Category Archives: Ministry

Organizing The Mental Illness Disconnect In The Church

Mental Health Grace Alliance April 12, 2015

Recently, I had the honor to sit on a panel for a community luncheon to discuss mental health and the church (spear headed by Baylor Social Work Graduate students John David and Anna Chatham). The goal was to build a strong conversation and network … it was a great success and we’re now in process connecting with another great church in our city that believes more can be done!

Though I cannot capture the whole conversation of our luncheon in this short article, however the questions prepared by John and Anna articulates what many in the church are asking. For the larger audience and to keep the conversation going, I thought it would be helpful to elaborate on three of their questions.

1. In your experience, whether personal or professional, what are some challenges that people with mental illness face in regards to their life in the congregation?

There are three specific challenges I see.

a) The Fear of Stigma. Without a healthy dialogue happening within the church, mental illness remains spiritualized as a weakness of faith, sin, and demonic oppression, which causes people to become isolated within the congregation as, what I call, “The Silent Sufferer.” Having a mental health challenge has a negative impact affecting the person’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Without that healthy understanding of mental illness, the church leader often defaults to biblical teachings where the person’s symptoms often look like the outcomes of sin, lazy faith issues described in Proverbs, and demonic oppression (the extreme unexplainable). The problem is they don’t know to go past the default mode.

b) Misunderstood with Poor Counsel. If the individual does open up about their mental health challenges, because of the above spiritual stigma and misconceptions, many are given poor counsel that reinforce spiritual weakness, failure in God, and worsening their overall condition.

A classic misconception is equating the need for medication as a sign of weak faith. Another associates difficult mental illness symptoms as a “spiritual attack” from demonic forces and they must engage in “spiritual warfare” to “resist the devil” by quoting scripture, intercessory prayer to rebuke the “enemy,” and just “trust God.” These only reinforce anxiety and bring about spiritual exhaustion. There is a much better way through comfort and rest … in Christ!

c) Triggering Environments and Church Guilt. Many churches today are highly stimulating environments with loud worship, dynamic lights, intense or exhorting preaching styles, and large crowds. While many enjoy this inspirational environment, the person with a mental illness can be over stimulated triggering anxiety and other symptoms. In addition, many can misperceive and filter the sermon through their various symptoms leaving them uncomfortable and feeling condemned to do more works for God in order to “heal their issues” … which is their symptoms. Church becomes overwhelming and then the guilt for not able to handle or go to church settles in.

Here’s what happens. I have heard many stories of having panic attacks in the church parking lot or just stepping into the lobby. Others triggered by the sermon get up and leave. In fact, I told one individual if he had a hard time with the sermon to call me and we would do a simple bible study. He ended up calling the next Sunday. Then, another person over stimulated from the church service always went home feeling agitated. They later discovered the service was triggering their anxiety. The guilt then settles in, “I’m a failure because I can’t even enjoy church.”

“When we try to make mental illness a spiritual issue we will always reinforce stigma”
2. Some of the challenge seems to be around how different people perceive and define mental illness. While some may see it as a mental (physical) condition, others attribute it to sin or to other spiritual principles. How do you personally and professionally make sense of mental illness? Do you think that mental illness has any spiritual connection?

We have to remember that we do not first look at mental illness … we have to look at the person. This is how God looks at us … with delight and satisfaction, no matter the “illness.” If we see a God requiring us to get our lives in order, we will miss the heart of answering this question. He would do anything to let us know we are loved, with or without a mental illness, because every life is precious to Him … thus Jesus’ death on a cross is His satisfied love for us all.

If you want to know the answer to this question … ask any parent with a child living with a disability or “illness” how they feel about their child. You will probably see pure love and joy expressed in tears, smiles, and a gentle voice. You will hear something so simple, peaceful, and a beautiful confidence. You will see a valid picture of the will and heart of God. You will see the spiritual connection!

We are all God’s creation (Colossians 1.16, Ephesians 2.10) and that makes us all spiritual. In Christ we are His children through faith (Galatians 3.26) and that makes us spiritual. So, the pastor who is taking blood pressure medication – is that spiritual? A dear friend, father, and faithful man in the Lord died of cancer – was that spiritual? In those cases, much like the parent of a child with a disability or “illness,” we see after God’s heart for the man, not the “illness.” I choose to see mental illness how my Father in Heaven sees it … how He wants to respond with hope … that’s the spiritual connection.

