Mental Health in Pastoral Ministry with Wally Nickel

Wally NickelPodcast, Podcast Season 1

Episode Description:

Nobody’s perfect, but we often want our leaders to be. What happens when a pastor reckons with brokenness, wrestles with a mental illness, and then redefines a ministry and calling where lived experience is as valuable and needed as credentials and a lengthy resumé? What if leadership looked like radical honesty and knowing one’s own capacity to serve?

Pastor Wally Nickel shares his journey through a mental health crisis, living with anxiety and depression, and how it has shaped his faith and work.

A Note of Caution: This episode of The Sanctuary Podcast deals with sensitive subjects such as trauma, abduction, and abuse, so please use your discretion about whether listening feels safe for you at this time. If you’re unsure, consider listening with a trusted friend.

Running time: 38:43

Release date: August 9, 2021

About Pastor Wally Nickel:

Wally is the Senior Associate Pastor at Jericho Ridge Community Church in Surrey, BC. He has 16 years of pastoral experience and two MA degrees (Church Ministry, Theology) from MBBS, Fresno, CA.

Wally and Sylvia, along with their two children, Joel and Savana, love living in Willoughby. Their home operates with a “drop-in-any-time” policy (yes, they really mean it). Nickel family activities are known to include Friday night games and movies, sunny days at Crescent Beach, bike riding, swimming and camping. Wally also loves to go fishing, likes to run (at least that’s what he keeps telling himself), is an avid sports fan who loves the Canucks, and a collector of sports memorabilia. His “love languages” include Starbucks and chocolate. And no, his given name is not Walter.

Crisis Resources:

For your quick reference, here are nationwide emergency numbers and crisis lines:

  • Canada: 911, Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566
  • British Columbia: 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)
  • United States: 911, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • United Kingdom: 999/112, Samaritans: 116 123
  • New Zealand: 111, 1737, Lifeline Aotearoa: 0800-543-354
  • Australia: 000, Lifeline: 13 11 14

Additional Resources:

What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey

In this episode of The Sanctuary Podcast Wally Nickel uses the analogy of placing people in a “safe” of God’s protection. If you are interested in learning more about grounding or container exercises like this one, please consider downloading Faith, Grief, and COVID-19: A Conversation from Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries. In the discussion guide you will find a similar exercise useful for group settings, along with other helpful resources designed to help you navigate difficult seasons.

The Sanctuary Podcast is intended for informational and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or mental health advice. If you feel you may need medical or mental health advice, please consult a qualified healthcare professional. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, please tell someone or, if you are in Canada, call 1-800-SUICIDE for immediate help.


Wally Nickel: In some ways it’s a very recent story, but it’s a lifelong story. 

Sarah Kift: Nobody’s perfect, but we often want our leaders to be. What happens when a pastor reckons with brokenness, wrestles with a mental illness, and then redefines a ministry and calling where lived experience is as valuable and needed as credentials and a lengthy resumé? What if leadership looked like radical honesty and knowing one’s own capacity to serve? Something uncomfortable, something beautiful, something real, and something more healing than anyone could imagine.

Pastor Wally Nickel shares his journey through a mental health crisis, living with anxiety and depression, and how it has shaped his faith and work. He practices what he preaches.

He doesn’t preach as much as he used to. Instead, he spends a lot of his ministry time listening to, and making space for, the stories and experiences of others through peer support groups at his church for those dealing with mental health challenges. He wears two hats at once—facilitator and group member—and he has a lot of incredible things to say about what mental health ministry can look like when belonging, not perfection, is the goal.

Welcome to The Sanctuary Podcast, a space where mental health and faith collide and conversation, connection, and change are possible.

Sarah Kift: So, Wally.

Wally Nickel: Yes.

Sarah Kift: You’ve been a pastor for nine years now.

Wally Nickel: Actually, longer. I started pastoring in 1990.

Sarah Kift: Oh, okay.

Wally Nickel: And so I’ve been doing it off and on with school—and there was a time where I was at home—but I probably have close to twenty years.

Sarah Kift: Wow.

Wally Nickel: Of pastoral ministry, yeah.

Sarah Kift: Yeah, and that means you’ve seen a lot.

