Leadership & Mental Health: An Interview with Therapists Sharon Hargrave & Kelly Haer

The links between our well-being and our connections with family and close friends are undeniable. In the new report Restoring Relationships: How Churches Can Help People Heal & Develop Healthy Connections, Barna and research partner Pepperdine University’s Boone Center for the Family found that more than half of all U.S. adults (58%) and practicing Christians (54%) say they have at least one relational or emotional / mental health issue that impacts their most important relationships.

At this moment in 2020, as we find ourselves both in Mental Health Awareness Month and the COVID-19 crisis, churches have an opportunity to give extra attention to this subject. This article gleans from a recent interview with Boone Center’s executive director Sharon Hargrave and relationship IQ program director Kelly Haer, both licensed marriage and family therapists. They sat down with Barna president David Kinnaman for a chat about how leaders can check in on their relational, emotional and mental health while continuing to serve their people well during unpredictable times.

While the Restoring Relationships project does not launch until later this year, in light of Mental Health Awareness Month, Barna and the Boone Center want to offer advanced copies (now shipping) to U.S. church leaders. Order your copy from the Barna store today.

Restoring Relationships

David: Sharon, tell us a little about the work of the Boone Center at Pepperdine before we jump into questions about the data.

Sharon: The Boone Center at Pepperdine is a training and resource center for Christian leaders, both pastors and leaders of Christian organizations or academic institutions, so we work across the board with people that are in leadership positions to help them lead people in healthy relationships.

I have always believed that the Church is a great resource for people to go to receive help with things like anxiety and depression. Though, over the last several years, there’s been some separation [in how we care for people]—professionals deal with mental health care concerns and church people deal with spiritual concerns—and I think we’ve missed volumes of opportunity here. I believe the Church is very well-suited to help with relationship and mental health care concerns, and our programming at the Boone Center for the Family is designed specifically to intertwine theology and psychology in such a way that church and mental health care workers can work together.

David: How do you think you’ll use the data from Restoring Relationships for your work? More specifically, what are you noticing about COVID-19 disruptions and the impact that is having on people’s relationships?

Sharon: In the programming that we work with at the Boone Center, we believe there are two questions that we all ask ourselves upon waking every morning. The first is, who am I? This could also translate to: What’s my identity? Am I adequate? Am I worthy? Am I special? Am I unique?

The second question we wake up every morning asking ourselves is, am I safe? Other iterations being: Can I trust the world and the environment around me? Are things predictable? Are people being honest with me? Is this situation fair and balanced?

The coronavirus is just really pushing in on these two questions of identity and sense of safety.

David: What are some things that you think church leaders and other business professionals should be paying attention to when it comes to personally responding to those two big questions you posed, especially now that pressures related to those are exacerbated by the crisis?

Sharon: When our identity and safety is challenged, we can respond from a place of peace, or we can respond in a destructive manner. I think as Christians stepping out into the world right now, it’s really important that we be aware of how we’re responding to things.

As leaders of organizations [or churches], people not only have relationship with us as individuals; they have relationship with us as organizations. When things don’t go well and our identity feels triggered, we can have a blaming response or a shame response. As leaders of organizations, we need to be very aware of how we are personally responding to things.

I especially see predictability as one of the most frightening things for organization leaders right now. … Six months ago, I could have told you what I thought the next six months of the Boone Center for the Family would look like. But right now, I’m still trying to figure that out on a daily basis.

David: As unpredictability is part of the new normal and certainly will be for some time to come, how can we lead in a healthy way when a lack of control feels so front and center for us?

Sharon: This is where our theology steps in. Our pastor was preaching a sermon on Ephesians 4 three summers ago and he said, “You cannot change what you will not name.” I think a major step for us as leaders is first identifying what we feel when we do feel challenged in our identity and sense of safety. And then what is it that we do?

Instead of just letting the messages bombard us, we need to hold on to really what’s true in our lives, not only spiritually but also in other effects and then make a choice to behave in a different way. But if we never stop and name what we’re doing, we can’t change it. We’ll just continue to do destructive behavior patterns.

Kelly: I would add just real briefly, that we have these four categories: blame, shame, control and escape. When we go through the peace cycle at the Boone Center, we have a counter to each of those four categories. So if you’re used to blaming others, then you want to ask, “What is it for me to nurture others?” If you’re used to shaming yourself, ask, “What is it for me to value myself?” Part of the peace cycle is thinking through new behaviors, new responses in those four new-self categories.

David: How is it that you would give advice, input, wisdom based on this, about how we show up to serve our organizations and churches?

Sharon: We need to go back to the whole idea of what is trustworthy, and I think as organizations, that means we need to be predictable. We need to be honest. We need to be fair. We need to be talking in our meetings about what that looks like.

At Pepperdine University we have a president’s briefing every Monday morning at nine o’clock. Just the fact that our president shows up every Monday morning at nine o’clock shows he’s very predictable. He may be saying the same thing he said last week, but he’s there and he’s being honest with us and he’s leading us.

Kelly: I would add that it’s really starting with yourself as the leader and seeking to live out of what we would call your “peace cycle,” your new-self behaviors, the nurturing of others, self-value, et cetera. When you’re not [living out your peace cycle] and you’re living out of your pain cycle—blame, shame, control, escape—you’re going to impact those around you and encourage them to also live out of their pain. But when you’re in a healthy, peaceful state, that’s going to help your relationships with those that you’re working with thrive.


Feature image by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash.

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