“The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour.” Those are words from the iconic 19th century pastor/theologian, Charles H. Spurgeon, who personally understood the silent, unnamed pains of depression.
Just as we are not immune to physical health problems, people of faith are not immune to mental and emotional suffering. The psalmist cried out, “Darkness is my only friend” (Ps. 88:18). Many people in our churches relate to this ongoing sense of loneliness and despair.
Spurgeon’s self-awareness and candor were ahead of his time, but we now know it is estimated that half of us will experience some form of mental illness in our lifetime. “Combining the child and adult populations, more than fifty million Americans today experience at least one diagnosable mental health disorder on any given day. And it’s reported that there are 123 suicides in the U.S. every single day.
As pastors and churches invite people to follow Jesus, we also invite them to bring all of their brokenness into our community of faith. Jesus reconciles people to God, but he will not restore all that sin has stolen until he returns again. So until then, we serve people in their suffering. We voluntarily walk with them through the maze of their emotional, physical, relational, and spiritual challenges. Rather than viewing them as new recruits to serve our church goals, we eagerly join God’s redeeming work in their lives.
As pastors and churches invite people to follow Jesus, we also invite them to bring all of their brokenness into our community of faith.
The complexities of mental health issues, however, strain pastors and churches in some very practical ways. While we want to help, we are not always sure of our role in diagnosis and treatment of those who suffer in this way. So let’s consider these four guidelines for serving people facing mental health issues:
View mental health issues holistically.
Much of the stigma related to mental health begins with the notion that this suffering is a spiritual problem that is the result of personal sin. As Ed Stetzer notes, “All suffering is the result of sin,” but the suffering of mental anguish is not reserved only for people who intentionally do evil things to rebel against God or hurt other people. Sometimes people who love God and follow Jesus with all their heart suffer due to physiological or psychological disabilities beyond their control. So instead of assuming every mental health problem is only spiritual, pastors provide a biblical framework for a holistic view of mental health that does not shame sufferers, but instead encourages them to pursue spiritual, emotional, and physical health.
Make mental health a part of the conversation.
There was a day that mental health issues were only spoken as the punch lines to sophomoric jokes. We now know the dark cloud of mental disability is no laughing matter. Sufferers are often misunderstood, isolated, and muted, even in the church. Pastors, however, should lead the way in using appropriate, empathetic language to create environments for respectful dialogue and to equip the congregation to speak grace and truth into this important subject.
Pastors model this in the preaching ministry as well as in private settings. Stephen Grcevich writes, “When leaders talk about mental illness during the weekend worship services, they communicate to the church body that people with mental illness are valued and grant permission for members and attendees to talk about it.” Mental illness must be removed from the taboo list and welcomed into the conversation of congregational life.
Invite mental health professionals into the ministry.
Many people who suffer with mental illness naturally reach out to their pastor for help. In a 2017 article by Sam Ogles entitled What Pastors Need to Know about Mental Health, Ministry, and Liability, he referred to a study by Dr. Matthew Stanford who found that while pastors want to help, 80-90 percent of them feel ill-equipped to minister to people suffering with mental illness because they have received “zero to no” training.
Pastors and churches can provide real help to people dealing with a wide range of emotional stressors and relational challenges common in marriage and family dynamics, for example, but most pastors are no more prepared to address mental health issues than to set a broken bone or repair a leaking heart valve. At that point, it is wise for pastors to invite a competent, biblical counseling professional into the ministry process. Biblical counselors, whether on the church staff or in independent practice, not only understand the psychological, physiological, and emotional aspects of mental illness, but they also teach the sufferer to apply the Bible, trust the Holy Spirit, and live in light of the redeeming work of Jesus.
Introduce mental health issues into the ministry plan.
From the design of the physical space, to volunteer training, to expectations of attendees, pastors and congregations can create an environment where people numbered among the 50 million Americans suffering with mental illness have a greater opportunity for wholeness and health. Church programming often presumes a particular behavior or response from attendees, so pastors and leaders can plan services that give people freedom to respond according to their particular bent.
While church volunteers cannot possibly be aware of every mental health diagnosis, churches can build ministry teams and train volunteers to identify mental health challenges and to adjust ministry practices that better serve the people God brings to them. Additionally, as Grcevich encourages churches to adopt a “mental health inclusion plan,” he notes that even the building décor, sounds, smells, and seating allows adults and children alike to better connect and grow in their community of faith.
Developing pastoral practices and a church environment that welcomes people who struggle with mental health issues requires awareness, intentionality, and wisdom, but every effort a church makes, both great and small, offers new hope and practical help to the silent sufferers among us.