Most pastors I know prefer serving on the prevention side of mental health. In all honesty, we are not adequately trained to assess, much less diagnose, many mental health issues. Here are four proactive ways we can help lead a mentally healthy ministry.
Most people do not know what we do not know about mental health. For those of us fortunate enough to go to graduate school (seminary), we took the obligatory counseling class. That class did not qualify us to become counselors any more than our obligatory music class qualified us to be worship pastors.
A 2013 Lifeway Research survey found nearly half (48%) of evangelicals believe that serious mental illness can be overcome with prayer and Bible study alone. If we found out that 1:4 of our people had cancer, would we encourage them to blow off their doctor and join a cancer Bible study instead?
As a church leader, I know from first-hand experience that it is very difficult to discern between a chemical problem and a character problem. It is more obvious what to do with a broken body than a broken mind, so we often default to the easiest answers. Sometimes our own family or church members are suffering in silence because they are afraid to ask for help. If you have an anxiety disorder, how difficult it must be to reach out for help and push past the barriers of ignorance, stigma, and fear.
Pastors have piles of unread books, posts, and articles, so why add another homework assignment? I’m feeling your pain, friend. More importantly, we are called to feel the pain of our members. When one part of the body suffers, we all suffer (1 Corinthians 12:26). Understanding such suffering on a basic level will help you to help one-fourth of your members and staff.
Leaders are problem solvers, so we are reluctant to admit to ourselves or others when we are winging it. We need to stop trying to diagnose mental health challenges because we are no more qualified to assess them than we are qualified to assess physical health challenges. Pastors don’t care much for Google theologians, so why would we attempt to address mental health with the same causal approach?
Equip Our Members
Good preaching will engage the mind (logos) as well as the heart (pathos). I am not a mental health professional, so this article is not an attempt to explain burnout or depression. My desire is to help pastors and church leaders to create a church culture where sound minds are sharpened and confused minds are comforted.
According to Ephesians 4:11-12, our job is to equip our members for ministry. Since the average pastor and church member doesn’t understand most mental health issues, I would encourage you to recruit a trusted voice to come and lead a training session. The last church I pastored hosted a one day biblically based seminar called, Think On These Things. Approximately 400 adults showed up on a Sunday afternoon to hear about mental health!
Provide Biblical Solutions
Lifeway was commissioned to do a mental health study which found that although pastors and churches want to help those who experience mental illness, those good intentions don’t always lead to action. Here’s why:
- Few churches have plans to assist families affected by mental illness
- Few churches are staffed with a counselor skilled in mental illness
- There is a lack of training for leaders on how to recognize mental illness
- There is a need for churches to communicate to congregations about local mental health resources
- There is a stigma and culture of silence that leads to shame
You don’t have to have an on-campus counselor to provide mental health services. You just need to take the lead by finding out who the trusted voices in your area are and utilizing them to help your people.
Vet a Referral List
I learned how to build bridges to the mental health community by simply talking to people who work in it.
I learned early in my ministry that not all counselors give wise counsel. In my first church in San Antonio, Texas, a very broken young man named “Danny” came to me seeking counsel about how to get out of the trap of homosexuality and abusive relationships. I was a whopping 23 years of age and had no idea what to tell him, so I reached out to the only counselor I knew—Father Al.
Father Al was an Episcopal priest just down the street who also fancied himself a “Christian Counselor.” His collar was all the credentials I needed. I was shocked when Al enthusiastically applauded Danny’s sexual mis-orientation and told him he was doing just fine.
A vetted referral list takes time, but it is well worth the effort. Referrals are the end of our ministry to those we refer. To the contrary, it is just the beginning.
Churches tend to either abdicate their role in mental health to outside medical professionals or to isolate themselves from the medical community. Neither response is helpful. Even those in secular branches of psychology and psychiatry say psychological health is better when people are connected with a faith community, and that should drive churches to healthy partnerships with trained medical professionals. (Dr. Ed Stetzer, Facts & Trends, 2/12/14)
The local church should be the front door for both the upstream solutions, as well as the downstream problems of mental health. The mind was created by the loving hand of God and can be transformed with that same hand. Sometimes the body of Christ are His hands. Sometimes we are His mouth, who chooses not to ignore the stigmatized challenges of our members’ minds. We are called to love each other and bear each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).