5 Socially-Acceptable Ways Church Leaders Self-Medicate

Let me guess.

You’re so busy caring for others (people in your church, your kids, your family, your friends) that you haven’t really taken great care of yourself lately, have you?

Welcome to leadership. Especially church leadership.

You run hard. You work long hours.

And you’re so busy caring for others you forgot to care for yourself.

Usually when I ask church leaders how they’re doing personally, they admit they don’t take great care of themselves.

And when you don’t take great care of yourself, guess what you end up doing in almost every single case?

You end up self-medicating.

Every leader has a choice between self-care and self-medication, and subconsciously, many choose the ‘polite’ version of self-medication.

Do you? And how would you know if you did?


What’s Self-Medication?

I had never heard of the term ‘self-medication‘ until I got married.

But my wife Toni is a health care professional and she uses it to describe what people do to cope with the stress, anxiety and difficulty in life.

When stress and life overwhelm you, you will either choose to respond to it in a healthy way (self-care) or an unhealthy way (self-medication).

And when you think of self-medication, don’t just think of pills or alcohol. As we’ll see below, there are some very ‘socially-acceptable’ ways even for Christians to self-medicate.

But the results are still numbing.

The choice is yours, but the first reality is this: Self-care is so much healthier than self-medicating.

The second reality is just as important: If you don’t intentionally choose self-care as a leader, you’ll end up self-medicating.

5 Socially Acceptable Ways Christian Leaders Self-Medicate

1. Overeating.

Being overweight or even obese is almost normal in some Christian circles.

As someone who has to watch my weight very carefully (and who does not understand how anyone can be a natural bean pole), I empathize. And I also know I often eat when I’m not hungry, but when I’m upset or just bored.

Food is the drug of choice for many Christian leaders.

2.  Working More 

Again, working too many hours is socially acceptable, even rewardable in some circles.

As a recovering workaholic, I know. But all work and no play doesn’t just make you dull, it makes you disobedient.

It’s ironic, but the way some leaders cope with the stress associated with work is by working more. It numbs the pain.

3. Gossip 

It’s just a theory, but I think when we feel bad about ourselves, we say bad things about other people.

Often church leaders who have failed to care for themselves end up with enough toxin inside that they want to take down others. In many churches, prayer requests are thinly disguised gossip sessions. And too often Christians would rather talk about someone and their terrible misfortunes than help them.

That’s just sinful.

4.  Spending

Whether it’s retail therapy at the mall, ordering more of your favourite pursuit online, or the constant climb into a bigger house, a better car, the latest tech or the latest trend, Christians can easily numb their pain endlessly accumulating things that end up in a landfill site one day.

5. Under-the-Radar Substance Abuse

Sure, you’re probably not going to develop a cocaine addiction. But sometimes it can be more subtle than that.

Whether it’s a drink every day when you get home or an overuse or misuse of your legitimate prescription, Christian leaders can fall into the classic pattern of turning to a substance rather than turning to God for relief.

So if you don’t want to end up self-medicating, what do you do?

10 Healthy Options for Self-Care

The best thing you can do as a leader is take good care of yourself.

When you carve out time to take care of yourself, you’ll always be in a better position to take care of others.

There’s nothing truly new in these ten options, but when you do them they have a staggeringly positive impact on your personal health and well being, spiritual and otherwise.

1. A great daily time with God.

Whatever method you use (here are some ideas), time with God matters. And your personal walk with God is often a casualty of ministry. Why is that? Shouldn’t be!

2. Exercise

Being out of shape physically means you will never be in top shape mentally or emotionally. I don’t like exercise either, so I invested in a road bike.

I get asked all the time what I ride, so here you go: a 2009 Specialized Roubaix. And I bought it used (1/3 of its original price). It doesn’t have to break the bank.  And yes, I love it!

3. A healthy diet

You are what you eat. Dumping the processed foods for whole foods can make a big difference.

4. Proper sleep

If I don’t get 7-8 hours semi-regularly, I feel it. Sadly, sometimes others do too.

I really think sleep is one of the most-underrated leadership secret weapons there is. Here’s why.

