It has been a tough year even as the country weans itself from the vagaries of Covid-19, which left medical and economic ruins in its wake. Many families were also torn apart by death of loved ones besides hospital bills that tore into dwindling finances.
Some couples separated, others suffered job and business losses, which left many plans hanging.
At such times, it is not uncommon to seek refuge in religious leaders for consolation, comfort and care. From shaping the spirituality of their faithful, marital counselling, cobbling wayward teens, those nursing terminal illness, bereavement to handling life’s transformations.
Indeed, bishops, pastors, priests and prophets, beyond ensuring their congregants stick to the straight and narrow, are often times weighed down by mental burdens, handling endless societal issues.
But where do they go, and who do they turn to when the going gets tough? To whom do they turn to when everyone else turns to them? Who holds their heads when they run over, bursting at the seams?
Bishop Silas Yego, the former archbishop of AIC churches in Kenya, says religious leaders are humans too and, like other people, they also go through stressful moments.
“I have been in church leadership for 47 years now and as pastors, we have been solving people’s problems, counselling families, and we also experience trauma,” he said.
The bishop, who served as the AIC Kenya presiding bishop for 18 years, says there are times when religious leaders experience fatigue, burnout and depression, especially after handling traumatising issues.
“For instance, when I was doing a funeral of 15 people who were killed in Molo, Mauje area, some of them had spears inside their stomachs and I could not help dreaming in the night,” he recalls.
One way of handling such stress, Yego says, is through prayer, seeking God’s favour for strength to ease the burden in their hearts, and reading the good book.
“The scripture is the pillar of our success,” he says. “So, you read the bible and see what other people went through like David and Moses, and it tends to help you cope.”
Bishop Yego says religious leaders hardly go for counselling outside their church circles as they have peer counsellors. “For instance, throughout my leadership, I have had a few friends in whom I could confide, we would pray together when I felt overwhelmed.”
Religious leaders, besides handling problems of other people, sometimes find themselves with challenges on the domestic front, such as handling their own unruly children.
Yego advises pastors to understand and make their children understand that their faith does not translate to their children’s faith.
He advises pastors to have strong wives who are able to counsel and pray with their children as they take care of their flock.
“I had a very strong wife who would take care of our children and helped them not to go astray when I was busy with church matters because I was responsible for the entire nation that I was leading,” says Yego, adding that some pastors have been stressed when they take their followers’ issues into their hearts or by trying to solve issues that are beyond them.
He advises them to refer difficult cases to other pastors or professional counsellors where necessary.
Pastoral work is not easy and religious leaders too need help when not only dealing with church matters but also when handling other issues in their families, says Bishop Daniel Kaveva of Machakos Family Chapel.
He adds that most pastors also have financial challenges, which might lead to their mental breakdown.
“Multiple demands are placed on pastors and church leaders daily, including staff issues, finances, and leadership development. All of this can understandably take a toll on us, and thankfully counselling provides a way forward,” says Bishop Kaveva.
The bishop explains that during such times, other trusted religious leaders come in handy with counselling besides praying with them.
“We are trained to have at least one pastor that you can open up to and discuss issues affecting you because it will be hard to go to a normal churchgoer, who looks up to you in times of need, and expose your vulnerability to them,” says Kaveva.
Discuss marriage and family
He says the kind of help a religious leader needs should mostly come from a more spiritually mature colleague who will not share secrets with others. Religious leaders, he says, hardly seek help outside the church circle unless it is beyond them.
“We are trained to be psychological counsellors and you can find pastors who have a PhD in professional counselling. When the situation is pretty bad, then we can get help from them,” says Kaveva.
He adds that religious leaders need a safe place to address issues in full confidentiality, a place they can discuss marriage and family, their ministry, and life in general and that they require an outlet to discuss expectations and emotional fatigue.
Bishop Kaveva outlines marriage and couple counselling, individual and teen counselling, family and spiritual counselling, concierge and counselling for religious leaders as some of the services offered in church and the reason pastors should not wait for problems to escalate before seeking help.
“Being pastors doesn’t make us super beings, we are human beings and face challenges in life just like other people. Some challenges bring us down mentally, and at this time we seek help from other experts. As they say, a problem shared is a problem half solved.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by Sheikh Ali Annas Abdala, the Machakos Town Jamia Mosque Imam, who says Muslim leaders also have counselling services for their followers, which leaves them drained mentally.
We refer to what the Quran says
According to him, the Quran has been guiding their counselling sessions, saying it has every solution to the issues of life.
“We always refer to what the Quran has to say and we quote it; if it is family issues, sickness, and any other issue that a person presents with, the Quran will always have something to say about it,” he says.
Just like the Christian faith leaders, Sheikh Abdala says they do peer counselling within themselves and that the Muslim Council that governs them has committees where they can table issues that are affecting them and they get help.
“One may have depression but when we talk about it, they get better,” he says.
His advice to other religious leaders is to understand that mental health is an important part of a person’s life and it is always advisable to take care of it by always finding someone to talk to about what is bothering them, always having it in mind that mental stress is treatable by not bottling it up.
But do pastors not consult professional counsellors?
A female pastor from Kathiani, Machakos County, who sought anonymity, says the word counselling is not common among preachers, as most only consider ‘focused counselling’ where an older pastor helps solve issues.
“It will be difficult for me to open up to a professional counsellor about my family or other issues causing me mental stress because this could be my own follower, who has been looking up to me as their spiritual leader, and maybe, the next day, they will require my counselling as well,” she explains, adding that religious leaders believe so much in the power of prayer and fasting as they await divine intervention.
She says churches also organise workshops for pastors and their wives, featuring general family counselling on finances, marriage and life-work balance and “we are able to manage our issues because nobody will know you even had a problem, but when another pastor talks about it, you can learn and get help”.
But why, on average, do children of pastors take different directions from their parents?
“This happens when the preacher does not learn how to balance family and church and can cause permanent psychological damage on the children,” she explains, advising fellow pastors to always focus on their families, set time to listen to their children and take stock of what is happening in their children’s lives, and if need be, seek counselling.
“The only problem with us preachers is that we will only pray for our children when they start misbehaving instead of helping them or looking for someone to help them. Even teachers can be of great help because nowadays schools have guidance and counselling sessions,” says the pastor.