the shape of leadership

We Are Not Immune

Lessons from a mental health crisis

Matthew D Kim on May 3, 2023

In 2022, I almost died — twice. The first time was during a battle with COVID pneumonia. The second happened several months later when chronic insomnia spiraled into depression, psychosis, and suicidal ideation.

Never in my wildest imagination did I foresee two hospitalizations in one year, let alone a lengthy stay in a psychiatric ward.

Looking back, I realize my physical and mental collapse was years in the making. Like many leaders, I failed to invest in self-care. This oversight nearly cost me everything.

If you think you’re immune, I encourage you to consider my story and carefully evaluate your lifestyle and habits.


My Journey

I was in school a long time. In fact, I sat on those stiff, plastic classroom seats from the age of 5 until 28.

After completing my doctorate, a stressful marathon of an ordeal, I went on without respite to lead a small church that had recently experienced a mass exodus of its members.

During my tenure as pastor, I received two weeks of vacation time annually. However, I was never able to use those weeks consecutively because I couldn’t miss two Sundays in a row.

Working under pressure with little down time took a toll on my mind and body. Maintaining my schedule on a diet of takeout meals and junk food didn’t help either.

Although I pastored and preached to the best of my ability, I now realize I should have done some things differently. One of my biggest mistakes was failing to make close friends inside or outside the church. While giving my life to building community for others, I ignored my own need for fellowship.

After six years of serving in this pastorate, I accepted a full-time teaching position at a seminary in the Boston area. As before, I never took a break during this time of transition. By the time I packed, moved, unpacked, and prepped new courses, school was starting.

A full teaching load consisted of six courses per year. But the cost of living in the area necessitated taking on about 10 courses annually for the first several years to make ends get a little closer. I later piled on administrative roles and carved out time to publish articles for additional income as well.

I had no real connection to the local church beyond Sunday attendance. As a preaching and pastoral ministry professor, I sensed emotional guardrails going up whenever I told a pastor what I did for a living. Because I worried church leaders might see me as a threat, I stayed on the perimeters of the Christian community, with few friendships, little accountability, and no opportunities for vulnerability.

My introverted instincts took over as I sought comfort and gratification in solitary academic endeavors. I hid away in my school office or worked from home, publishing as much as possible rather than sharing life with people in my seminary, church or community.

There’s nothing wrong with being productive, of course, but pursuing scholarship isn’t the Second Greatest Commandment. How can we love our neighbors as ourselves if we never spend meaningful time with them?

Then came the pandemic. Just as it did for many others, the forced isolation made me even more socially disengaged. It became easier to remain behind walls of separation, withdrawing even from in-person worship gatherings.

The despair surrounding this global crisis brought other internalized struggles to the surface as well. I was still in a dark place emotionally following the loss of my younger brother, Tim, who was murdered in Manila, the Philippines, in 2015. Between my workload and our family’s frustrating quest for justice, I had never been able to process my grief in a healthy manner.

Although I didn’t yet realize it, the elements for a mental breakdown were already in place: stress, trauma, anxiety, social isolation, hopelessness, an unrelenting schedule, and a lack of rest.

Sleep is a necessity that has often eluded me over the past decade or so due to a chronic medical condition. But the insomnia I experienced in 2022 was unprecedented for me.

I had just accepted a teaching position at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. I was still feeling depleted from my severe bout with pneumonia, and the moving process turned out to be an especially stressful one. In just one of many exasperating moments, the moving company cancelled on us five days before they were supposed to pick up our belongings.

The compounded stress, physical strain, lack of self-monitoring, and dearth of healthy Christian friendships finally imploded on me. I could no longer sleep. Like a jammed switch continually set to “on,” my brain refused to shut down. For five months, it seemed all I could do was lie down at night and stare at the ceiling.

It didn’t take long for this constant wakefulness to break me. In short, I lost it. I could no longer speak in complete sentences, think clearly, or even walk. I felt angry all the time and lashed out at my wife and kids in ways that were completely out of character.

My wife, Sarah, wasn’t sleeping much either. Nevertheless, she did everything possible to hold our family together while I sat on the couch and wondered how my life had come to this.

With medical and psychiatric intervention and a lot of prayer and support, I eventually made it through that time and found my path toward healing. Yet I continue to share this story as a cautionary tale. Do you recognize yourself in any of the details?

Are you working long hours without a break? Do you tend to neglect your mental and physical health as you care for others? Are you isolated in ministry, without a network of close Christian friends and mentors? Have you lost enjoyment in the little or big things? Do you lie awake at night or experience frequent sleep interruptions? Are you struggling with feelings of sadness or hopelessness?

This isn’t what the Lord intends for His followers. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

Don’t wait until you reach a crisis point. There are three things you can do now to invest in your well-being — and persevere in your calling.


1. Say ‘No’

In No is a Beautiful Word, author and pastor Kevin Harney points out the need to say “no” to some things so we can say “yes” to the best things.

I’ve heard ministers say things like, “I’m going to burn out for Jesus. I can rest when I get to heaven.”

I can appreciate the passion behind such sentiments. We want to give ourselves completely to following Jesus and making disciples. After all, Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

However, this doesn’t mean we should live in a state of imbalance that jeopardizes our health, families and ministries.

Both as a pastor and professor, I often felt pressure to do anything and everything for the sake of Christ and to provide for my family. My intentions were good, but an unwillingness to say “no” led to an unsustainable schedule, which contributed to my holistic decline.

