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Mental Illness and the Church: Some Brief Thoughts on Some Ways to Engage Better

People are getting better at talking about mental illness, but there is still a stigma.
Mental Illness and the Church: Some Brief Thoughts on Some Ways to Engage Better
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It is essential that we talk more about mental illness and the church.

Furthermore, it is essential for pastors to partner with mental health professionals in their church and community.

This short article can’t come close to covering all the issues to consider around mental health and churches, but hopefully it can encourage some further conversation.

I’ve been seeking to both learn and to advocate for more learning.

For the past several years I have spoken to the American Association of Christian Counselors summits and conferences and I’ve encourage other pastors and church leaders to attend as well. I’ve written about the issues frequently here at The Exchange and I’ve shared at churches about the topic.

Why? Because, unfortunately there is still a stigma in our culture. People are getting better at talking about mental illness, but many are still uncomfortable—many pastors and church leaders included.

If pastors and church leaders are often the first responders to a mental health crisis (and they are), which they often are, then it is essential that they be equipped and prepared. And, part of that is a willingness to talk about the issues involved.

A personal connection

When I planted my first church in the inner city of Buffalo, New York, I had basically no education pertinent to pastoring. I had a degree in biology and chemistry and had never been to seminary. Furthermore, I don’t recall having taken a single course in psychology, counseling, etc.

And here I was, planting a church among the urban poor. In urban contexts and contexts of poverty there tends to be disproportionately high numbers of untreated mentally ill individuals.

Our church began to grow and suddenly I was dealing with issues for which I was completely unprepared. Some of our members had PTSD or other mental health issues. We had members who had been assaulted, members who wrestled with powerful addictions, members who had been homeless.

In the midst of this, a man named Jim came along. Jim came to our church and it was like a pastor’s dream. I have never seen somebody as committed as Jim. He was reading the Bible every day, memorizing chapters of scripture, praying all night at times. He was eagerly asking what he could do and how he could do it. Jim, from what I could tell, was all in.

And then he crashed. There was a darkness in him that he did not know how to deal with and that I did not know how to address. I was 22 with a biology and chemistry degree and no pastoral training or education in psychology. I didn’t even know to whom I should send him for help.

Through a series of circumstances, we did end up getting him medical intervention and he was diagnosed and treated. I am thankful for that.

As I young pastor, I simply did not know all that his mental illness involved. My view was uninformed. I meant well, but needed to know more. In his most manic phases, Jim loved God so much. He would get up and pray and read the Psalms all night. Then, days later, he would despair of life. He lost the will to live and eventually took his own life.

He was struggling with the manifestations of his mental illness, even though he described it in spiritual terms. Jim actually knew that and explained it to me— he loved God, and he struggled with mental illness. I just was not prepared for how to help him best.

That was a shaping moment for me. I couldn’t understand how someone could say he loved God so intensely and then so rapidly fall into such deep despair, even though he was heavily engaged in treatment. (I wrote about the experience at CNN.)

The events with Jim burdened my heart. I had tried to be a good pastoral presence in his life and sit with him and pray with him. But I wanted to know how I could do more. What were the best ways for me, as a pastor, to respond to a mental health crisis? What were the best resources to share with my congregants?

I needed to know more. Years later, I saw that a whole lot of us still need to know more. And, that’s simply what I’m encouraging here.

The importance of training

Good training in mental health / illness is actually pretty uncommon among some sections of evangelicalism. Oftentimes, the more conservative your school is, the less training you generally receive in mental health. But it’s the conservative side of evangelical Christianity that’s actually the largest, so in some ways these are the people who most need the training.

Get more training and connect with mental health professionals in the process.

Mental health issues can feel overwhelming, but they are an important part of loving the people we serve well. We should be committed to seeking out the best training we have access to so that we may love people in truth.

So, this article is mainly an encouragement to engage. We can and must intentionally seek out ways we can be more effective hands and feet to those struggling with mental illness in our communities. We can do that with more training, education, and partnership with mental health professionals.

In conclusion, I want to share with you a resource that Kay Warren shared in our radio program. It’s called Hope for Mental Health and it’s one of many good places to start taking your understanding deeper.

You can listen to my interview with Kay Warren here.

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.

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