with similar struggles to their own.“
NOTE: This is part three of a four-part series of articles about subjects which deserve greater attention in our culture. Part one was about burnout, part two was about anxiety. Today’s post is about asking for help.
Battling Anxiety as a Pastor
Tim and I chatted recently about his battle with anxiety and the impact it has had on his health, family and work as a pastor.
“Up until late 2016, I hadn’t hit the wall yet. I was still trying to beat it, managing it myself. I was doing this without counseling or medication. I made changes I could control. I identified my anxiety triggers, doing my best to neutralize or eliminate them. But it didn’t solve things.”
Tim has been battling anxiety since college. But in 2013, he stepped into the lead pastor role at a new church, following a beloved, long-tenured senior pastor. In an 18-month period, he buried his father and his brother. Lots of factors contributed to the growing sense of anxiety and panic in his life.
Sliding Off a Cliff
During our conversation, Tim told me about how things came to a head in the fall of 2016.
“Last September and October, it felt like I was sliding off a cliff. Nothing I was doing was helping. I called my doctor; he recommended therapy and medication. I started seeing a Christian counselor, which was super helpful and clarifying. He prescribed the right medication to adjust the chemical imbalances on my brain. I began recognizing I wasn’t strong enough to fix this on my own.“
But as great as that outcome was, it came after Tim made a big decision. As he felt like he was slipping off a cliff, he realized he couldn’t keep going as a pastor.
“On a Thursday, I called my wife and we went to my district superintendent. I told him, ‘I don’t think I’m gonna make it through the weekend.’ That night, he went to my board and I began a 3-month leave of absence. Immediately, I unplugged from the church. By the time I got to my counselor, I was ready. I wasn’t a wreck – I wanted help. I told him I would do whatever he wanted me to do – I’m listening. Within six weeks, I felt like a new person. I wasn’t entirely out of the woods. But I felt better than I had in years.”
This Struggle Is Not Unique to Me
It was during this time Tim began seeing a counselor and taking medication. I asked Tim if he was comfortable with all of this being shared online, especially since the attendees of his church might find it.
“I want to be public about this. I want them to be encouraged that there is help. You know, Bill Hybels shared about his struggle with fear during his talk at The Summit recently. This struggle is not unique to me.”
An Unfortunate Ending
Tim was really honest with me. One of the things we discussed was how his response to his mental health negatively impacted his ability to lead.
“Before the leave of absence, when I was sliding off the cliff, I was feeling like my body wasn’t going to let me pastor this church. I thought to myself, ‘I’m not capable of pastoring it.’ I felt like the role was killing me. I thought I was going to have a stroke or a full breakdown. In stepping away, I thought, ‘if I get healthy, I’ll be better than ever, stronger than ever. I’ll get clear.’
“But because I had forced it and operated over 4 years battling anxiety, without getting any help, it affected my leadership to the point where those closest to me had lost confidence in me to lead. They saw me struggling to carrying the load of the church. I wasn’t taking full responsibility inherent in my role. Unfortunately, they saw someone who wasn’t well.”
At the beginning of 2017, Tim stepped away from his role as lead pastor of his church. We talked about his feelings about the end of his season in that role within that church.
“I’m at peace with my decision to step away. We’re (Tim and his wife) as open as we’ve ever been to a new call from the Lord.”
What Did Tim Learn From All This?
I asked Tim what he learned from his experience, fighting for his mental health.
The first thing we talked about was supporting people as we would anyone who was sick.
“If I had a bout with cancer, I would expect people to be really supportive. Mental illness is no different. I had a sickness in my head. I had to take time to straighten it out. It’s a good reminder to people we need to be careful of stigmas, stereotyping people and judging them by how they were performing when they were sick. When people are sick, they couldn’t perform at their best. I think we need to be prepared to journey with people long-term and support them.”
The Mental Health Conversation
The second thing he talked about was how the conversation is changing around mental health, even in the church. (Tim pastored in New Brunswick, Canada.)
“You know, 20-25 years ago, people weren’t talking about anxiety and panic attacks. No one was talking about it as something that needed medical attention or counseling. No one knew how to treat it or talk about it. But that is changing. When I shared my story of my panic attack, before everything fell apart, I had a line of people after each service coming up to me and sharing aboiut their stories. I didn’t feel judged at all after sharing.”
(Side note: I was surprised by this. I told Tim I had known some pastors who wouldn’t be that vulnerable for fear of losing respect in their people’s eyes. He replied, “In Canada, people have no time for pretense. Pretense just reeks. If we have mega-pastors in Canada, they’re not rock stars. They’re not ripped. They’re really average, normal people.”