5. Intentional white space in your calendar 

You can schedule time off and down time in the same way you schedule meetings. Just do it! I wrote a post on time management that links to many time management tips here.

6. Healthy friendships

Ministry can be draining.

When was the last time you hung out with a friend you didn’t need to ‘minister to’? Who makes you laugh until you cry?

Go hang out with them. Regular doses of life-giving relationships can make such a difference.

7. Margin 

I am kindest when I have the most margin. This is true in terms of my calendar, but also true of finances.

How can you be generous with your heart, time, money and attitude if you have nothing left to give?

8. Hobbies

Writing, blogging  and podcasting are my hobbies these days.

You can be much more interesting than that. Take some pictures. Take up hiking. Get crafty. Study the constellations.

9. Family Time

Take a road trip, go out for dinner. Have some fun!

Play hockey in the driveway or shoot hoops.

10. Coaching and counseling. 

For about 12 years I’ve had coaches and counselors who have helped me get through road bumps and life issues. Invaluable.

Yes I pay them money, but it’s an investment in my family, my church and my life. I’m different and better for it.

Better Than The Alternative

I know at the end of my life, I will be so much better for pursing the path of self-care rather than the path of self-medication.

One takes intentional planning, but it’s so worth it.

Eventually leaders who don’t care for themselves but still avoid self-medication end up burning out. If you haven’t heard Perry Noble’s incredible story about burning out while at the top of his leadership game, don’t miss it. Perry and I have also put together a lot of resources here to help leaders who think they might be burning out.

What are you learning about self-care? How have you seen people self-medicate?

I’d love to hear what you’re learning on this!


  1. Tamika on December 5, 2017 at 8:12 am

    Is a very good article, but I have a question-why does it say that a person is disobedient if they are all work and no play?

  2. Brynne Davenport on December 4, 2017 at 6:00 am

    You left out pornography, probably the most used and more often used than the five points listed. It is estimated that well above 50% of pastors and church youth leaders have struggled or are struggling with it. Having worked in the largest recovery ministry in the US, seeing pastors and leaders from other churches coming to this recovery ministry and for years being in a church whose pastors/leaders talk about it often (they know their audience), I have seen first hard just how incredibly pervasive, addictive and destructive it is.

  3. David Dudenhofer on March 12, 2017 at 4:32 pm

    Good thoughts for sure. Other than the spending thing, done in moderation . . .I’ve done pretty good avoiding the self-medicating, but on the positive side, it has been very hard to maintain good friendships. “Laugh til I cry,” hasn’t happened for me for a long, long time. I cannot seem to stay near the friends that I make outside ministry. I move or they move. Sometimes, I long so much for that “guy friend” it makes me want to cry.

  4. muledoggie on February 24, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    Very well done and convicting. Not socially acceptable in Christian circles, BUT PORN, man. PORN! VERY socially acceptable now.

  5. brooke on February 28, 2015 at 10:47 am

    Thanks for graciously giving us a knock on the head! I would add one more to it, although I’m not sure the appropriate label? Something about watching TV/Movies spending time on the internet/facebook rather than being with people or exercising or spending time with friends. We kind of seclude ourselves from the world and curl up into this bubble which is not beneficial. The entertainment world/social media become our drug of choice and we find ourselves viewing things we would not be proud to say in front of our church family.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 1, 2015 at 8:36 am

      You’re welcome Brooke. And yes! That can often be self-medicating.

  6. Chris on February 25, 2015 at 11:18 pm

    Carey, thank you thank you thank you…for posting this. #1 is my drug of choice as a Pastor. I just preached about this 2 weeks ago and that obesity and gluttony are an epidemic in our churches, yet the church refuses to talk about it. In the last 2 weeks I’ve had more people share that sermon with their friends and friends share it with their Pastors. I even said from the pulpit that when I eat I’m getting high. In Sept. of 2014 I was diagnosed with fatty liver and told that if I didn’t reverse it eventually I would die. So I eliminated fast food, fried food, red meat, soda, sugars, and came to the realization that I was a stress eater, making food not only my drug of choice by my idol of worship. It’s been an extremely hard few months on my family and I (my wife is Italian and an amazing cook), but we’ve been doing it by the grace of God.
    I wish that our churches, especially our leaders, would spend more time watching what they eat and taking care of themselves. It’s a slippery slope. I could say more, but I don’t want to write a novel here. Just thank you for this post. I really appreciate it.

