It is essential that we talk more about mental illness and the church.
Furthermore, it is essential for pastors to partner with mental health professionals in their church and community.
This short article can’t come close to covering all the issues to consider around mental health and churches, but hopefully it can encourage some further conversation.
I’ve been seeking to both learn and to advocate for more learning.
For the past several years I have spoken to the American Association of Christian Counselors summits and conferences and I’ve encourage other pastors and church leaders to attend as well. I’ve written about the issues frequently here at The Exchange and I’ve shared at churches about the topic.
Why? Because, unfortunately there is still a stigma in our culture. People are getting better at talking about mental illness, but many are still uncomfortable—many pastors and church leaders included.
If pastors and church leaders are often the first responders to a mental health crisis (and they are), which they often are, then it is essential that they be equipped and prepared. And, part of that is a willingness to talk about the issues involved.
A personal connection
When I planted my first church in the inner city of Buffalo, New York, I had basically no education pertinent to pastoring. I had a degree in biology and chemistry and had never been to seminary. Furthermore, I don’t recall having taken a single course in psychology, counseling, etc.
And here I was, planting a church among the urban poor. In urban contexts and contexts of poverty there tends to be disproportionately high numbers of untreated mentally ill individuals.
Our church began to grow and suddenly I was dealing with issues for which I was completely unprepared. Some of our members had PTSD or other mental health issues. We had members who had been assaulted, members who wrestled with powerful addictions, members who had been homeless.
In the midst of this, a man named Jim came along. Jim came to our church and it was like a pastor’s dream. I have never seen somebody as committed as Jim. He was reading the Bible every day, memorizing chapters of scripture, praying all night at times. He was eagerly asking what he could do and how he could do it. Jim, from what I could tell, was all in.
And then he crashed. There was a darkness in him that he did not know how to deal with and that I did not know how to address. I was 22 with a biology and chemistry degree and no pastoral training or education in psychology. I didn’t even know to whom I should send him for help.