The third thing he talked about was regret. Tim said his biggest regret was waiting to reach out for help.
“Don’t wait. Get help now. I was proud. If you’re struggling, humble yourself before the Lord. Wait upon the Lord. Don’t resist the urge to admit you’re sick. This is a pride issue for us. We think we’re stronger than we really are. Reach out for help. If you do this, later on, you’ll be able to help others.
I waited way too long. I remember Perry Noble sharing about his first battle with burnout. He said, “I waited too long to get help.” If I have a regret, that’s it. I was prideful. I was reluctant to take medication. I watched people around me misuse and abuse medication. I tried to resist medication as long as I possibly could. Why else would you try so hard for so long to fix it yourself? It has to come back to pride, stubbornness.“
Tim and I did have a brief conversation about the differing views on the value of medication when treating mental illness. Tim had a positive experience. He told me, “the side effects of the meds were brutal for about a month. But it was worth it.”
Where is Tim Now?
These days, Tim is selling Volvos while he waits on his next ministry assignment. As he said, he and his wife are very open to a new call from God. We talked about how he’s doing today, a couple months removed from leaving the church and six months after that fateful visit to his superintendent.
“I understand the battle of anxiety a lot more. I know my triggers and root causes. I can ask myself the right questions which evaluate why I’m feeling this way. I can ask myself, ‘Why am I feeling this way? What is causing this thinking – this spike in adrenaline, this anxiety?’ There are so many factors. Chemicals, ways I’m wired, environment. I can’t control all the things which cause stress. But I’m in a much better spot than I was 6 months ago. And I feel equipped to pursue health in this season.”
I’m so proud of Tim for sharing his story here today.
Funny side note – Tim and I have actually never met in person. Our connection began in 2016 when he was a guest on one of my favorite podcasts. We connected over Twitter and chatted over Skype, as I was navigating a difficult season in my church. He was a big encourager as I transitioned from Phoenix to Prescott, Arizona and became a Lead Pastor for the first time. We lost touch in the fall of 2016 (Tim’s attention was elsewhere, for good reason). We reconnected in early 2017 and I interviewed Tim earlier this month.
My Observations from Tim’s Story
As I compiled my notes from our conversation into a coherent form for you to read, a few observations stuck out to me. Before I share how you can get in touch with Tim, I want to share them with you.
1. Mental illness gets treated very differently than other illnesses.
Tim’s comparison to cancer got me thinking. I’ve treated people battling mental illness differently than those fighting cancer. If I’m honest, I’ve judged them as being more in control than someone with cancer. And I’ve been wrong. I think it’s a lot more complicated (or maybe just more unknown) to support someone fighting for their mental health, but it’s not any less important.
2. Pride prohibits us from taking steps towards healing.
We are so good at deceiving ourselves. We suggest other explanations when it’s really just plain old pride! I’ve been putting off seeing someone to explore my battle with anxiety last fall and some other challenges I’ve been facing lately. And I think my procrastination is rooted in pride too. Thanks Tim! (I think)
3. People long to follow someone who owns their weaknesses and is transparent about them.
Tim had the same experience sharing his story regarding anxiety that I did when I told my story at my church last fall. In one service, I had to pause for unexpected applause. Craig Groeschel, a well-known author and pastor, regularly says, “People would rather follow a leader who is always real than one who is always right.” Craig’s right. We’re afraid to share our weaknesses, but without sharing them, others won’t trust us.
4. I wonder if we’ll look back and regret we didn’t ask for help sooner.
Tim’s comment about wishing he didn’t ask for help was fascinating. I think his regret (he didn’t say this to me) is connected to his wondering of “what if…?” Would he still be pastoring that church? How would his family, marriage, relationships be different? Regret in the present can often be traced back to fear in the past. Fear kept us from seizing an opportunity which we now regret missing out on today. I wonder what each of us will regret not doing sooner.
I believe God isn’t done with Tim. He is a wounded healer, who now has even more to offer a church as a leader and shepherd than he did before this struggle. I’m grateful for his willigness to share here today!
Do You Have Any Questions for Tim?
If you want to get in touch with him, you can follow him on Twitter. Tim knows this post is going live today and I’ll try and alert him to new activity if you’d like to share a comment or question below.
Thanks for sharing with us, Tim. We are praying for your continued pursuit of health and healing!