    P.S.: I’m in counseling as well to help me with the stress. It’s been amazing to say the least and I’m finding hobbies that I didn’t know I would like.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 26, 2015 at 6:14 am

      Chris…this is amazing. THANK YOU for your honesty and transparency and the courage to change. I have to admit, I’m a natural emotional eater too. Way to go. You’re going to help a lot of people!

  7. Geoff Bynum on January 19, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    Are you familiar with this resource? http://flourishingleaders.org

  8. me on December 19, 2014 at 12:24 am

    I am overwhelmed by how accurate this post is. As I type, I’m scanning my house for hidden cameras. Insightful is an epic understatement. Thank you for writing this. Really.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 19, 2014 at 5:56 am

      So glad it helped. The cameras go dark at Christmas…just so you know. 🙂 (Appreciate the comment!)

  9. Paul on December 17, 2014 at 1:55 pm

    Great article. So easy to go down the wrong path. Sometimes even the hobbies can become self-medicating – like computer / video games.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 19, 2014 at 5:56 am

      Great. I got hooked on N64 back in the day. Seems funny now, but it’s true.

  10. Woodward on December 17, 2014 at 9:15 am

    Um, yes. I might be too tired to read the books I buy (I am known by name and face in more than one store), and I buy a lot, but one day….

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 19, 2014 at 5:57 am

      It’s funny how our habits are all idiosyncratic. I’m sure they think you’re the most read man in town Woodward. Thanks for your honesty!

  11. H Gilmore on December 16, 2014 at 11:25 am

    As someone who is graduating seminary next year, I’m going to keep this article in my bookmarks as a reminder. I will say that yes, exercise is a good self-care action, but I have seen a rare case where exercise and health turned into self-medication. A friend’s crisis of vocation was channeled into a fixation on fitness and “cleanses.” All things, even good things, in moderation.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 16, 2014 at 8:48 pm

      Great perspective H. Advance congrats on graduation!

  12. CJ on December 16, 2014 at 10:29 am

    Now why did we have to bring Netflick’s into this? Seriously, I’m glad you did! Its somthing I do all to often without thinking and the next day I can’t even recall what I watched. I never thought of it as Self-medicating. I think I tried to reason it as more of “quality time” with my family. But most of the time its just robbing me of the time I could be spending on more meaningful things. Good Word Lawrence.

  13. Mike on December 16, 2014 at 7:32 am

    Since I became a leader in my current job I’ve put on 26lbs, I’m on 3 prescribed medications each day and yes, I am spending way to much on stuff I don’t need. Uncomfortable to see it spelt out here, but helpful to see a healthy alternative described. Now to deal with the pesky guilt thing.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 16, 2014 at 8:47 pm

      Mike…love that you left a comment on this. You’re half way through the battle. Keep going!

  14. Lawrence W. Wilson on December 16, 2014 at 6:46 am

    Don’t forget binge watching Netflix. The worst thing about these practices (the first set, self-medicating) is that they treat only the symptoms, not the disease. They do provide a diversion from stress, but they do nothing to change the underlying problem, so it returns with even more force. Your 10 good coping strategies are great–and #8, hobbies, is often overlooked.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 16, 2014 at 8:47 pm

      This is so interesting. I actually was going to list 7 things and was going to list binge watching, and then cut back to 5. But you’re right Lawrence. Bingo.

  15. Brent Dumler on December 15, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    I hated having to read this post. Ok, this one really hit a soft spot. I’ll admit it…I self-medicate with food. Sometimes it’s over-eating, other times it’s unhealthy food choices. And if I’m really honest, often those two go hand in hand. I’m about 45 lbs overweight, but at a height of 6′ 4″ it’s easy to hide. I’ve got a plan for 2015. This is my year!

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