Sean Seay on Pursuing Emotional Health in Ministry


Sean_Seay_podcastHello, everyone, and welcome to the unSeminary podcast. This week we’re talking with Sean Seay of Athens Church in Athens, Georgia.

Athens Church has been around since 2004 and is a strategic partner of North Point Ministries. Athens, GA is a diverse college town and that is represented within Athens Church itself. While God has blessed Athens Church and things were going well from afar, up close Sean was wrestling through some trials as he sought to develop a healthy emotional life. Sean is with us today to tell us about that journey and the things he learned about support systems in ministry and getting help when needed.

  • Watch for indicators in your life. // In spite of Athens Church growing and doing well, Sean felt something wasn’t right inside of him. Sean explains: “Internally there was a growing sense that I would just be more easily irritated than I wanted to be.” While Sean was aware of some of the areas he needed to work on, there were others that were not so visible. The breaking point for he and his family came a few years ago on Labor Day weekend when there was a pretty big emotional explosion in the house. Sean said when his wife told him they couldn’t go on this way, he realized he needed that signal from someone else to make him really see where he was in his life.
  • Have support systems in place. // “By the grace of God, because of the culture that I’ve been in, things like accountability were significant, so those relationships were in place.” When Sean’s wife raised her concerns that Labor Day, Sean said he was thankful there was already some support systems in place. He and his wife had a mentor couple that they looked up to and could talk to. He was actively going to counseling so had someone he could speak with. “A lot of times people who run into a wall don’t have those support systems in place,” Sean says. It was humiliating reaching out to those people and admitting his struggles, but it was necessary to begin to get help.
  • Reach out to get the help you need. // Getting that help was hard and Sean resisted at first. Even though he went to counseling, he still felt misunderstood and was defensive. It took a long year of in-depth counseling to help Sean be able to see Bonnie’s side and really open his eyes to problems he wasn’t aware even existed. “There was a time when we had three different counselors actively in our lives trying to help us navigate this.” On the advice of his mentor, Sean got the elders of his church involved too. After a year, his mentor suggested to the elders that Sean take time off to get the downtime he desperately needed. The North Point culture doesn’t have a written plan for Sabbaticals, so this wasn’t something that everyone was doing, but Sean knew that he needed it and he was grateful for the suggestion.
  • Make a plan and take a break. // Sean had never taken a Sabbatical and even the elders of his church didn’t know what a Sabbatical might entail. He researched online for ideas and places to go, trying to piece a plan of some sort together. Sean calls the first couple of months basically an “unwind,” where he’d go to friends’ vacation homes and even a monastery, staying a few days here and there. He didn’t attend his church services or check emails or think about Athens Church during that time. He then found a 2 week counseling intensive program by Michael Cusick called Restoring the Soul in Denver, specifically for people in ministry. That break was what Sean so desperately needed and he later went back to his elders and suggested that they create a Sabbatical plan for the future.

You can learn more about Athens Church at their website AthensChurch.com and reach Sean on Twitter @SeanSeay.

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Episode Highlights

00:37 // Rich introduces Sean Seay and welcomes him to the show.

01:15 // Sean introduces us to Athens Church.

02:54 // Sean briefly outlines his background.

04:35 // Sean shares a defining moment in his life where he realized things weren’t where they should be.

07:15 // Sean talks about having support systems in place.

09:15 // Sean talks us through the process of the support he received.

13:26 // Sean talks about his sabbatical and the impact of that.

18:25 // Sean talks about personal and organizational changes post his sabbatical.

Lightning Round

Helpful Tech Tools // Evernote. TED Talks

Influential Book // Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and Emotionally Healthy Church by Peter Scazzero. Soul Keeping by John Ortberg. Through The Eyes Of A Lion by Levi Lusko

Inspiring Leader // Brene Brown

What does he do for fun // Sleep. Sports

Contact // athenschurch.com  SeanSeay on Twitter

Episode Transcript

Rich – Well hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast, my name’s Rich, the host around these parts. I’m super honored that you would take some time out today, to be with us, we know you’ve got a lot going on in your life and in your ministry and we’re just honored that you would take some time out, to plug us in your earbuds and listen in to today’s conversation.

Today we’re honored to have the Lead Pastor of Athens Church, a fantastic church in Athens, Georgia, his name’s Sean Seay. Sean welcome to the show.

Sean – Hey thanks for having me Rich, I’m honored to be here.

Rich – I’m so glad to connect. Athens Church has been around since 2004, I believe that is when you launched?

Sean – That’s right.

Rich – A strategic partner of North Point Ministries, people may be familiar. This is a great church, if you’re not following Sean and Athens Church you really should be, there’s some great stuff going on here, a really great church.

