HITTING THE WALL
WC graduate helps guide pastors’ past stressors to a safe harbor of support.
When Mike Gauch (WC ’79) looks at his clients at the Safe Harbor Ministry, the pastoral counselor, spiritual director, and executive director often see a little of himself in them.
Gauch specializes in helping pastors, missionaries, and others in full-time ministry. It wasn’t that long ago Gauch was the one who needed help.
“(Safe Harbor) started as an act of faith when we retired from pastoring a local church after 24 years,” Gauch said. “We wanted to come alongside others struggling emotionally and spiritually and help usher them into the LORD’s presence, where grace and truth are encountered.
“Mainly, we see people who are stuck. They can’t move forward with God or life because something in their life is blocking them. This could be a current situation, a past hurt, persistent shame, anxiety, or anger. After the isolation created by Covid in 2020), there is also a lot of fear and anxiety crippling people. I’m seeing more and more people rebuilding their walk with Christ.”
Gauch, who lives in Upper Arlington with his wife Marcy, has three grown children: David (who is 34 years old and graduated from Worthington Christian in 2007), Mason (31), and J.B. (28).
Gauch had been the pastor of the Christian Fellowship Church for 23 years when he “hit the wall” in 2017. He was placed on an emergency sabbatical for four months but returned to serve the church for another year before leaving to start Safe Harbor.
“(It) was a scary, disorienting, and dark time,” Gauch said. “Emotionally, I collapsed. I was unable to function normally. There was so much shame in having my weakness uncovered, and the spiritual tools I taught for decades did not work for me.”
Gauch, who earned an undergraduate degree from The Ohio State University and a Master of Divinity from Grace Theological Seminary, often tells his story to his clientele because he finds it strikes a chord with them.
According to Gauch, seeking an outsider for help is the first step to recovery, but it is also the hardest to take.
“The courage it takes to be vulnerable is never taken lightly by me,” Gauch said. “There is a built-in humility to ask for help. We are saying we can’t do this life on our own. For any individual to admit it to themselves always blesses me.
“God’s promised empowering grace is poured out to the person stepping into humility. A person comes knowing we will look under the hood of their life. These are things that we’ve tried to hide or manage our whole life. The courage to face oneself is truly a blessing to see.”
Pastoral struggles are nothing new. In 2008, the Journal of Primary Prevention stated the rate of depression among clergy members was 11.1 percent, more than double the then-national rate of 5.5 percent. The journal stated pastoral stressors include offering grief counseling to those in need, facing the demands of congregants, and delivering a weekly sermon.
Furthermore, the study found a feeling of guilt about not doing enough at work was a top factor of depression; doubting whether they were called to ministry was a top predictor of anxiety.
Gauch believes shepherding a flock in a post-Covid world has made things even more difficult for pastors, who often face dwindling attendance and shrinking financial support.
“Navigating a church through 2020 until today is a terrible experience for most pastors,” he said. “Many feel trapped in discouragement and despair.”
“I’m happy to report that increasingly, many churches realize the importance of providing the funds for their Pastor’s ongoing soul care.”
Gauch described his time away from the church as “painful.” “Ministry is how I knew who I was. Without it, I was lost and scared,” he said.
However, during his sabbatical, Gauch said he received the counseling he needed, and the LORD did a “transformative work” that allowed him to return to his church in a much better mental frame of mind.
A year after he returned to his church, Gauch felt called to start Safe Harbor with his wife Marcy as the ministry’s spiritual director. Gauch said one of the great joys of his ministry is working with his wife.
“When I ‘hit the wall,’ Marcy was not only my soul mate, but my advocate, healer, and friend,” he said. “No one on earth knows me better and still loves me. I don’t think I could or maybe even want to do ministry without her.”
“In my personal healing, I gravitated to those who had walked where I was walking. Now I work with several pastors and missionaries who, over the last three years, have experienced “the wall.” It is an incredible honor to help guide someone through their wall experience.”