How to Handle the Stress of Special Needs Ministry

"Christian spirituality, without an integration of emotional health, can be deadly to yourself, your relationship with God, and the people around you.”

Pete Scazzero from Emotionally Healthy Spirituality

In April, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in Key Ministry’s Inclusion Fusion Live conference in Ohio. I live in Georgia so when I was invited to participate as a speaker I immediately knew that the distance was far too great for me to drive, so I booked my flight to Cleveland.

If you have flown on a plane before then you are well aware about the inflight safety instructions. Like many people, I found myself settling into my seat on the plane and completely ignoring the instructions for two primary reasons. One, I have done this before and two, I honestly didn’t expect to have to actually use any of the strategies designed to help keep me safe.

Serving in ministry can be the same way. Those who answer the call to serve others are aware of the need for self-care but we often neglect the need to have strategies that help monitor our own spiritual and emotional health.

In 2014, at the age of 36, after a lifetime of sensory processing challenges, social anxiety and a host of other significant issues, I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (Asperger’s). I was a husband, father, and a pastor of a growing church but because I had not learned how to secure my own oxygen mask first, I was struggling tremendously.

As a pastor with a developmental disability, I have spent the last four years learning from the story of the prophet Elijah about how to best serve my family, church, and community by giving more attention to the need for self-care in my ministry.

Those who serve in ministry and particularly those who serve in ministry with the disability and special needs communities can also learn how to become aware of the need for self-care so that they can continue to develop a stronger relationship with God and with those whom they serve.

In 1 Kings 19 Elijah finds himself at the end of a very challenging season of ministry and there are 5 lessons to learn about the critical need for self-care.


Pay attention to your body and mind.

Elijah told God he was tired and that he “had enough.”  After falling asleep under a tree an angel touched him and encouraged him to eat. Some early signs of depression and negative stress are changes in appetite and sleeping habits. In one season Elijah went from being energetic to being exhausted. Pay attention to what your body is saying to you about the load you are carrying while serving.

Take Care of your body and mind.

The angels encouraged Elijah to practice self-care by meeting the physical needs of his body and mind. Good self-care includes a good diet, exercise, and proper rest and the avoidance of self-medicating with harmful habits. This is not only good for you it is also honoring to God.

Remember ministry is a journey.

The angels in the story reminded Elijah that good physical and emotional health were important because he still had a journey to embark upon. Sometimes ministry can be spiritually and emotionally draining but always remember that where you are in times of stress is not God’s final destination or dream for your life. As often as you can pray and practice being hopeful about the future.

Ask the right questions

After Elijah took care of his physical needs, God asks him how he ended up in the cave. Emotional self-care will eventually require an evaluation of the habits that led to the stress and burnout. Ask yourself how you got to this emotional state. Find trusted friends and co-workers to help you evaluate your spiritual and emotional pace. If needed seek professional help. Remember that seeking professional help does not make you weak, it makes you wise.

Understand that you are not alone

In the end God assures Elijah that there were at least 7,000 people who continue with the mission and ministry of God. Often times we are at our weakest when we believe we are alone. Self-care is also understanding that we are not required to be self-sufficient. Successfully navigating stressful seasons means having a community of support that can be sensitive to our struggles and serve us as we serve others.

Dr. Lamar Hardwick is the lead pastor of New Community Churchand the author of I am Strong: The Life and Journey of an Autistic Pastorand Epic Church: 5 Steps to Becoming the Church Jesus is Building. You can follow him at and on FacebookTwitterInstagram