Why The Church Should Turn Towards Mental Health
I’m the type of person who wants to know what I’m saying, 'yes' or 'no' to. As a leader I don’t really have a choice, I must know what I’m agreeing to as I just don’t have the time to get my calendar filled up with things that aren’t productive. I’ve also learned in the last many years of leading, that God doesn’t care too much about my schedule and that He has no problem re-adjusting me a bit to reveal things of His heart He finds worthy of importance.
This is what the Lords done with me concerning mental health. It's not that I wasn’t aware that people need support and healing for the mind, it's just that it wasn’t on my calendar so to speak, therefore it wasn’t my focus. But I do believe the Lord was (and still is) refocusing me concerning His heart towards those affected by mental illness. And just as it is with everything else, I still have choice. Everyone can decide on whether or not to adjust their ways to what God is desiring to reveal to them. I also find it really helpful when Gods revealing something to perhaps have an idea of what He’s doing and even why. We don’t always get the why, but concerning mental health ‘the why’ has been quite evident for me.
The First Question..
The first question had for myself, as well as what I’ve been asked this last year is; "Why do I need to address mental health in my church?" One thing it’s caused me to do personally is to remind myself why the church exists. Whether you’re leading a church or are a regular member of a church, it's very important we remember why we exist. We have to see if what were doing in the Church lines up with the reasons Jesus said we exist: The model of ministry Jesus left for us is the call of the Kingdom: Isaiah 61. “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.”
We are surrounded by the poor, brokenhearted, outcast, and the oppressed, in fact we don’t need to look very hard to find that the world around us is in need of a Savior. If were doing the call of the Kingdom then our lives, our churches and our ministries must be touching the poor, the brokenhearted, the outcast as well as those oppressed. As ministers of Christ, we don’t look for those we want to serve; we serve the ones God brings across our path. Why turn towards those struggling and/or affected by mental health? Because I guarantee those oppressed by mental health issues are all around you. Mental health issues aren’t anything new, its just becoming something that's become impossible to ignore.
If 1 in 4 Americans and Britain’s are dealing with mental health issues of some kind, that means every person in one way or another is directly affected by mental illness. It also means our churches are full of people who are struggling and/or affected in some way concerning mental health. The statistics are staggering. I also believe where we find tragedies such as what took place in Paris or San Bernardino, California will not just go away. Its not just that I believe there will be more events as these, the fallout will have a major emotional and mental health impact on us all and lead to an even greater prevelence of emotional pain in society. Many Churches are already dealing with the refugee crisis and are forced to learn more about trauma and the aftermath of war and trauma. Those who attend our Churches, especially those in ministry who are caring for those affected will also be emotionally impacted by what they hear.
This is not just about passively seeing the world around us as it is today, it is about getting equipped. Jesus is the great equipper to the saints. We are equipped for purpose and if the world around is struggling, and oppressed with various mental health issues, the first thing we all need to do is to learn more. What exactly is mental illness? There are many misconceptions concerning mental health. We must first realise what mental illness actually is, as well as what conditions fall under this area of health. We cannot serve or influence what we’re ignorant about. We also can’t be effective in serving well in what we don’t understand how to help. It’s not about fixing what’s wrong; it’s about learning to serve effectively.
Personally, I’ve had to get equipped. For years I have learned, seen and ministered in the area of bringing healing to people, but when it came to mental health, I was quite ignorant.
I’ve found there is a huge misunderstandings in the church around mental health. Anxiety, depression, bipolar, are only a very few of what we encounter daily in ministry: ADHD, PTSD, self-harm, psychosis and substance abuse and on and on. I encourage every minister to learn more about the high variety of different mental heal diagnoses, symptoms and treatments. Adopt www.mentalhealthaccesspack.org
Mental Illness is Not New..
Second, we must realise mental illness is not new. All through church history we find many pastors and leaders who have been directly affected by mental illness: AB Simpson, the Pentecostal leader struggled with depression. Oswald Chambers had a breakdown for 4 years when teaching at Bible College. David Pawson suffered a major nervous breakdown half way through his ministry and couldn’t work for 18months. CH Spurgeon struggled with depression and called it ‘his black dog.’ JB Philips the bible translator-suffered panic attacks and had several major breakdowns. William Cowper the famous hymn writer who wrote "Oh for a closer walk with thee" and "There is a fountain filled with blood," suffered severe mental illness and attempted suicide. Martin Luther famously suffered depression/anxiety and OCD (he called them anfechtungen). Karl Barth the Swiss theologian had a breakdown after writing his influential Romans commentary. The list goes on and on.