Wally Nickel: I have. I have. I’ve seen a lot, I’ve experienced a lot, and I’ve grown a lot. I’ve changed a lot in those years as well.

Sarah Kift: What are you working on right now? Let’s start there.

Wally Nickel: I think the biggest, or the most prominent, thing I’m working on is the whole area of faith and mental health and trying to have the conversation be a regular part of church life. And yeah, I guess I’m just leading the way in terms of sharing my story as often as I can, in terms of sharing that it’s a safe place to be and a safe place to share that you’re not okay. Especially in terms of mental health, but even in terms of any illness. Especially any chronic illness. I don’t want people to be suffering in silence. I want them to be able to come and say I’m not okay, but I still want to be a part of this. I still want to be a part of church, I still want to be here. So I want to have that conversation going on.

Sarah Kift: Wally very bravely and candidly shared his story of abduction and abuse as a young boy with me. He talks about the shame and fear that resulted from this experience, which is where we pick up the thread again in his story.

Wally Nickel: When I was—well, let’s say this. Shortly after I got married, which is twenty years ago this summer, I started to have flashbacks. My wife had shared, obviously with me, her story of trauma and abuse in her teen years. And after she shared her story with me, and during our first year of marriage, I started to get these flashback images in my mind. I’d say oh, is that real or am I just thinking, making this up or not? And then I’d share these flashbacks with my wife and usually by the end of the conversation I’d say, you know what? I don’t think that happened. But if it did happen, then God’s been gracious and he’s just protected me from all that and no problems. And she’d be like ah, maybe you should talk to somebody. And I’d be like no, no, no. Look, you know we’re doing fine, been in ministry already for a number of years and all that kind of stuff. And so then I would just push it back again.

And then about seven years ago—seven, eight years ago—when our son was turning seven, I had a significant crash—mental health crash—while in ministry. Took some time off, came back too soon, and crashed even harder. Like, after about ten days of trying to go back it was like I went off. And I remember standing at the sink on a Saturday morning having just finished breakfast with our kids and my wife, and I was doing the dishes and I just looked at my wife and said, I can’t do this anymore. And she looked at me and said what, the dishes? Like, that’s literally how common the morning was. And I said no, I can’t do life like this. And I just slumped down to the floor and didn’t know really what was all going on, but something was just unravelling. And so that set me on a path where, again, I tried to suck it up and my wife kind of put her foot down and said no, you need to get some help. We can’t live like this. And at the time I thought wow, she’s really being kind of mean. So I thought, you know what? I’ll go talk to my mom, she loves me. And my mom had the same response—no, something’s going on, you need to get help. And so I actually checked myself into Peace Arch psych unit.

Sarah Kift: That was quite a brave thing to do.

Wally Nickel: It was scary, and a lot of it was—I was thankful to my wife for saying hey, you need to at least talk to somebody. And so I actually went to the emergency with the thought of I’m going to talk to a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but I’m not going to check myself in. And then the psychiatrist who met with me was like, you know, we do have an available bed and it might be a good idea. And I was just like oh, Lord. Like, I don’t want to do this. And so in the end I said okay, I would stay. I remember being—I think it was my second night there—and lying awake in bed and thinking: first, I don’t belong here (but I think I did). But secondly, thinking wow, I feel really disconnected from my people, from my church community. And the message that I felt—they didn’t say this audibly to me—but the message I felt they were saying to me was, we don’t know what to do for you. So go find help, get well, and then come back to us. And I remember laying in that bed in the psych unit and saying Lord, there should be nobody in church feeling this, ever, regardless of what they’re coming to us with. Nobody should feel like the Church doesn’t know what to do and is sending them away to somewhere else. And I said, I don’t ever want anybody to feel like that again.

The next day I started to meet with an occupational therapist on the unit, and she started to really walk me through a lot of very practical things in terms of how to deal with this newfound thing of panic attacks and anxiety. I’d always lived with depression, but all of a sudden in this experience panic attacks—anxiety where I thought I’m going to die, that kind of panic attack—was a thing, and so she started to work with me in practical ways. And then actually, I kept meeting with her in her private practice after I left the psych unit at Peace Arch and she just, again, helped me to start figuring out the day-to-day—how could I live day-to-day? Because I was at the point where the anxiety was so bad I couldn’t be, I did not want to be alone in a room or anywhere. Don’t leave me alone for any amount of time. Which you can imagine for my wife who was working full-time, that was crippling. We literally had a friend who would come and sit and stay with us. She was in-between jobs and she would just come and she would just be present in the house, and that would quell my anxiety. So I had to learn how to even do basic things like that. How do I live through that type of anxiety?