When we try to make mental illness a spiritual issue we will always reinforce stigma, falsely create dogmatic and superficial “spiritual” answers which then everyone get’s boxed into … or for some, they get cornered. The problem is that spiritual stigma reinforces a broken heart … a broken hope. The person struggling with a mental illness has a story and a journey they are on with God’s lovingkindness, grace, and mercy. Mental illness doesn’t intimidate God. Thus, mental illness doesn’t define them, God does. That’s the spiritual connection.

3. In your opinion, what are practical things that congregations can do to appropriately respond to people struggling with mental illness?

This is really simple and I have written a blog to help understand how the church can be the answer for mental illness. In basic, the three elements the church can do is start moving towards more simple and adequate Education, Training, and simple Community Support.

At a recent training for a Chinese church I asked, “If you had one week to help break the stigma in the church … what would you do?” A young adult leader said, “I would get the conversation started, we need to start talking about this in a way we can all understand.”

Many do not know how to understand mental illness, therefore they do not know how to talk aobut it. We have to get the conversation started.

So the question to you is … How and where can you get the conversation started in your church?

Reimagine mental illness and the church!

Joe Padilla | CEO and Founder The Grace Alliance

Suicide, Stigma, and the Role of Religious Faith

Suicide, Stigma, and the Role of Religious Faith.

Why social workers aren’t discussing religion, spirituality with clients: Social work professor explains disconnect between practitioners’ beliefs, practice — ScienceDaily

Why social workers aren’t discussing religion, spirituality with clients: Social work professor explains disconnect between practitioners’ beliefs, practice — ScienceDaily.

Mental Illness and the Church: An Analysis, a guest post by David Murray

The following is a guest post from David Murray. David is Pastor of Grand Rapids Free Reformed Church, a Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary author of Jesus on Every Page, Christians Get Depressed Too, How Sermons Work. He is married to his wife Shona, and they have five children. He also blogs at HeadHeartHand, which you may have heard of.
A couple of weeks ago, LifeWay Research released new data on mental illness and how churches and pastors respond. David Murray, as a pastor and thinker, has written a couple of great blog posts analyzing the data. This is the first.
David served on the working review team that reviewed and approved the project direction and survey instruments for the LifeWay Reasearch study.
Here is his blog on mental illness and the church.
Just over a year ago, a Christian family that has struggled with severe mental illness in their family circles for many years decided to donate a large sum of money to fund research into acute mental illness and the Christian faith. Their burden and passion was to help sufferers, but also to help families and churches minister more truthfully, graciously, and effectively to the mentally ill.
The first installment of that research was recently published by LifeWay and many media organizations have reported the results, much to the family’s joy. They are also looking forward to the next steps: an academic paper that will help seminaries and churches train pastors and a popular-level book that will help Christians everywhere understand mental illness better and serve those suffering with it more skillfully.

In this article I want to comment on a few of the more general findings from the research and in a second article, I’d like to zoom in on the core issue of the research, which concerned salvation and the mentally ill. But first, here are some of the research results that intrigued me.
“59% of pastors have counseled one or more people who were eventually diagnosed with an acute mental illness.”
Only 59%? Given the prevalence of mental illness in society (somewhere between 15-25% of the population will suffer an acute mental illness at one point in their lives), I was stunned that this figure was not 100%.
Does this imply that many people do not trust their pastors to offer reliable counsel when suffering in this way, and therefore turn to non-pastors for help instead? If so, perhaps some pastors need to ask themselves, “What can I do to equip myself better?” and also “How can I communicate understanding, sympathy, and compassion to such people so that they will come to me for counsel?”
“22% of pastors agree that they are reluctant to get involved with those dealing with acute mental illness because previous experiences strained time and resources.”
I admire the honesty of the 22% (the real figure is probably higher), and I sympathize with the desire for time-efficiency, but I do not agree with the response (or lack of it). These are the bruised reeds and the smoking wicks that God sends to us to strengthen and fan into flame; and we say, “Sorry, not enough time”?!
Thankfully Jesus didn’t think like this when He came to save us from our sins. No one is asking pastors to have all the answers or to provide all the counsel that’s needed, but an engaged and informed pastor is a vitally important part of any care plan, as is the Christian community.
“23% of pastors indicate that they have personally struggled with mental illness of some kind.”
This figure did not surprise me. It’s on the high end of estimates of mental illness in the wider community, but given the mental, emotional, and spiritual strains of the ministry, we should expect that. I want to ask these pastors: “Who are you reaching out to for help?” From what I’ve seen, I fear that only a few percent would have said, “Another pastor,” or “My elders.”
It is possible that a significant number of pastors and church leaders hide their own mental illness. How can we make it easy and natural for Christian leaders to get help also from within their own community?
“53% of individuals with acute mental illness say their church has been supportive.”