In the last few years, rarely at has there been a time I have not been asked to pray for a leader who is on medications for anxiety and/or depression and conference. Not only is it more common than we realise, the response of those who are taking medications is often to feel shameful as they are supposed to the ‘spiritual leader. They struggle with a strong sense of hesitancy to share with their church or other leaders due to the stigma that is attached to mental illness. I prayed for a woman few months ago whose her husband, being the head pastor of the church was ‘let go’ because he had a break down and needed to go on medication. He was honest about his shortcomings and in his break made some poor choices, but the response towards this family was obviously coming from a place that they did not know how to handle the situation and therefore just fired him! There is still such a lack of knowledge and understanding which generates the stigma attached to mental illness.
We don’t have to go far into the scriptures to find some of our heros who have gone before suffered with mental illness. Moses (was too afraid to ever speak in public without speaking it through Aaron) Saul was possibly struggling with psychotic illness. David was depressed and possibly suicidal. Elijah- (under the broom tree). Jeremiah- (the weeping prophet). Jonah- (terror, aggression and depression), St. Paul- (despaired even of life- 2 Cor. 1). The list goes on and on.
The Church Has To Engage...
Thirdly, although mental illness is nothing new, it is new to the church. And when something is new or has so much fear or stigma attached to it, we first have to get educated and realise nothing is beyond our God's power. Because I lead a church, I understand that when I feel overwhelmed or I don’t believe I can serve something well, it’s best I hand it off to people who can do a better job than me. I still believe this. However, I also believe were called to reach the people around us and if the people around us are facing mental illness then we cannot turn our backs on them just because it feels overwhelming. I have heard time and again from leaders who feel a bit overwhelmed when it comes to ministering those affected or struggling with mental Illness. I can relate. However, just because something feels overwhelming doesn’t mean we hand it off to the world. In fact, I believe we have a huge opportunity set before us. We must remind ourselves of why the Church exists and feeling overwhelmed by something doesn’t give us an ‘out.’
Simon Ponsonby, is a well known British theologian, author and international speaker from Oxford who is also a close personal friend. He has mentioned to me several times the importance of the church seeing the world around us now. We carry the message of hope, but as Simon has shared with me his own personal struggles with anxiety and depression, he has stressed how we must acknowledge as well as address mental illness so we can, in awareness and power, serve the world, as well as the church, as God has always called us too. We find in 2 Corinthians, the great call in battle concerning the mind in particular: 2 Cor. 10:3- NIV- “For though we walk in the flesh we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing, raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”
“Every lofty thing” means something that feels untouchable or unchangeable, such as when we hear words like, cancer, terrorists, but also, bipolar, anxiety, schizophrenia. Lofty things here are intellectual Greek notions of God as superman - a lofty idea which cannot cope with the wisdom of God revealed in the crucifixion of Christ. (The Corinthian culture despised the idea of a weak God), 1Cor1v23. Many Christians have "lofty" conceptions of God - they want a super God in Christ who treads on waves and crushes demons underfoot, and heals every sickness, and brings wealth and prosperity. They don’t want weakness, brokenness; they don’t want to see the naked and bloodied God who hangs on a cross.Our job as leaders is to teach people, not to be afraid, but to learn how to destroy the works of the enemy. We all know the mind is the battlefield, and in order to lead effectively we cannot avoid this one area of battle because its too scary or it feels ‘unreachable.’ The call of the Kingdom is a call of servanthood. We don’t do what we do out of logic, we do what we do because God has always called us to be a people of risk by serving people, willing to step into places others aren’t willing to go. Love looks like going… Love looks like doing… Love is a verb… the Kingdom of God is a verb.
Helpful V Unhelpful
Fourth, I believe its important to find out what’s helpful and what’s not helpful in ministering to those affected and/or struggling with mental health issues.
It’s surprising to know that when it comes to those affected by mental health issues a very high percentage of those struggling will first contact clergy, priest, or pastor before anyone else. In fact, about 23% of pastoral care calls are related to mental illness. Whether someone knows God or not, when it comes to mental illness many of thousands feel like they cannot be honest about their struggle because of the stigma attached to it. Yet, statistics show people choose the church first to at least try for help. However, 70% of clergy (Matthew Stanford Survey) don’t feel equipped to handle mental illness. So, we have this opportunity where the Lord is giving the Church, I believe, an opportunity to reach into an area, however we still have to turn towards it.
I do not believe there is anything more powerful than the church. She is the hope of the world. However, we are most powerful when were working together from our strengths. The Church at large has much strength. We also have many weaknesses. One of my main concerns, and why I believe when it comes to mental health ministry we must get educated, is due to what I’ve seen around the world being taught concerning eschatology. Whether it be that, 'God makes suffering happen to us to teach us a lesson' to the over realized eschatology believing 'heaven is now', these popular stances are quite damaging, especially long term. The latter is what concerns me most.