And then also, my occupational therapist, turns out that she’s a Christian. She obviously knew that from my docket in the hospital—she knew more about me than I knew about her. But we kept working together and then she pointed me in the direction of peer support group. And so I did that for a long time and that was life changing. And that was where I thought, why can’t we do this in a church setting? This is so easy, like, we’re just a group of broken people sitting together. The psychiatrist who was leading that peer support group rarely, if ever, said anything. Just listened. And if somebody maybe went outside of the boundaries that the group had set for how we would operate, then he might interject. But other than that he said nothing. And I thought, we’re all healing and changing by meeting together and listening to each other’s stories. We could do this in church.

Sarah Kift: You know, a bunch of broken people sitting together—that sounds like church.

Wally Nickel: Exactly. And the other thing I learned in that peer support group was I could heal; and I was actually healing even when there was silence, because sometimes we would go long periods of time where no one wanted to say anything. And yet I realized in that, God is doing something. He’s healing even in the midst of silence. I’m still processing, I’m still thinking, I’m still working through things. And so that was profound, that was where the seed or the bug was in me, like, why can’t we do this in church? So that was where that seed was planted.

I still wasn’t done in my journey. I came out of that, I started to reintegrate, sort of, into life and into the day-to-day. And I was learning the coping skills for the anxiety and the panic attacks and entering back into ministry setting slowly, half-time in an administrative role, just sort of getting my feet wet again and also getting more comfortable in my skin. This is my new reality. And in that, met with a friend of mine, and I was wrestling with something else actually—financial related—and he said you know, I’ve got this counsellor and she’s done amazing things for me in my life and she’s helped me get set free from all sorts of things. Why don’t you talk to her? And I was like, I don’t know. Again, this reluctance to go seek help. And so he kept encouraging me and finally I was like, okay I’ll go. And so I went and I met with this lady, her name’s Barb, and found out later on she’s actually a trauma counsellor. I didn’t know that going in, but I just went on the advice of my friend who said she’s Spirit-led and she’s amazing and she’ll help you.

And so I went in and I wanted to talk about this, and of course she did the thing of like, well, tell me more of your story. And I started to tell her more of my story, and within an hour she had me talking about things that I had no intention of going there to talk about. And then these flashbacks started to come up, and I mentioned them, and of course she probed into that more and more. And by the end of the hour she said you know, you’re not here to talk about topic A. You’re here for this. And I said, how do you know? She goes, it is so obvious and so evident and the Spirit is so saying this is what you’re here for. And I was just like, oh my goodness. I said okay, I’m willing to come back and talk about this. And I remember getting out of that appointment, getting into my car, sitting in the parking lot and saying really, God? I thought I was coming here to solve problem A, and you want me to go down this thing which I don’t even know if it really happened or not? And he’s like, yeah. And I go, but why? He’s like, why? I felt betrayed. I said to him, why would you trick me into coming to see her like that? And he said, well if I had told you upfront would you have come? And I said no. He said, are you willing to try? And I said okay, I’m willing. I’ll give it another shot. And I went back, and at forty-seven I experienced grace for the first time.

All those years ministering, I could preach about it. I had degrees in theology, all that kind of stuff. I could tell you all about it, but in that classic Philip Yancey book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? I could never answer that personally. I could just tell you—theoretically and theologically—what’s so amazing about it, but I had never experienced it. And that was almost like a second birth for me. That was a profound experience where I was like, okay, now I am profoundly changed. I can’t go back and do ministry like I did. I can’t go back and be the person that I was. This is a significant part of my story. God’s done an amazing thing of healing. And so that was when the church was starting to approach me and saying hey, would you come and pastor with us? And I was like okay, but I’m very different than what I was, you know, ten, twelve years ago even. And it was a profound healing experience for me.