I was massively encouraged by this figure. It’s even higher (67%) for adults who attend church regularly. The figure confirms my encouraging sense of where the church is at as I’ve discussed mental illness in many Christian settings. There does seem to be a growing awareness of mental health issues and an increased Christian sympathy and sensitivity towards sufferers.
Caregivers report even higher satisfaction as “75% of family members in a household of someone with acute mental illness say their church has been supportive.” And “among individuals who attended church regularly as an adult, 57% agree that their local church has specifically helped them think through and live out their faith in the context of mental illness.” I’m sure you’ll join me in praising the Lord for such wonderful Christian love being evidenced and experienced in the body of Christ.
But, before we get too carried away, on the negative side, as the next stat proves, there’s still an alarmingly large number of individuals whose experience at the hands of fellow-Christians is so bad that they leave their church.
“The response of people in the church to individuals’ mental illness caused 18% to break ties with a church.”
This is utterly heart-breaking. Almost 1 in 5 left their church due to the negative or non-responses of their spiritual family. I’ve heard many of the stories behind these stats and grieve at how ignorant, misinformed, and insensitive so many Christians are towards those who are so fragile and vulnerable. There’s only one thing that can change this and it’s more education in our churches. That’s confirmed by the next stat.
“90% of pastors, 74% of individuals with acute mental illness (and 85% of their family members) agree that local churches have a responsibility to provide resources and support to individuals with mental illness and their families.”
As you can see, a significant percentage of pastors agree that the local church has a responsibility to support those with mental illness and their families. This is encouraging!
But how can they help? The research returned answers like: helping families find local resources for support, maintaining lists of experts to refer people to, talking about mental illness openly in church, and friendships with other local church members.
“49% of pastors rarely or never speak to their church in sermons or large group messages about acute mental illness.”
There’s the gaping hole. Given all these statistics about the prevalence of mental illness, and the vital role the church could play, half of all pastors either rarely or never mention it.
Even if pastors do not feel personally equipped to speak about it, they can refer people to reliable and helpful books, articles, sermons by others, and so on. Or why not bring in an experienced counselor to talk about it?

A New Approach to Mental Illness in the Church. We must stop ignoring mental illness and start graciously offering hope. | Ed Stetzer.

