Pastors, You Can’t Afford to Ignore the Mental Health Movement in the Church

Since my book on mental illness and the church came out in 2013, I have spent a lot of time in front of audiences, speaking about how mental illness affects individuals and families, how churches can help, and why it’s so important that they do. I’ve also had a lot of face-to-face conversation, email interaction, and social media discussion on the same topic. It’s amazing to see so many people take an interest in this need, strive to better understand it, and consider how they can address it. God has given many people a passion for seeing the church step up and meet its responsibility to love and spiritually nurture people who feel like outcasts in our society.

Then there’s the awesome privilege I have to interact with people who are in need of this kind of ministry, who have felt ignored or have been actively rejected by their churches because they or their family members struggle with a mental health problem. And there they are, in a place where people are openly discussing mental illness, maybe even within the walls of a church, and perhaps for the first time they don’t feel ashamed. Believe me, I get a huge blessing in seeing that kind of hope in people’s eyes.

It’s exciting to be part of this and to see that God is tugging at all kinds of people, encouraging them to get involved. I believe a movement is underway. People who have been there, people who have lost loved ones, people who simply care, want to do something. And many are doing something. There is much more to be done, but we have momentum.

However, I will admit to a nagging source of discouragement: the case of the missing pastors.

With few exceptions, the events I attend and initiatives on my radar are short on pastors. And it’s not because they aren’t invited. In fact, events specifically designed to bring pastors and mental health professionals together attract lots of caring people, but only a small number are clergy. Churches who host conferences and seminars invite all the other churches in their communities and get lots of interested believers…and no pastors besides the ones who work in the host church (and sometimes not even them). Event organizers complain, “Why don’t the pastors come?” Sometimes they ask me, “How can we get the pastors to care about this?” And I don’t really know because I’ve never seen a lot of pastors come together in recognition that this issue matters, that they don’t know everything they need to know, that they want to provide some leadership or support in this area.

Now, I know that for many pastors, the thought of doing a new kind of ministry or making cultural changes in the church is overwhelming. You don’t have any more room on your calendar, the church is already begging for volunteers for its existing ministries, you don’t have mental or emotional space for this burden. But the truth is, if you’re in ministry you’re already shouldering some of this burden, although you may not be doing it well. Plus, this doesn’t have to be a pastoral-led ministry. In fact, few pastors are well-equipped to offer peer support, mentor people through the mental health care system, or lovingly educate their congregations on this subject. In most cases someone else in the church is more knowledgeable because of professional qualifications or personal experience.

At the same time, ministry to people affected by mental health problems profoundly contradicts the entrenched culture in a great many churches, and it does require pastoral support and example. Plus, it will truly thrive only in an environment abounding in less formal support: emotional safety, public and private prayer, acceptance, friendship, inclusion, theological perspective on mental illness, acknowledgment that suffering is a part of life on earth and not an indication of spiritual failure. This requires an intentional shift in the language and ecology of most churches, and pastors need to lead, or at least participate in, these shifts.

Pastors, maybe you don’t realize how important you are. Given that historically, people first seek help from a member of the clergy (more often than mental health professionals or medical doctors or anyone else) makes you tremendously important. Given that you represent the Christian faith and God himself for many people, your response is critical. Given that people in mental health crisis usually experience some kind of spiritual crisis as well, you have a vital responsibility.

Maybe you think it’s enough to say you care and to decide your church is happy to welcome people with mental health problems. But until you’re willing to actually listen to some stories and to learn what people need, your absence looks like arrogance–or worse, apathy.

Maybe you think this is a job for people outside the church. If you’re referring to treating mental illness, you’re probably right, unless your church offers a professional counseling ministry or psychiatric care. But if you’re referring to all the other ways people need love and support, you couldn’t be more wrong. Who else is going to offer the kind of practical help the church loves to offer other people in need? Who else will answer spiritual questions and assure people that God has not turned his back on them, despite their feelings? Who else will provide a place to worship, to be part of something much bigger than an individual mind, to serve God and others in a meaningful way? The church has a lot to offer.

Maybe you think you’re too busy. I say, if you’re too busy to shepherd people who have been placed under your care, whatever you’re doing is a waste of time. If you’re too busy discipling only the people you like, the ones you relate to, the ones who will never ask too much of you, you’re doing a disservice to the gospel. And ironically, if you’re too busy addressing the needs of people who come to the church with all kinds of crisis situations, you’re probably entangled with people who have mental health problems and you don’t even realize it. Wouldn’t it be a good idea if you knew a little more about how you could help?