Sarah Kift: I’m just so moved by your openness and your story, actually.

Wally Nickel: I appreciate it, yeah.

Sarah Kift: Can you talk a little bit about how your ministry changed? Because you said well, I’m not the same person, so what shifted for you?

Wally Nickel: Yeah, a lot of my mechanisms that I put in to protect myself I think as a teen, as a young adult early in ministry, focused around things of perfectionism and control, high standards, thriving off of the encouragement and the accolades of other people. You know, when they say you did great, or that was an awesome sermon, that’s where my drive would come from. And all of those things were based out of an insecurity that I didn’t even know why it was there. I just always thought I was kind of shy, I always thought I was, I knew I was, probably more an introvert, but in hindsight really what I was doing is, I was always sort of living life on the sidelines observing other people. And not knowing why I couldn’t, or didn’t, fit into that. And the way that I found that I could fit in was in the pastoral ministry and doing these other things for people, and then gaining their support and encouragement. And I think God honoured all that in terms of calling me into the ministry and in terms of gifting me with certain things and allowing me to be used. But now all of a sudden I realized oh, he has a work to do in me and he wants me to be able to experience the things that I was wanting others to experience or helping them experience. And so I realized the only way that that was going to happen was really by being genuinely me. Perfectionism and control, those were my two big vices. And the hard thing is, they helped me be successful in ministry.

Sarah Kift: Yeah.

Wally Nickel: Right, like that’s really the tough part. And so I always say I had like forty years of living and developing these habits and ways of life, and then I all of a sudden had the scales and I was trying to tip them, so it’s hard. I still fall back into a lot of those things quite often, I still have to stop myself and check myself and say what’s my motivation here? Why am I feeling anxious about this? Is it because I’m worrying about what other people will say? Am I worrying about how well I will do or will I let my family down? I’ve realized my biggest critic is actually in my head. The voice in my head is my single biggest critic, it’s the one that creates the most fear and the most anxiety for me. So I’m still learning a lot of those kinds of healthier habits, still learning how to take risks and step out, sort of, into that unknown where I don’t have the control and just be trusting. Those are hard places for me to go, even now.

Sarah Kift: Yeah, I feel that.

Wally Nickel: Yeah. So even coming here this morning, again I had to check myself. There was a lot of okay, well I don’t know this Sarah person and I don’t know what her expectations are, and what if this isn’t the perfect podcast, and you know all those things. And then I was just like okay Lord, that’s not what you’re asking me to do. I think you just want me to come and talk and share and I’ll let you take care of all the rest, and Sarah’s probably pretty good at what she does and I don’t have to worry about any of that end of things. So it’s a process, but I had to consciously release all that this morning. And even on the drive here, just saying okay, no. I’m not going back to those thoughts. I’m just going to come and let God do whatever he wants to do, even if it’s not perfect in my eyes. It’ll be okay.

So that is also how I’m trying to do ministry, and it’s hard. And the church I’m in is great right now, they have a lot of freedom. I think a lot of times the expectations that I experience are ones that I bring on myself. I used to be able to do this, or I used to be able to function at this level. I used to be able to work more hours, or work more efficiently, and I can’t anymore. There are some significant capacity things that are reduced since my mental crash, and I’m not necessarily fully comfortable in my new skin in terms of the limitations it has for me.

And even in thoughts of like, I don’t think I’m worth what they’re paying me, or I think somebody else could do my job better. Somebody maybe younger or who hasn’t experienced the stuff I’ve experienced could come in and they’d have more energy and more get-up-and-go to produce more. And I’m like, where’s that coming from? It’s coming from, again, these old habits and old thoughts of this is who I am and this is how I will be worth something and find value in society and find value with my peers. But it’s not coming from a place that God’s saying this is who I called you to be, this is who I say you are. If you’re not going to cure me—because it’s becoming evident to me, I’m still in counselling, I’m still in therapy, still deal with depression and anxiety, so it’s becoming evident to me that I’m not getting the supernatural cure for now—then why not take the calling away? Or if you’re going to keep the calling, it’d be so much easier if I didn’t have mental health challenges, if I didn’t live with mental illness. Can’t it be one or the other? And so I’ve been wrestling with that all year, and he’s saying no, it’s not going to be one or the other. Why can’t it be both, why can’t you do both? And so that’s been my journey—can I find peace and can I find a sense of wholeness in the midst of mental illness? That’s been a profound challenge for me.