The compounded stress, physical strain, lack of self-monitoring, and dearth of healthy Christian friendships finally imploded on me.

As I discovered, a lack of self-care can be especially problematic during seasons of change. Transitions — both large and small — cause more strain than we often realize. Try taking the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory to find out how certain events might be affecting your health. Are there signs you are already in a vulnerable place?

Regardless of our reasons for doing it, burning out for Jesus is a misguided mission. We can have the right attitude with the wrong execution. Even Jesus took breaks and encouraged His disciples to do the same (Matthew 14:13; Mark 6:30–32; Luke 4:42).

Knowing when to tap the brakes requires discernment that comes from walking in the Spirit. Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). Don’t neglect your relationship with God. Draw close to Him. Ask, seek and knock to determine what He would have you do — and not do.

Because of my inability to say “no,” I took on extra work that tilted my life toward self-reliance, pride, comparison, insecurity, mental and physical exhaustion, high blood pressure, poor fitness, and burnout.

In fact, I was burned out for more than 20 years and didn’t realize how serious it was becoming. I pushed and pushed to the point that my body shut down.

Say “no” to burning out for Jesus. Trust God for wisdom as you consider which tasks to accept and which ones to decline.

Paul told the Thessalonians, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Thessalonians 4:11–12).

There is nothing wrong with hard work. However, running yourself into the ground is not the way to attract people to the faith. Work diligently, exercising wisdom, humility, and faithfulness. At the same time, ask God to show you when to give it your all, when to take a break, and when to say “no.”


2. Recognize the Signs

Self-assessing the symptoms of depression and mental illness can be difficult.

I plowed through most days without giving much thought to my mental health.

My parents passed on a strong work ethic. They sacrificed everything to raise my siblings and me. As immigrants in Chicago, Mom and Dad didn’t have time to complain about how challenging their lives were. They just worked hard, often at the expense of their mental and physical health. I learned to do the same.

Over the years, I did identify a few areas where I was struggling. For example, I realized I was suffering from seasonal affective disorder, which led me to pray for the Lord to send us to a warmer climate. (God finally answered that prayer with our move to Texas.)

There have been other times, however, when I failed to recognize I was severely depressed and battling mental illness in various forms.

Both in the pastorate and my teaching career, I have experienced countless seasons in which I simply didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. Drained emotionally and physically, I felt unrested even after a full night’s sleep. Sometimes I shed tears for no reason at all.

Prayer has frequently felt like a dreaded task on a checklist rather than a source of comfort. Interacting with people was just as laborious, particularly with excessive talkers who never asked me about my life.

At times, I became a perpetual complainer. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, I railed against God instead of thanking Him for my daily bread (Exodus 16; Matthew 6:11). Rather than counting my blessings, I saw only my shortcomings and the ways I thought God and others were snubbing me.

If you can relate to these things, you may be dealing with undiagnosed depression or mental health struggles. Learn the symptoms of depression and mental illness. Ask people you love to watch for signals you may need help.

Don’t hesitate to seek treatment from a counselor or other mental health professional if you suspect a mental health problem.


3. Seek Community

Here’s a simple truth the enemy of your soul doesn’t want you to know: As a member of God’s family, you are never alone. You don’t have to suffer silently.

It may be a foreign concept in our individualistic culture, but we belong to one another (Romans 12:4–5). The members of the Church are to love and help one another (Acts 2:42–47; 1 John 4:11); bear with one another (Colossians 3:13); and confess our sins to one another (James 5:16).

Each of us is part of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). As such, we are to serve others (1 Peter 4:10–11), spurring fellow believers toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24). Whenever possible, we should worship together — in person (Psalm 100; Hebrews 10:25).

Paul said, “In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3–4). When we live that way, we will not lack community.

During my illness, my wife reached out to congregants, church leaders, prayer team members, and former and current colleagues. Sarah recruited several close friends and family members to walk with me on my restoration journey. She researched and collaborated with others to help me find the professional care I needed.

Preying on my vulnerabilities, Satan convinced me the shame, depression, and psychosis were beyond remedy. I had never wanted to die before, but suddenly death seemed like my only option.

However, the people God placed around me helped bring me back from the brink. Had it not been for their prayers, encouragement, support, commitment, and care, I likely would not be here today. Each member of my community moved me closer to the path of healing.

What’s my point? We need one another. We need a Christian community around us. I can now say I’ve never been more hopeful, joyful or thankful — largely as a result of reengaging in life with others.

Of course, God is the One who heals and restores, but He uses people as His earthly agents to move us toward transformation.

If you aren’t engaging in Christian community as you should, start building those connections.

You now have three questions to consider:

  • Will you commit to self-care by saying “no” to unnecessary things so you can say “yes” to the best things?
  • Will you learn to recognize signs of depression and mental illness and ask others to watch for them with you?
  • Will you form relationships and seek help within the Christian community?

We all face difficulties, but life’s challenges don’t have to break us. By living according to biblical principles, we can glorify God even in the midst of trials. Consider the words of 1 Peter 1:6–7:

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

I hope my testimony encourages you to stay on a healthy path. Perhaps you have been living as though you are immune to the effects of stress, isolation, and exhaustion. Or maybe you are already in the throes of despair.

Whatever your situation, put your trust in God, find Christians who will walk with you on your journey, practice self-care, and know when it’s time to seek professional help.

Even when you walk through the darkest valley, God is with you (Psalm 23:4). He will see you through.


This article appears in the Spring 2023 issue of Influence magazine.

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