It’s inevitable. If you’re in ministry long at all, you will absolutely find yourself ministering to people who struggle with mental health issues. And rather than there being clear boundaries between the mental and spiritual parts of us, we are, instead, whole beings.
We think thoughts. We feel emotions. We make decisions. And our bodies and our brains are made of matter and exist in a real, physical dimension. And it all relates. It all overlaps.
The other day, I sent an email to my list promoting the upcoming Church Mental Health Summit, which features speakers that I personally know and respect. I’m recommending every church leader get a ticket. It’s free and it’s online (there is a paid option to watch sessions beyond the day of the summit).
I received a reply to my email that essentially said, The only true “mental health” is a right relationship with God. Every time I write about depression, anxiety, or mental illness of any kind, some people will inevitably respond with a pseudo-spiritual, condescending attitude that suggests all of our mental health issues would disappear if we simply had more faith, prayed harder, or chose to be happy.
Unfortunately, this approach completely ignores reality. It also ignores the stories in which Jesus approached mentally ill people with a great deal of compassion, involving himself in their mental mess to offer his love.
I believe we’ve seen a lot of progress in the last couple of decades when it comes to how the church approaches mental health. But we also have a long way to go. I long to see the church keep getting better in this area and wanted to offer some suggestions for pastors and church leaders about how we can intentionally grow in this area.
- LOVE everyone and show it, instilling in people a strong sense that they are highly valued.
- Study (and share) the stories of biblical characters who struggled, such as David and Elijah.
- Also elevate the stories of historical church leaders who struggled, like Charles Spurgeon.
- Accept that for some, mental illness will be a long-term struggle in spite of strong faith in God.
- Affirm mental health professionals instead of casting a shadow of doubt over the entire industry.
- Build relationships with trusted local professionals to whom you can refer people for help.
- When authentic and appropriate, (pastors and teachers) share the story of your own struggles.
- Eliminate the assumption that depression or mental illness is the result of someone’s sin.
- Respect the work of scientists and professionals who discover and prescribe medical treatments.
- Create safe spaces (small groups, particularly) for people to share appropriately with others.
- Minister to people holistically, realizing that there is a physical and chemical component to mental health.
- Read some good books on the subject of mental health, counseling, and recovery.
- Listen to valuable podcasts like The Place We Find Ourselves and Hope Made Strong.
It’s also okay to admit that you’re not a trained expert in this area. You may be a master theologian and be able to translate scripture from its original languages, but that doesn’t mean you’re equipped to diagnose mental disorders.
My biggest recommendation for church leaders in this area is to befriend professionals in the mental health space and be a learner and a listener. Hear and respect the stories of those who struggle with mental illness in any form.
We can get better at this. We can remove the stigma, help more people, and show the love of Christ in this area.
And of course, sign up for the Church Mental Health Summit!
Photo by Darya Tryfanava on Unsplash.