Sarah Kift: I feel like I just keep getting really, actually, moved by the Spirit, by your story.

Wally Nickel: Thanks.

Sarah Kift: And I just want to say to our listeners, you know we’re not perfect. And even if your podcast host starts crying, that’s a good thing.

Wally Nickel: Yeah.

Sarah Kift: Especially when it comes to what Sanctuary, and what you’re, talking about today Wally.

Wally Nickel: Yeah. Yeah, I really want to sit with people in that place where I have been at, and where I’m at. Where it’s like okay, I’m convinced that God is God. I am convinced that he is who he says he is. But, for me at least, mental illness—and it could be some other chronic illness—has rocked my practical day-to-day life so hard that I don’t know how to reconcile my God in my day-to-day. But I know the answer is not throwing away God, and so what do you do? I’ve been fortunate to have counsellors and occupational therapists who have developed into friends and who were able, with their faith, to stand in that gap with me and just be present and just hold that place—often in silence—and just say it’s okay. You don’t need to walk away from your faith. You can meet God in this place, he’s here somewhere.

Sarah Kift: Many of us have experienced shame, fear, and a deep sense of unworthiness that is rooted in trauma, and it can silence us when we need help the most. I was deeply moved by Wally’s willingness to speak what was unspeakable for so long and share his life with me and you, the listener.

You know, none of us predicted how separate we would be in 2020, and Wally spends a lot of time talking about how crucial in-person connections are to support mental health. These things are still true, but we’ve had to innovate and find new ways to support each other in the midst of a global pandemic—where distance is the safest, kindest thing we can do. We are getting closer to being able to be together again, and this is good news. But just a note for listeners, as this episode was recorded before the pandemic hit us. Wally’s care for others and deep pastoral insight still rings true and I hope you take as much comfort from this conversation as I did.

Sarah Kift: Yeah, let’s talk about these groups a little more. Because, as a facilitator myself, it’s always interesting to be in a room where you are wearing more than one hat and managing your own heart, as well as creating space for others. That’s a tension that I think you articulated beautifully. So tell me about the peer support groups. Tell me about your experience of them—what have you learned, what’s gone well, what’s been hard? Let’s go there.

Wally Nickel: Yeah, you know when we started last August, September I had no idea what we were in store for, really. When we had joined with the other church, they had said the previous year they were sometimes down to two or three people, and it was hard to facilitate a group when you only had a couple people. And so when all these people showed up, it was a super pleasant surprise but it was so many people that we couldn’t really start to plan. We just had to go with it and say okay, we’ve got more people than we have facilitators for. We need somebody to step in, in this group, we need somebody. And it was that kind of thing where God was just doing something, and so I think that really set a good tone for me to say oh, this can happen and this can be effective even beyond my planning. And so I tried to hold every session quite loosely and be very open and just be very upfront with people right away. And so when anybody new ever comes in I let them know right away yes, I’m a facilitator but I live with… And the other thing I do in our groups is I—immediately when we walk into the room there’s always a table with chairs around it and the first thing I do is I pull that table out and I push it off to the side. And people look at me like, we’re not sitting around the table? And I say don’t worry, it’ll be okay. It’s another way, physically, for me to signal vulnerability and say there’s nothing that’s going to stand between me and you, not even a table. And I’m going to lead the way in that. I’m going to be vulnerable with you, I’m going to share with you, and if I come in and I am having a crappy day, if I come in and I didn’t want to be there that evening, chances are neither did they. Or at least somebody in the group’s thinking that, and so I try to be really open and vulnerable with that. And so we’ve had other people come who have come through the group find out that I’m a pastor, I’m in a church, and they’re starting to come. We’ve had some community people come. And again, trying to help them experience that you don’t have to come to church on a Sunday morning and have it all together or fake it to fit in. This is a safe place and I find it way easier, actually, to have conversations with people when I ask them how they’re doing and they say not so good.

Sarah Kift: Yeah.

