A few months ago, I wrote about the story behind Fresh Hope, a ministry to people with mental illness, and Brad Hoefs, the pastor who started this ministry in response to his experience with bipolar disorder.
The ministry of Fresh Hope is why, in March 2014, Hoefs found himself onstage at Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, offering hope to thousands who needed it.
The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church was co-sponsored by Saddleback Church, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, and the Orange County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Approximately 10,000 people attended the event or watched its webcast, hearing from mental health professionals, people who have loved family members through devastating illness, and people like Hoefs, who themselves live with a diagnosis.
The event was a direct expression of Rick and Kay Warren’s determination to change the church’s response to mental illness. In April of 2013, the Warrens lost their son Matthew to suicide after a lifelong battle with serious mental illness. For Kay, grief has given birth to a new sense of calling and responsibility: “We have a platform. We have an ability to grab people’s attention in ways that others don’t. To not use our voices to speak out on behalf of those like our Matthew would be wrong.”
The Warrens aren’t the only Southern Baptists with this sense of calling. In June 2013, Southern Baptist pastor Dr. Ronnie Floyd gave a passionate speech before the Southern Baptist Convention, advocating for passage of a resolution calling for better and more proactive ministry to people affected by mental illness. The SBC churches responded, affirming and approving the resolution that many hoped would help to revolutionize and coalesce the approach to mental health within the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
The SBC isn’t the only community where something is shifting in the church’s relationship with mental health. Journalist Christine A. Scheller, who has written on the intersection of mental illness and faith for about 10 years, confirms times are changing. A decade ago, she blogged on the subject as she tried to figure out how to help her two sons, who were struggling with mental illness. “One of my sons had been seeing a psychiatrist who not only had no understanding of the spiritual dimension of his struggles, but was blatantly anti-Christian in his attitude. On the other side was a church that actively preached against psychiatry. I was looking for a way through.”
In 2008, she began writing more earnestly on the topic, after her son Gabriel died by suicide. The response was quiet: “I felt like I was tending a small fire in my backyard whose embers mostly floated into space. Maybe there’d be a spark of response here and there, but no wildfires of concern among evangelicals.” Starting in 2013, things changed. “I think the interest is a combination of terror over mass shootings, like Newtown, and high-profile suicides, like Matthew Warren’s. Amy Simpson’s book Troubled Minds and speaking ministry have helped too. Especially in the evangelical community, responsiveness to our message has increased exponentially.”
Some of that response comes in the form of small ministries that have taken shape in recent years in the evangelical community—and that, like Fresh Hope, are growing. Retired Vice President of Wake Forest University Bob Mills sits at the helm of a network forming around a Christian response to mental illness. Transformed Minds is a new and developing consortium of mental health professionals, influencers, and individuals whose lives have been altered by mental illness, who share a passion for a more Christlike response to mental health within the Christian community.
Dr. Matthew Stanford, professor of psychology, neuroscience, and biomedical studies at Baylor University and author of Grace for the Afflicted, has partnered with others to form the Mental Health Grace Alliance. Headquarted in Waco, Texas, with a branch in Los Angeles, California, the alliance is a nonprofit organization that offers support to people with serious mental illness and their families. Like Fresh Hope, the Mental Health Grace Alliance is founded on hope and the promise that people with mental illness can thrive and enter a recovery process that helps them manage their health and restore a sense of purpose. The alliance provides support groups for individuals and families affected by mental illness, biblical perspective, one-on-one mental health coaching, and consultation. Stanford, who spoke at the Saddleback Church gathering, says, “We started the Grace Alliance four years ago and our growth has been amazing. I’m often asked our secret, and I believe it’s simply a reflection of a great need that has been long ignored by the church. Presently there are few faith-based options for individuals struggling with serious mental illness. But I do believe we are at a tipping point. The church’s response towards those with mental health problems has generally been negative, but I’m starting to see signs of change.”
Protect the Pastors
At the same time, some pastors are opening up about the ultimate mental-health taboo: their own mental health needs. Pastors Perry Noble, David Trigueros, Frank Page, and others have written about their struggles with mental health problems—their own or those of family members. With a recent string of suicides among pastors and their families, many have become more aware of the reality that ministry and mental illness are not strange bedfellows. In fact, the pressures of church leadership can put clergy at elevated risk for anxiety disorders, depression, and other problems.
In Memphis, Tennessee, one church leader has started a movement to help. Domeniek Harris , co-pastor of Dominion Living Ministries, along with her husband, Brian, and other pastors, has formed a network of Christian leaders and counselors who are beginning to minister specifically to the pastors in Memphis-area churches. As Harris read about the loss of Georgia pastor Teddy Parker, Jr, to suicide in November 2013, she was exceptionally disturbed for two reasons: “He was a pastor. And I could identify with everything that he said.”
As Harris heard stories of other pastors around the country dying by suicide, she felt burdened by their deaths. She lost sleep. So she talked with her husband and co-pastor. She told him, “I have a burden, and I don’t know what to do.”
Brian said, “I want you to pray it out. And whatever God says to do, that’s what you do.”
So Harris prayed and received a response: “I want you to protect the pastors.” She felt God calling her to reach out to two other pastors, so she shared her idea and one pastor, Dianne Young, who is also a licensed therapist, confirmed God was calling her to the same response. The other pastor, Darryl Woodson, who ministers to wounded leaders, felt the same burden.
So Harris talked to other pastors and counselors, and the network is growing. The result is When Pastors Pray, a citywide prayer meeting for pastors across denominations, races, genders, ages, and stripes, on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. This was followed by a one-day event in March, designed simply to let pastors receive ministry. Fifty church leaders and spouses showed up and opened their hearts. “You wouldn’t believe the weight and stress that’s on these people” said Harris. “It was an incredible thing to see them open up.”
Still to come: group therapy sessions just for pastors, a resource center, more events and prayer meetings to offer support to pastors and their spouses. Harris’ hope is “that pastors will have an opportunity to be able to say what really goes in their lives without being stigmatized and without being judged. Pastors need counseling on a regular basis. They are dealing with all the issues in their church. When you’re dealing with that plus your own life, where do you go to get an outlet? We don’t want to lose another soldier. We don’t want to lose another pastor to suicide.”
While Saddleback’s gathering was high-profile, and another event is planned in October 2015, this is not the only church-based event addressing this need. Churches around the country have hosted events, and more are taking shape. Laypeople are very much in on the act. Because of their own experiences, many are feeling called and emboldened to do something to elevate the response to mental illness within the Christian community.
For people who have been profoundly affected by their own or someone else’s mental health struggles, it’s tremendously encouraging to see change happening, to hear people talk openly about experiences so many of us hold in common and have kept silent about for so long.
But we do have a long way to go in seeing churches and their leaders better informed about mental health and more equipped to address the needs of people who need help. According to Leadership Journal’s research, while 98 percent of church leaders are aware of mental illness within their congregations, 14 percent of them feel “not equipped at all” to minister to people suffering from mental illness. (For more on church leaders’ beliefs, behaviors, and responses to mental illness, see the sidebar in this article.)
Among the most powerful tools in that fight is the collection of stories so many have to share. One major force perpetuating stigma is the shame and silence of people who have been affected by mental illness. As people like Brad Hoefs more openly discuss mental illness, their stories will teach in ways facts, statistics, and arguments can’t. As churches like Community of Grace respond in love and understanding to people who need support, such churches will become havens for many people who are poised to receive some of God’s most striking redemptive work. Grace is, after all, our best reason for hope.
This article originally appeared in Leadership Journal.
© 2015 Amy Simpson.