Sean, why don’t you tell us about your church, give us kind of the flavor, what would people experience, a bit of the story, that sort of thing?

Sean – Yeah, well as you mentioned, Athens Church is 11 years old, actually, started kind of gathering a team in the fall of ’04. We had our first service January ’05. The 5 years previous to that, I was on staff at North Point Community Church in Atlanta and we were kind of launched as a strategic partner of theirs. So you’re going to get definitely a lot of North Point flavor, if you will, but one of the things that’s unique is we’re a college town, so that always brings some fun dynamics to our church, we absolutely love that, it’s kind of the major university of our state.

So Athens Church, man it’s young, it’s alive, it’s also got a really neat diversity. Athens is a fairly diverse town, so be that racially, socioeconomically, age-wise, I feel like we’re fairly representative of the time that’s we’re in but it’s a really, really neat place and I’m honored to be a part of it.

Rich – I’ve loved watching your story from afar. A lot of good things have happened I hear; your church has been growing, you’ve gone through kind of the ‘We Love Athens’ campaign, you’ve ended up opening a building. There’s been a lot that’s happened in the 11 short years of your ministry. I’d love to kind of talk about your own personal journey of leading in the midst of that. How have you continued to remain healthy through that process? How have you led as a leader in the midst of so much growth and impact in your community?

Sean – Yeah man, well I would love to tell you the story, that I have remained healthy through this process, but that wouldn’t be the true story.

Rich – Right.

Sean – The real true story would be, I grew up in Atlanta and I grew up in a really dysfunctional home; a dad that really loves me but just an unhealthy home setting. I got married at a really young age, Bonnie and I were 20 and 21 when we got married, still in college. Anyway Andy Stanley began as a mentor in my life at a young age in ministry. I went away to Dallas seminary and then again, I spent 5 years at North Point.

So I was very hungry and driven and when I came into helping start Athens Church, I would love to tell you that I was more healthy than I was, from an emotional vantage point, but I really wasn’t. It took me several years to figure that out.

One thing that’s great about North Point is I learned about the concept of emotional intelligence and EQ from a professional vantage point, but it took me a while before that really took root from a personal vantage point.

Rich – What would you say some of those indicators that there were maybe some internal issues that you needed to wrestle with? I think sometimes, I know for me, I don’t want to speak on behalf of the people that are listening, I know for me, I can convince myself, when things are going well in the ministry, when we’re reaching people, good things are happening there, we’re raising money, doing all that kind of stuff, it’s like, “No, everything’s good, everything’s good.” But a lot of times that’s not the case for folks that are in ministry. What were some of those kind of early indicators in your life where you were like, “Maybe everything’s not where it should be.”

Sean – I agree completely with what you’re saying. In terms of the church story, if you back up and zoom way out and don’t look at all of the details real close, things did go really, really well, for the first 10 or 11 years. God’s given us an astounding amount of grace and I enjoyed it and it was really hard work. I don’t know that I could do it again, but I’m really glad that I got to be a part of it, this first time around.

I would just say, internally there was a growing sense that I would just more easily irritated that I wanted to be. We have 3 children, my kids are now 15, 14 and 7 and I just wasn’t being as patient and gracious a father as I wanted to be and I’m saying that in a super, politically correct way. I was way more of a jerk. I was way more angry. I was way more impatient and intolerant and judgmental and critical than I wanted to be.

I could sense some of this, I couldn’t sense enough of it. What I could sense I was working on, I was in accountability, I was getting counseling, I was praying about it, I was trying. But for us, I think part of your initial question was what was the indicator. We had a defining moment as a family, Labor Day of 2012 and I had a pretty significant, what I’m going to call explosion in my home, where I was just loud and screaming and scaring the people in my home and it was that day that Bonnie, my wife, just finally kind of put up a flag and said, “Do you know what, we just can’t keep doing this like this.”

Rich – Right.

Sean – So I would love to say that I was just wise and mature enough to come to recognition that we had hit that point, but the truth is I wasn’t. I needed her and then I had a mentor and some collaborative partners in my life who she engaged then at that point it was a really, really, honestly a really painful time.

Rich – What were those first steps? You came to a somewhat realization, you obviously love Bonnie dearly, she’s waving a pretty significant flag saying, “Hey, this needs to change.” What were some of those early steps you took?

Sean – Well I’ll say, even backing up just a little bit before that, by the grace of God, because of the culture that I’ve been in, things like accountability were significant, so those relationships were in place. Things like having a mentor couple who we respect and look up to were in place. Things like having a counsellor were in place. I say that because a lot of times people that I know that kind of run into a wall, they don’t have any of those support systems in place.