Wally Nickel: Because it’s real and we can start to unpack. And nothing miraculous normally happens, other than we often end up praying, which is miraculous—you get to talk to God and share your stuff—they don’t walk away feeling cured, but they feel supported and that there’s hope and they can continue on in their day. And to me that’s a win.

Sarah Kift: Yeah, it’s this idea of belonging, right?

Wally Nickel: Yeah.

Sarah Kift: I’ve been meditating on that myself lately and a lot of what you said about performance really strikes a chord with me. But this idea that you can belong, truly belong—because that is one of our greatest desires as human beings—and to have the Church be a place where that’s possible…

Wally Nickel: Yeah.

Sarah Kift: …instead of as you talked about, you were laying in that hospital bed and you felt like the Church was saying get fixed up.

Wally Nickel: Yeah.

Sarah Kift: And then you’ll fit in again.

Wally Nickel: Right.

Sarah Kift: And what you’re doing now is creating that space where people don’t have to be fixed up to be a part of things.

Wally Nickel: You know, we’re very open to that when it comes to other chronic illnesses, but there is still a considerable stigma when it comes to church. And I think a lot of it is just a fear of the unknown—we don’t know what we’re stepping into, we don’t.

Sarah Kift: Well, it’s interesting that you were talking a little bit about when you brought up this idea to previous churches.

Wally Nickel: Yeah.

Sarah Kift: They were like, ahh!

Wally Nickel: Yeah.

Sarah Kift: So for people that are feeling that way now, other pastors that are listening to you and feeling stirred, you’ve got a whole bunch of people in a room who may be unpredictable. Like, I think that’s a lot of where the fear comes from.

Wally Nickel: Yeah.

Sarah Kift: So describe that to me.

Wally Nickel: Like, we have had people come into our group who later on that night were in emergency because they were suicidal. We didn’t know that, I didn’t know that during my group. I could tell something was going on. We have people who come and every time they leave there’s a sense of they’re going back into a very broken environment, and you just feel like oh, man. You can’t go there with them, you don’t get to walk into their home and fix it all. There are times where people are taking over the group and sharing in ways that you just need to step in with some clear boundaries and either redirect or just say that’s not what this group is for, or say hey, we need to have a conversation afterwards. It doesn’t always just flow super easy and it’s not always neat and tidy. But at the end of every evening we as facilitators get together and we debrief what happened. We debrief if there’s anything significant that we maybe think we should follow up on, that type of thing, and then we pray for people in our groups and we pray for ourselves. And we use the analogy of—it started out as an analogy of a drawer, but I found that analogy a little hard so I switched it to a safe. So at the end of the day we place everybody into a safe in our minds, and we close the door on that safe and we say okay God, they’re safe with you. And when we’re tempted during the next day or the next week to pull them back out in our thoughts—oh so-and-so, man they’re going into a really ugly home situation, or they were really sharing some deep things and I wish I could fix it for them—then our thought is okay, why am I pulling them out of the safe? Is it because God’s asking me to pull them out of the safe and he wants me to do something, or is it just because I want to crack that safe and fix everything that’s in there?

And so that’s been a real freeing experience, to say they’re safe with God, they’re in the safe. And the next time I will get to see them and talk to them usually will either be the next session or on a Sunday morning or something like that, and then again I can check in and see how they’re doing. And there hasn’t been anything that we’ve encountered where either the staff of the church or the staff at the emergency have not been able to deal with. We haven’t lost anybody yet. And so in that sense it hasn’t been unmanageable, but there’s definitely been times in the group where it’s been like oh, man. I’ve lost this group and I’m not sure how to get it back, and I’m not sure exactly how God wants me to get it back. Like, is this okay? Just because it’s outside of my comfort zone doesn’t always mean that it’s not being helpful or healthy within the group. And it is a learning experience, especially for people who come for the first time into a group. Some people come and they’re nervous, and their nervousness either silences them or sometimes their nervousness causes them to be just a complete open book, and they just take over the whole session and they want to spend an hour telling you their whole life story, which isn’t necessarily what that hour is about.

