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Resilient Church Leaders, Part 3: Psychology’s Thoughts on the Faith and the Church

Mental health professionals and spiritual directors would benefit in their work from cooperation with each other.
Resilient Church Leaders, Part 3: Psychology’s Thoughts on the Faith and the Church
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Question 1: Teenagers and their struggle with anxiety seem to be high today. What do you recommend from the church’s perspective?”

A study published just last year showed a concerning increase (over 70 percent) in psychological distress (e.g., mood disorders like anxiety and depression and suicide risk) between Millennials and Generation Z. While there is likely no single reason for this increase in mental health problems, research suggests that the rise of social media, increase in electronic communication, and less children getting enough sleep are all likely part of the problem.

The church has a vital role to play in shepherding young people and can be an especially important resource for teens who may have experienced rejection from other groups.

The presence of social support, including meaningful connections with peers, secure family ties, and intentional connections with mentors, is one of the most accurate ways to predict psychological health. As teens grow up less and less used to in-person forms of connection, it is important that church leaders become more persistent and intentional about inviting teens into in-person physical community. Keep reaching out and offering connection even to teens who rarely or never respond.

The church, at its best, should be a place of welcome and shelter for young people in need of a refuge in a world of conditional love and shallow communication. We can model true Christian fellowship by letting each child know that their presence is an essential part of the life of the church.

However, the church is more than a social club and has the primary responsibility to introduce teens to a life lived in the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.

The church has such excellent news full of hope and joy to offer and the good news of God’s love and salvation is as life changing now as it has been for the last two millennia. Even so, we would be doing our young people a disservice if we skip right to Easter without traveling through the suffering of lent and holy week.

It can be tempting to tell a young person who is struggling with their mental health that he or she should simply be happy because “God loves them.” However, the harder (and yet more helpful) response is to take inspiration from the Psalms and the prophets, and teach young people how to bring their pain, anger, and lament before God.

It may feel counterintuitive to invite and encourage distressed teens to express their darkest feelings within the walls of the church, but both the scriptures and psychology demonstrate that the free expression of negative feelings like sadness and anger is often a necessary precursor to the formation of a secure and lasting relationship with others and God.

One important way of making room for these feelings within the church is to normalize the presence of mental illness. When teens hear people in leadership talking about anxiety, depression, of other mental health concerns, they get the message that these things are normal and safe to talk about.

It can be especially impactful if people in leadership are willing to talk about their own mental health struggles. Thus, the church can help young people struggling with anxiety by welcoming them in whatever they are struggling with, providing them with social support, and being intentional about making room for their fears, doubts, traumas, and anxieties at the foot of the cross.

Question 2: How does a pastor with mental illness deal with feelings of hypocrisy?

The biblical definition of faith is “the assurance of things hoped for. The conviction of things not seen.” Throughout the Bible, the men and women of great faith are not those who had the most consistent emotional experience of God’s love.

Instead, the heroes of our faith are people who were humble, trusting, and obedient in word and deed, despite how they felt. Job trusted the Lord even when he had lost everything and longed for death. David praised God almost in the same breath that he accused God of abandoning him. Jesus himself, in his moment of greatest obedience on the cross, asked God why he had forsaken him.

Many Christians suffer from feelings of hypocrisy, not because they are true hypocrites (true hypocrites seldom worry about such things), but because they have fallen into a worldly cultural mindset that says feelings are the ultimate measure of what is truth.

However, this is not the biblical perspective. Jesus does not say, “Muster up feelings of belief.” Instead, he says, “Follow me.” While we are often tempted to equate faith with a lack of doubts, research on Christian spiritual development shows that periods of deep questioning and doubt may actually be a crucial part of the formation of a mature faith.

St. John of the Cross is well known for his writings on “the dark night of the soul.” One of the defining features of the dark night is that all feelings of emotional closeness with God have vanished. St. John describes this as a necessary step in spiritual development. Comparing it to the way a human mother will put her child down so they can learn to walk, he explains that God may withdraw the emotional sense of his presence so that we might find our relationship with him sturdier, through holding on in faith through darkness and experiencing eventual survival of the apparent separation and re-emergence of our felt sense of closeness.

So, while preaching God’s love while not feeling it emotionally is likely to be painful work at times, orthodox tradition does not call it hypocrisy.

Finally, it is important to note that while feelings of numbness or emotional darkness can be connected to a time of spiritual growth, life stressors and mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, trauma, and marital distress can also play a large role.

It is especially important for ministers to identify people in their life who they can be honest with about these painful feelings, as a constant focus on others can easily lead to dangerous isolation. Speaking with a spiritual director, trusted mentor, or a Christian therapist can be extremely helpful in the process of discerning the reason for these painful feelings.

Question 3: What are your recommendations for spiritual directors working in conjunction with mental health professionals?

Research shows that when mental health treatment is multidisciplinary (i.e., includes communication and coordination between professional caregivers from multiple specializations), it is more helpful to the person being treated. So, both mental health professionals and spiritual directors would benefit in their work from cooperation with each other.

An important first step for this coordination to happen is obtaining a release of information form, signed by your directee, giving you permission to exchange relevant information about the individual with their mental health provider.

It can also be important for spiritual directors to gain a basic understanding of the scientific and psychological support for soul care and engagement in religious and spiritual practices as a part of a client’s positive coping and healing journey. This understanding may be especially important if you are in communication with a secular mental health worker, as spirituality and religion are sometimes overlooked as aspect of diversity and strength within psychological training and education.

Having the ability to articulate clearly the relevance of spirituality to a client’s mental health provider could increase understanding and commitment for effective and mutually supportive collaboration between the spiritual leaders and mental health professionals.

More coming in Part 4.

Carson A.M. Tabiolo, M.A., is a doctoral candidate from Wheaton College's Clinical Psychology program. She will complete her doctoral internship at the University of Alabama Birmingham - Veterans Affairs Medical Center Clinical Psychology Internship Consortium in Birmingham, Alabama.


Amy J. Smith, M.A., is a doctoral candidate from Wheaton College's Clinical Psychology program. She will complete her doctoral internship at Pine Rest Christian Psychological Services in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Dan Barnhart, M.A., is a doctoral candidate from Wheaton College's Clinical Psychology program. He will complete his doctoral internship at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii and is entering the U.S. Army as an active-duty clinical psychologist.

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