Rich – So true.

Sean – So the first thing Bonnie was able to do was reach out to those support systems, which for me was terribly humiliating. Again, from the outside looking in, I’m healthy, I’ve got a great marriage, I’ve got 3 kids, I’ve got a church that’s growing, I’m kind of doing as well as I could possibly do. But then as you got more closely associated with what was going on inside, there was a lot more pain there.

So she reached out to those folks and we began a series of really, really intense conversations.

Rich – I’ve heard it said that leaders need a circle of people around them that love them but aren’t impressed with them. I think that’s really true. I think there are times, particularly when you find yourself in the lead role in an organization, you need people in your life, and that’s a call to people who are listening in today to really examine, before you get to the place where you found yourself Sean, to say, “Do I have those people that could come and help amidst a situation like that.

So where did life go from there? What were some next steps? How did this impact? What were some of the changes that you made in your own professional life, at the church? What ended up happening to help you get back to a better place?

Sean – Again, I wish I could tell you this really polished story of how well I executed all of this, but that wouldn’t be the accurate story. I know just for the folks that are tracking, they’re living in real life and they’re living in real ministry, so I want them to know the real story.

So that really led into about a year of what I’m just going to call really intense conversations and for me, I think I was real defensive at first. I felt misunderstood, I felt like Bonnie wasn’t seeing things accurately and so I was trying to kind of present my case, if you will. I think the voices in my life just continued to say, “Sean, there’s probably more truth in what Bonnie is communicating than you’re completely aware of.” So it just took a long time.

There was a period of time, in that first year, where Bonnie started individual counselling right away and there’s a lot of different forms of counselling, but I’m going to say this was pretty in-depth, very Christ-centered counselling, that we needed at the time. Counsellors aren’t all the same and this was pretty in-depth work. Then I had a counsellor and then we had a counsellor. So there was a time there were 3 different counsellors actively in our lives trying to help us navigate this.

So that took about a year and then about a year into that, my mentor… and one thing I didn’t comment is probably, I don’t know, 6 or 7 months into it, we actually got the elders of our church involved and that was at the recommendation of my mentor and I think ultimately my mentor doesn’t live in the same town that I do, I think he really wanted someone who was going to have some close touch. Me and my accountability partners, we do it more like this, more electronically, so we get together a couple of times a year but we don’t live in the same towns.

So the elders got involved, and then about a year into it, my mentor recommended to the elders that I take some time off.

Rich – Okay.

Sean – He just sensed that it would be good for me and that I really needed it. I would say by that time; I was now about 14 years into ministry without any sort of substantial break. We have kids and we’re able to go on a vacation from time to time, but anybody with young kids knows that kids with vacation is not really…

Rich – It’s not really downtime.

Sean – No, it’s more stress at a different location, fun memories, fun pictures. So when that idea came on the table, honestly I was so grateful for it, because I was just worn out.

Now what’s interesting is, in the North Point culture, there’s nothing written in or built in about any sort of sabbatical process. I know that’s a part of a lot of people’s traditions.

Rich – Right.

Sean – It’s not part of ours. So this was something that was really new, this was not something that people were doing on a regular basis, but I just knew that I was out of gas.

Rich – Right.

Sean – I knew that I needed help. So in the end of 2013, the last two and a half months of the year I took off. I’d love to talk to you about that time specifically, but I’ll just pause and let you…

Rich – Yeah, let’s dive into that. I think there are people that would love to take a sabbatical but it’s a little bit of, “What do I do with that time? How do I leverage that so that it’s not just time sitting in front of the TV and just kind of, I was off,” but didn’t really do the internal work that a break like that can do for you?

Sean – It’s interesting you would say that, because one of the biggest problems that I faced was, I didn’t know what to do, nobody told me what to do.

Rich – Right.

Sean – I had some people in my life who were trying to tell me, “Hey, you need a little bit of this and you need a little bit of that,” but nobody had a game plan for me, so I literally went to the elders and they didn’t know, they’d never done this before either.

Rich – Right.

Sean – So they just said, “Hey, put a plan together.”

Rich – Right.

Sean – So I’ll say this is the grace of God, I’m literally online, searching anything I can possibly try. I’m searching for places to go. I didn’t know if I was going to go somewhere for 2 or 3 months. Honestly, I didn’t know.

Rich – Right.

Sean – So I kind of pieced a plan together and I would say looking back, first of all, that season of ministry was unquestionably the best ministry decision I’ve ever made. Taking that time off was bar none, the best decision I ever… so much so that I just, a week and a half ago, I had a conversation with our elders and said, “I know we don’t have a sabbatical policy built in, but we’ve got to figure out a system.”