And so again, that’s part of our role as facilitators—to help guide and allow the entire group to be successful. And so when somebody breaks down in tears, I don’t feel like I need to rush over there and fix it or anything. Usually somebody else in the group will come alongside, and we just have this sense of—by our actions and in our words, which are sometimes silent—saying it’s okay. This is the place where you can cry about the brokenness in your life, or this is the place where you can say I’m at my wit’s end, I don’t know what to do. And we as a group will hold that.

Sarah Kift: So just imagine that you’re sitting with someone who’s a new pastor or a new ministry worker, and they’ve got all that on their shoulders. You know, the “doing it right”. They’re passionate about something, they want to do it well and not be ill themselves, and they want to start this thing. How would you encourage them? What would be the first thing you would say, this is probably a good idea, start here?

Wally Nickel: Wow. I would encourage them with a thing that I think I wish I had been encouraged with back in 1990 when I started in ministry, and that would be self-care. And I would just encourage them and say, what are you doing in terms of self-care? And I would encourage them to be even more proactive, and say if you don’t already, find a counsellor who you can speak with on a regular basis. Not because I think you’re ill or needing something, but simply to help you know and be reminded of the fact that you are broken, but that God is still at work within you. And there are probably things that you don’t even know about yourself that this other person, if it’s a good relationship with your counsellor—and that’s always something to explore, don’t stick with a counsellor if that fit isn’t there because it’s not going to be helpful to you and it’s not going to be helpful to them—but once you find that person, to be able to meet on a regular basis. Whatever it might end up being for you, once a month or something, just somebody that you check in with and you have a safe space to simply unpack and say this is what’s going on in my life. These are the fears that I’m experiencing, these are the joys, these are the things that are really driving me. I want to make sure that my motivations are good, I want to make sure that I’m in a healthy place so that I can keep doing these great things. Or somebody who can say hey, it looks like you’re maybe struggling, or maybe you’re spiraling, or what’s going on?

It’s hard to find that person inside the church, either on the leadership team or on the staff team. At least it was for me, because there was always that sense of either whatever’s going on I’ll get over it, I just need a break, or I just need to shift gears or that kind of thing. Or a sense of expectations that we just place on ourselves, that, I don’t know, if I’m real and vulnerable and show that weakness that might jeopardize my ministry or that might jeopardize my job, or that type of thing. And to do that regularly, especially when they are feeling like life and ministry are going great. Keep meeting with that person, keep allowing them to encourage and affirm you’re doing well. It’s a small price to pay for that person to be a part of your life for the times when you do face challenges and when things are going off the rails, and for them to be able to see some of those coming before you are ready to acknowledge that they’re coming. So to have that long-term relationship with somebody, I think, is well worth the cost that you might put out in dollars over the years.

Sarah Kift: I just want to say thank you.

Wally Nickel: You’re welcome.

Sarah Kift: Because you are embodying what you are ministering in.

Wally Nickel: I appreciate that. It doesn’t always feel comfortable, it really doesn’t. I still wrestle with it a lot. There’s a part of me that wishes that I could walk outside of this room and again feel cured and not have to deal with it. And it is a challenge. It is a real wrestling on a day-to-day basis. But it is part of how I find hope in my healing journey. And realizing it’s how I want other people also to be able to experience hope is, you used the word, uncomfortable.

There’s hope in the uncomfortable.

Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries exists to equip the Church to support mental health and wellbeing. May this podcast encourage you to create safe space for your own story and for the stories of others, as well as create change in communities that stigmatize those living with mental health challenges.

The Sanctuary Course is a small group resource designed to help initiate and guide conversations about mental health and faith. It is a starting point, creating a base of shared knowledge from which churches can explore the next steps. Perhaps most importantly, through the simple act of talking openly about mental health, the course helps churches begin to create safe spaces for all of us to share our mental health stories and receive support in community.

Each theme in the course is explored from a psychological, social, and theological perspective, and each session is accompanied by a compelling film focused on an individual’s story—a person of faith who has journeyed through mental health challenges. You can learn more about The Sanctuary Course and Sanctuary’s other resources at 

I’m your host Sarah Kift, and I’m thankful for the people who help make this episode happen. Music by the artist Crash by Car by and all funding and support by the team at Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries. This podcast is released under a creative commons attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives 4.0 licence. Don’t change it or sell it, but please share it all you like.