Bethany Miller talks with mother-daughter team, Margie Brubaker and Charlanne Wolff. Both Margie and Charlanne are professional Christian counselors who bring a unique perspective as a pastor’s wife and daughter. In this conversation, they discuss depression and anxiety and how that can affect ministry. Download the resource list from this Digital Lab.
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Depression and anxiety not only affect an individual’s personal well-being, but can interfere with their ministry as well. In this Digital Lab, Bethany Miller dove into the topic of mental health with mother-daughter team, Margie Brubaker and Charlanne Wolff. Both Margie and Charlanne are professional Christian counselors who bring a unique perspective as a pastor’s wife and daughter. Margie shared one of the reasons she wanted to become a counselor was to come alongside the church and be a resource to not only individuals and leaders, but congregations as a whole.
What is the difference between going through a “tough time” and struggling with actual depression/anxiety?
Margie explained that everyone goes through periods of transition or malaise where you feel “blah” or struggle getting a good night’s sleep. However, when you notice you can’t handle your day-to-day responsibilities, feel you are losing your zest for life or begin to pull away from loved ones, this is an indication it would be helpful to seek professional help. A first step would be to see your primary doctor and get bloodwork done to rule out potential physical causes for your symptoms.
Charlanne added it’s important to know your own body and pick up on the warning signs that something is not right- take note of changes in your own body. She said for herself, when her sleep is disrupted it is a sign of stress in her life which can sometimes lead to anxiety. She clarified we don’t need to always be the “forensic investigator” of ourselves. It’s encouraged to seek professional help in diagnosing what is taking place in both ourselves and in others.
When should someone seek professional help?
Margie responded, “Sooner rather than later is helpful.” She added that, sadly, denial can be a major roadblock. There is still a stigma of guilt or shame that acts as a barrier from someone seeking help. She clarified that if someone has heart issues, it’s referred to as “cardiac issues.” When someone has a mental issue, it’s important to realize it’s something in our brain that is not functioning properly. There are chemical reactions and shifts in our brain that can work against us. It can be a physical issue too!
Charlanne shared that her husband experienced some sciatica pain a while back, and while the pain was in his leg, the doctor found the source to be a disc in his back. She said this is what professionals refer to as “referred pain.” Sometimes we experience pain in one place that doesn’t have a reason to be in that place. This can often occur with brain function. How our brains are functioning can affect our emotions and thoughts. The sooner we consult a mental health professional, the better the outcome. Therapists will never turn someone away because they are not “in a bad enough place.”
How does ministry compound mental health issues?
Margie reminded us that we are all human. None of us “has it all together” or belong on a pedestal. Just because God has set someone apart for ministry, doesn’t mean they are any better or have a closer connection to God. Things that bear down on us, or that come up and hurt us come out of the life that we live in ministry. These things include a lack of boundaries, unclear expectations and stereotypes. Some of the worst things that happen in churches come from conversations that never happen but should have. One of the things Margie has personally found to hurt the effectiveness of ministry is being too hard on herself. She shared the example of someone approaching her and informing her she had disappointed them. She felt terrible and tried to apologize, but she dwelled on it far too long. It was not in her control, yet she let it torment her and affect her.
Another contributing factor to mental health stress in ministry families is the incessant, unending schedule. Margie believes the Lord doesn’t ask things of us without wanting us to take care of ourselves in the process. It becomes an issue when we have no room to be alone, to spiritually breathe or emotionally rest. It is not a competition on how we handle the stress build-up and the phrase “busier is better” is not a healthy one.
Charlanne explained those in ministry are in a unique position to receive a greater volume of feedback that others in the church are not getting. It’s important to realize not all feedback is intended for the person receiving it. It may be something someone else is dealing with in their own lives. This is where talking with a trusted advisor or counselor is beneficial to sift through this feedback to find what is relevant to that person in their specific ministry role. The enemy can sneak in with a lie that is adjacent to the truth, but the issue could be more about the other person. Ministry families can experience isolation as they process information they receive and not knowing who they can trust to share it with. We need to admit when we feel alone in our situation and reach out to a lifeline.
How do we support a spouse going through a difficult mental health period?
Charlanne said even when our spouse is struggling, it is still important to take care of ourselves. It’s easy to dive in and think we need to fix the problem and make sure they are okay. While it is true we have a responsibility to our spouse, we do not have a responsibility for our spouse. We can be a better helper when it is from a place of health and involves healthy communication.
Margie completely agreed. She said it’s a misunderstanding that taking care of ourselves is selfish. Taking care of ourselves needs to come first. Just like the example of an airplane emergency, we need to put on our oxygen mask before helping others. She shared the story of her husband having major surgery several years ago. He was given pain pills that sparked an adverse reaction and he became anxious and agitated and started having panic attacks. Doctors were able to correct it with medication, but years later the anxiety and panic attacks returned and he sought a mental health professional. It was a difficult time for their family, and Margie learned it was important to not have a timeline for him to return to health. She needed to speak truth gently, carefully time her conversations with him, and love him well. Margie learned to release all expectations and schedules and focus on the health and safety of her husband and family to get through recuperation and healing.
Charlanne emphasized the importance of clearing the calendar–giving ourselves permission to say “I no longer can do this thing.” When we are honest and say we need to cancel, this may be the very thing someone else needs to hear is allowed. We are allowed to say no, especially when it directly affects our health or the health of our family. When we practice this, it opens others up to practice it as well. As she watched her parents model this, Charlanne said it gave her freedom in adulthood to seek help when she was faced with similar issues.
What are lessons to be learned in someone’s walk with mental health issues?
Charlanne reiterated we are human and there is a process that needs to happen. That process is doing the proper steps in therapy, not to help things move faster, but doing the things that will help us eventually heal. She often tells clients that, while she is a Christian whose values shine out of her work, she will not tell them they simply need to pray or read their Bible more to help them heal. These spiritual disciplines are valuable and will bolster their health, but she addresses what else can come alongside these disciplines to find healing. She said it’s tempting to take these spiritual practices and use them to “power through” the healing process to find faster success. Rather, we need to practice Sabbath rest in these practices and use them as support.
Margie said depression can be a result of great trauma, whether recent or something from their past. Most patients need to go through a process of anger. Counseling provides a safe place to release this anger and move forward and get through it. As a therapist, she believes it is important to not make assumptions or interpret her patients’ experiences. Each person is unique and their experiences are unique. This can transfer to how we approach those in our churches. It is important to not immediately judge or make assumptions on what someone is thinking. We need to let them be where they are and help them through the hard times.