This is obviously not heaven, but if we are singing worship songs and praying for heaven to come, leaving no room for a theology of suffering then we do the very people were called to serve a dis-service. Basically an over realized eschatology teaches that not only can we create heaven on earth, but if you are sick in any way then there must be something wrong with your faith. You need to ‘pull heaven into your situation.’ If you’re suffering its is suggested that your basically 'lacking faith' in that area of your life. I have seen it for years; where people are told that the person they love will not die and that God will heal them, only to see their loved one die and the damage done by those promises. Belief systems like this only build another wall to those who are brokenhearted, oppressed or sick fighting diseases of diffent sorts. They also hugely compound the suffering of people with mental health issues who often already carry feelings of guilt and rejection as part of their symptom profile.
I absolutely believe God heals, but I do not believe this is heaven. If it was it should look better! I do believe in the tension concerning the Kingdom of God, between The Cross and the Second Coming of Christ. Sadly as in any battle people get sick, and people die. If we don’t explain this battle to the church then how will they live? Theology does matter, as what we believe impacts how we behave. If we believe our greatest call is to make everyone well, then what do we do with those who are suffering? Although I believe in healing, and I see God heal people, I do not believe the greatest call of the church is to become great healers, but rather great disciples. Disciples, Jesus said, are great lovers. Our greatest call is that the world will know us by our love.
God has wired us as physical, emotional and spiritual beings. His desire for us is wholeness, but how that gets worked out for everyone is different. Therefore, we live in this tension, knowing our God is fully capable and could choose to heal us now, but we are also fully aware that we never know when or if we will get healed this side of heaven. It could be today, it could be tomorrow, or it could be in heaven. Our greatest call as the church is to take down any wall or barrier that keeps people from Christ. If we look at the world around us and we see so many are struggling and/or affected by mental illness that means we have to do all we can to make sure they know God loves them. They need to know and hear from the church their condition or their suffering is not their identity and no matter if they are healed or not healed when people walk away from us they feel loved. People must know from ministry encounters in our churches that our God loves them deeply. (1 Cor. 14:1) “Let love be your highest goal..” Love will always be our highest risk in the Kingdom of God.
With love as our foundation, we have to then go forward with the mindset of what is helpful, but also what can be more unhelpful? I’ve had too many people tell me mental illness is usually a demon and I’ve had many people tell me mental illness is healed by receiving prayer for inner healing. Both beliefs are wrong. In fact, much of mental health is a brain disorder. We can’t continue in the same patterns of ministry as we have done in the past. If we don’t recognize what’s already happening with the people in our churches, we can do more damage than good. Some theology in charismatic circles not only doesn’t encourage people to be honest/open about their mental health issues, it actually exacerbates mental illness.
I do not see myself as being a charismatic but rather as an empowered evangelical. Either way, we often get ‘lumped’ together with other circles and sadly enough the charismatic church is well known in psychiatric mental health circles as being unhelpful for those with struggling with/affected with mental health issues. This is an area we have to grow and also be equipped in. It is very clear statistically, there is not one family sitting in your Church right now that isn’t affected by mental illness in one way or another. And as we already know the statistics will continue to grow because when something isn’t addressed or is hidden it cannot get better.
A Great Opportunity
The Lord is giving the church a huge opportunity. We are the great hope to the world around us. The church needs to learn to work with their local communities and the places of mental health resource that each City/State offers. But even those places cannot offer what we as the church can. I am also very encouraged because where we find stigma and exclusion we always find our Jesus.I also found it really encouraging to realise that mental illness is highly treatable. Treatable, doesn’t always mean curable (unless for Gods intervention). It is all about getting more equipped. I’ve found it helpful to know:
-- Mental health is not a healing line to resolve in prayer ministry
-- Mental health is not an instant fix (it is often chronic)
-- Mental health is rarely anything to do with spiritual oppression or a 'faith' issue
-- Mental health is more emotional when it comes to ministry exertion
-- Mental health is just as important as physical healing
As anything else when it comes to integrating importance focus into our churches we have nothing more powerful than preaching about it from the front. You might like to try:
-- Mention and acknowledge mental illness from the pulpit (awareness & validation).
-- Teach on the subject of mental illness from the bible
-- Share the testimonies of people who are struggling with mental health issues
-- Run training sessions in your church on key topics (suicide, trauma, anxiety, depression)
-- Develop your own knowledge and train your pastoral and prayer teams to support those impacted by mental illness
-- Create a Pastoral Care Policy for your church which outlines your approach to mental illness
Get involved. Turn towards what God is doing around mental illness.