I’ll just say this Rich to the folks that are listening. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with what we do and there’s different kinds of pressure that if you work in typical working day world, everybody has pressure, I don’t mean to imply that others don’t.

Rich – Yeah.

Sean – I have a friend who just recently was involved in an affair and these are heartbreaking situations. This guy, most likely, will never get his position back.

Rich – Right.

Sean – It’s a different kind of pressure, it’s a different deal. I hope his family recovers from this, but if he worked at AT&T and he had this affair, it would be unfortunate but the truth is on Monday he’d go back to work and he would continue. There’s just a different level of pressure that comes with this.

So in light of that, I really, really want our people and I want this for the folks that are listening to find out how to sustain a healthy pace.

So let me go back real quick, that was a bit of a diversion there maybe.

Rich – It’s good.

Sean – To the question of what I did, kind of during the sabbatical.

Rich – Yeah.

Sean – Going back, it ended up being about two and a half months. Essentially that first month, I understand they call it ‘unwind’ and I literally would find a friend with a lake house and say, “Can I go there for a couple of days and escape?” Then I’d find a friend with another place and go for a couple of days.

We have a monastery in our area, I went there for 3 or 4 days and literally just essentially didn’t speak. I’d never had any experience with that before.

I took a trip with my dad, so it was just… but the one thing I did do is, I didn’t even think about Athens Church.

Rich – Wow.

Sean – I didn’t attend services, I didn’t go to small group, I didn’t return emails. I mean, the place could have caught on fire and I wouldn’t have known.

Rich – Right.

Sean – I had to have that. For me it had to be that level of separation. So literally, my wife was going to small group without me.

Rich – Wow, okay.

Sean – My wife was going to staff retreat without me.

Rich – Okay.

Sean – She was going to the Christmas party without me.

Rich – Right.

Sean – That was just the nature of that. Then the beginning of December, one of the things, just by the grace of God I stumbled online and found, was a 2 week counselling intensive with a gentleman named Michael Cusick who has a ministry called, Restoring the Soul in Denver and it was 3 hours a day for 2 weeks.

Rich – Wow.

Sean – It was specifically designed for people in ministry and I’m just going to tell you man, God met me there in a way that I’ve never been met anywhere else.

Rich – Wow.

Sean – I think I had to be prepared for all of that and it was not an easy thing to come to the, kind of end of myself if you will and to be ready for that, but that was a powerful, powerful turning point for me.

Then I came back and kind of slowly reintegrated into life, but I’ll say this, even when I came back, one of my conversations with the elders was, “I’m a little afraid of going back to my normal schedule,” because it was so powerful for having the time off.

Rich – Right.

Sean – I was afraid jumping back, I was going to go back into a hundred miles an hour and that I was going to kind of lose traction of some of what had taken place. So I actually changed my schedule and we’re now talking 2 plus years ago, at that point and essentially I haven’t changed it back.

Rich – What were some of those high levels, some of those kind of tweaks you made to your schedule, things you practically did to ensure you didn’t end up back in the same place?

Sean – Well, one of the main things is, I’m a Type A driven perfectionistic kind of leader, I’m a doer. so prior to this time, I left my house most days at 6:30 and I went and exercised and started my day easily at a 7:30 breakfast meeting and essentially I didn’t stop until 5:00 and then occasionally there’s things in the evening or whatever. For the most part we’re not an evening culture, but it was meeting to meeting to meeting to meeting to meeting and task to task to task to task and I just noticed that nowhere in there was there really any space for me to refuel my heart. So I had a lot of withdrawals and very few deposits.

So essentially, my sons are now in 9th and 8th grade and we live just not that far from their school, I decided that in the spirit of Orange and Reggie Joiner and all those guys that kind of marbles running out of the jar, the number of weeks left with my kids, I decided I’m driving my kids to school from now on.

Rich – Okay, cool.

Sean – It takes 10 minutes, but it’s 10 minutes of me in the car with them, hopefully not hollering at them and all of that, but lift them up and letting them know that I love them and just little dad deposits on the way out. Then once I drop them off at school, for the most part, for the first, really until about 11am most days, I schedule no meetings.

Rich – Okay.

Sean – Now there are occasional things that come in and it’s impossible to block everything out, but I just guard that time as a time for me to invest in my heart, to learn. There’s lots of folks that I’m learning from these days and I feel like for me, I’m kind of doing 40 plus years of catch up on getting my heart back to a healthy place and I just know that the number one thing that my church needs is a healthy me and if they don’t have a healthy me, then I’m not able to provide the leadership that I need to provide.