Whatever your reason, I’m not buying it. You can’t afford to be the most-often-utilized and least-equipped link in the mental health care system. Whatever your reason, is it more important than the needs of 20-25 percent of the people in your congregation, for whom mental illness often feels like the most important thing in life? For them, mental illness is the thing most likely to stand in the way of enjoying the relationship with God you want them to have. For them, a church that neglects to come up with a culturally relevant name and logo for its hot new sermon series, and exercises the courage to be with people in their distress, could not be more relevant.

I’ve never been a pastor, but I’ve been a pastor’s kid and a pastor’s wife, and I get that ministry is demanding. I get that your work is never done and everybody has a different idea of what you ought to be doing. I get that you often feel disrespected by a culture that is increasingly dismissive, or even scornful, of the church. But you have a mission field coming to your door, or emailing you, or calling on the phone or finding you on Facebook. The church is anything but irrelevant to them. And you probably have people in your church who would love to help meet their needs. Please don’t miss the opportunity to participate.

9 Comments
  1. Lee says:

    Great article. Have a Christian friend who suffers from Bipolar. Though for me I never approached my pastor; always got the feeling from church I used to attend that depression, for example, should not be in a Christian. I have recently been diagnosed with depression. I had it also many years ago when my father’s died from lung/brain cancer. Looking back now, I can see that I have had it throughout my years but perhaps never really recognised it for what it was. But God is merciful to me in showing that Biblical men (& women) also suffered from this from time to time. This helps brings calm.

  2. Karen Hurula says:

    As usual, this concern is spot on. Thanks for stating the problem plainly and continuing to offer your voice to shed light on this reason why there continues to be a disconnect between “the Church” and its members who are hurting.

  3. John M. Duncan says:

    Amy,
    Maybe the role of Pastoral leadership should be to put this matter before the lay leadership of the congregation. They could make contact with a local NAMI Affiliate and ask them to provide an overview of the need and the opportunities for ministry for members and families living with mental illness. The excellent Bridges of Hope program was designed for faith communities to both understand the realities of mental illness and to confront the failure of faith communities’ to respond to the opportunity and obligation for ministry to respond to the the needs of their fellow parishioners.
    I think pastors may be expected to be mental health practitioners when they are neither trained or qualified to be mental health practitioners. The “lived experience” criterion for the people who deliver the NAMI signature programs for families living with mental illness is a model that could easily be adopted and led by a the lay people of the congregation.

    • Amy says:

      Excellent suggestion. This is the kind of response we need–not for pastors to consider themselves mental health practitioners, but for them to recognize their critical role as gatekeepers and become educated and adept at linking people to the resources they need, both outside and inside their congregations. At the same time, pastors can’t ignore people’s needs for spiritual care and loving community. Helping them find mental health is an important part of the best response, but loving people and staying present with them is another.

    • Julie says:

      John,
      If you’re not familiar with Fresh Hope for Mental Health, I encourage you to check it out at http://www.FreshHope.us. It’s the answer the faith community has been in search of for years.
      Fresh Hope is a network of peer-to-peer Christ-centered support groups for those who suffer from mental illness and for their loved ones. This approach, connecting faith and recovery principles, empowers and encourages individuals to live full and rich lives in spite of their diagnoses. This is a significant difference between Fresh Hope and many other mental health support groups.
      It’s also uniquely different from other mental health support group approaches in that it is not a “faith” or “spiritual” group; it is a Christ-centered approach. Participants within Fresh Hope are encouraged and challenged to choose the real hope of Christ from the power of the Holy Spirit in spite of their mood, feelings, or what they are going through.
      Fresh Hope is not just another venting support group. Fresh Hope’s peer-led approach allows for minimal venting, and then participants are encouraged to work through and make needed changes to be able to move forward in their recovery.
      Another unique element to Fresh Hope groups is the inclusion of loved ones. They are not separated, but travel the journey to recovery alongside through the meetings.
      Pastors who feel unqualified or are fearful of addressing the mental health crisis would find a Fresh Hope group in their church will help bring the issue to light, and empower those families effected by mental health issues to start taking control of their recovery.

  4. Ten graduate students read this article tonight at our NAMI on Campus group at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. We also lamented the lack of pastors showing up to stand for mental health justice and inclusion, and are committed to making this part of our seminary education and being the next generation of pastors who lead on this issue. Our group is organizing a conference in April to announce a proposed curriculum on mental health with other seminaries, and to prepare our congregations and communities to recognize mental health month in May. I’d love to hear from others doing this work at seminaries! Feel free to reach me at violetricker@go.mccormick.edu

© 2016 Amy Simpson.