A New Approach to Mental Illness in the Church
Churches, we need a new approach to mental illness.
Or, maybe not new, but a more Christlike approach to mental illness.
A Question
“Why is this so uniquely difficult for Christians?” It was an astute question—the right question, really.
I was being interviewed by a reporter for a national publication in the wake of the tragic suicide of Matthew Warren, the son of Rick Warren. National news sources covered the story, many about mental illness and suicide, and people in churches were asking important questions.
But regardless of when these topics are raised, there is a unique challenge created for Christians, who believe God heals people. He heals our hearts of an all-encompassing sin condition, and he heals physical illness. But when we experience situations like Matthew’s, where clear healing did not take place, we are often overcome with unanswered questions.
The unexpected and horrifying can happen, and even though we believe in the miraculous and understand the freedom and forgiveness we have in Christ, we can’t help but feel that something is missing.
It happens every time we hear stories like this.
Some History
It is common practice in churches, however, to treat mental illness differently.
I wrestled with these questions as a young pastor, and literally had no idea how to deal with them. I learned through on-the-job training the level of deficiency in my understanding of mental illness.
Early in my ministry, I met a wonderful gentleman who loved the Lord with all of his heart, who had a deep passion for God, and who exuded the character of a man who had spent a lifetime getting to know Christ. He experienced seasons of life, though, when he would simply spiral down to a place of dysfunction. He struggled with bipolar disorder, and it would overcome him (his words) for long periods of time.
In the midst of his struggles, he repeatedly cried out to God. He spent hours meditating on the Scriptures, particularly the Psalms. He begged God for help in the midst of his trouble time and time again. He had no idea how to respond to the lack of healing, and, honestly, neither did I. I was 25 years old, and all I had heard about dealing with mental illness was that Christians just “prayed it away.”
It was an attack of the enemy, or so I’d been told, and the necessary response was expulsion—just cast it out.
Since that was what we knew to do, that’s all we did. Our church prayed over him. I prayed over him and with him. Never has a man prayed harder to be set free of the cycles that he experienced in his own life than he. Ultimately, though, he took what he believed to be the only way out. He ended his own life.
His family was utterly devastated, as was I. As I tried to walk with them through their grief, I had to come to grips with a painful reality. I came face to face with the fact that I was woefully unprepared to deal with this situation, and the ideas that I had previously relied upon were completely inadequate to give me the necessary wisdom.
I was unprepared to deal with mental illness, and by my actions, I almost denied that it is even real. Of course, I would have been prepared for any number of other forms of illness. If someone had come to my church with a broken leg, I would have recommend they go see a doctor. For virtually any other illness, I would have said the same.
It is common practice in churches, however, to treat mental illness differently. We immediately assume there is something else, some deeper spiritual struggle causing mental and emotional strain.
The fact is that mental illness and spiritual struggle can be (and are) related. We are not separate things, we are complex people—remarkable connected in spirit, soul, body, mind, etc.
But, let me be direct here: if we immediately dismiss the possibility of mental illness and automatically assume spiritual deficiency, our actions amount to spiritual abuse. I know those are powerful and pointed words, but I believe them to be true. Please, don’t miss them.
Increasing Acknowledgement

That being said, I am encouraged by the increasing recognition of the reality of mental illness in many churches who are contemplating healthy, helpful ways to address it.
At LifeWay Research we’ve released data on these very issues, as you can see:
Mental Illness Remains Taboo Topic for Many Pastors
New Study of Acute Mental Illness and Christian Faith
Mental Health: Half of evangelicals believe prayer can heal mental illness
And I’ve written on the subject extensively.
Be Prepared
Churches and leaders, we must offer hope.
Too often, our churches are unprepared to walk with the suffering, like I was as a young pastor. This results in a shunned believer who is driven out to deal with a heavy burden on his own.
The reality is that regardless of the situation—even in the most prepared church—mental illness can be deep, traumatic, and life-changing. Even if our churches talk about the issue and have a plan to address it with our own people, it tends to be a long road to healing or discerning how to manage the disease.
Ministering to those struggling with mental illness, and the family members of those struggling, requires a tremendous amount of grace, but God’s people should be first in line to offer it.

Biblical Counseling
I wrote an article for CNN immediately following Matthew Warren’s death, and it was picked up by several other outlets. I received plenty of feedback from readers, but much of it was not positive. Most of the detractors focused solely on the need for biblical counseling to the exclusion of any other medical input. In their eyes, biblical counseling necessarily precluded everything else.
Please understand: I am a big believer in biblical counseling. We practice it in our church. We believe the Scriptures are our faith and guide. Yet, I think that all truth is God’s truth and, yes, we can learn from psychology and medicial science as well.
But, as a Chrisitan, I do believe that the greatest root problem in the brokenness that comes from the Fall and, yes, sin impacts us all. Brokenness certainly has far-reaching effects on us spiritually—we were actually dead in our sin before Jesus made us alive—but brokenness also impacts us physically.

Mental illness, mental disease, is a reality.
Sin Is Real
Of course, it is a result of the Fall and the sin that is a part of all of our lives. But it also has a physical component that sometimes has to be dealt with physically, which is my primary focus here. To ignore the reality of mental illness hampers our ability as the church to have robust, intelligent, helpful conversations to find ways to come alongside those who are suffering and offer hope.
Churches and leaders, we must offer hope.