So I have noticed that as that’s changed in me, it’s ultimately changed the whole culture of our organization.

Rich – How interesting. Of course, speed of the leader, speed of the team right? Things have trickled down. On that front, have any structural or staff dynamics changed at Athens? Like have you changed around some of the reporting or any of that stuff?

Sean – I did, yeah I simplified who was reporting to me.

Rich – Okay.

Sean – So essentially I just have a leadership team now that reports to me, so I’ve got 5 team mates that I lead and I even changed my meeting schedule with them.

Rich – Okay.

Sean – I now have individual meetings with them only once a month.

Rich – Okay.

Sean – We have kind of a core meeting on Monday afternoons, which is the bulk of our team and the bulk of our kind of vision and decision making for a given week. I lead that meeting but I meet with those once a month and I’m sure that there are times they will tell you that’s not enough but one of the tensions that you’ve got to face in leadership is there’s only so much that you can give away and you’ve got to prioritize that and do the best you can. So now there’s a number of meetings that I’m not a part of anymore. I just am.

Rich – Well the good thing about that is you’re empowering your people right? At the end of the day you’re saying, “Hey, I need you to pick up your piece of the puzzle here,” and by not being in the room, by leading but not being in the room, that does hopefully create a healthy culture for folks to take their piece of the puzzle forward.

Anything else you’d like to share? This has been great, I’ve loved getting a sense of kind of what’s happened and the process that you’re in. I just appreciate your openness and vulnerability and sharing today because I think there are times when it’s easy just to try to push back and say, “No everything’s great.” I really appreciate you kind of walking us through where things are at, but is there anything else you’d like to share before we transition into the rest of the episode?

Sean – Yeah man, thank you for your encouragement by the way and I’ve actually gotten that fairly consistently at Athens Church. One of the things that I’ve just said and I want to encourage other leaders with this is, I found that it’s more difficult for me to be inauthentic than to be authentic. It’s heavier to carry a weight of someone that I’m really not than of letting people see who I really am.

Then I think the last thing that I would say is, I could spend the next few hours telling you about the things God did in that intensive, but one of the things that Michael Cusick did for me was introduce me to Brene Brown, the author, and I’ve since read everything Brene’s written but if you just start anywhere, start with a book called The Gifts of Imperfection, it’s absolutely incredible. She’s been a voice that has given me a new perspective on just my own heart and the way that I interact with people, it’s given me a really, really helpful language. So I’ve become a pretty major Brene fan.

1 Comment

  1. I appreciate Sean’s honesty about what he went through – especially regarding his marriage and parenting. I think one of the most powerful tools available to leaders is transparency about these things – it creates a culture. I wonder if Sean would look at Scazzero as being a push towards feeling this sort of vulnerability was not just okay but good?

    When I was pastoring and working students from the local college (Cairn) which offered free counseling to the students, I frequently encouraged the students that worked with me (especially those in leadership) to take advantage of the free counseling – it had really had a tremendous positive impact on my life when I had done so. I actually would encourage everyone to see a counselor for at least a year. You don’t have to go in with some issue – usually we aren’t aware of many of our issues – instead you kind of say, “Hey, I’m here. I’d like to tell you about who I am and what my life up till now has been like and the challenges I face…and I’d like for you to talk to me about the areas of weakness you see in my life.”

    I also think this is an area the church can continue to grow in. Larry Crabb wrote a book about transitioning some of the counseling from professionals to lay people within the home (Safest Place on Earth I think). I think this is a great idea, but the lay folks *really, really* need to know what they are doing, otherwise going to friends becomes an excuse not to go to someone who is really going to probe around (a counselor). I’m a big fan of what Karen Shannon and Jason Luke are doing at Liquid on this front!

    Couple of books that were really crucial for me in self-development and growing emotionally where Getting Things Done (David Allen), Celebration of Discipline (Richard Foster), When Being Good Isn’t Good Enough (Stephen Brown), Margin (Richard Swenson), …

    Three books that were *especially critical* were Peter Rutter’s Sex in the Forbidden Zone (imho, a must read for anyone in ministry, great insights into the role gender plays in relationships and especially why so many succumb to sexual sin) and Anne Wilson Schaef’s Co-Dependence: Misunderstood–Mistreated – this book is really small, but it hammers away at the dysfunctions that oftentimes make us as helpers tick (but that look so good!). The final one is Mark Rutland’s Streams of Mercy. I don’t read books twice, but I’ve read this one a dozen times. Beautifully written it was an experientially healing book for me.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.