“Would you stand up if you have received a diagnosis, medication or counseling for anxiety, depression, ADD, phobia, PTSD or OCD?
“Or if you sought advice for relationship issues – family, adolescence, parenthood, marriage?
“Or if you take sleeping pills, stress medication or painkillers? »
I posed these questions to my church from the pulpit during a series of sermons called “The Struggle Is Real.”
That Sunday, about 85% of the church was standing.
A similar percentage was reached when I asked if I had a psychological dependency or addiction to pornography, alcohol, cannabis, caffeine or illicit drugs.
I can only assume that my church is no exception when it comes to mental health issues.
Mental Health and the Church
What may be strange for our congregation is that I, the senior pastor, am also a licensed professional counselor.
I already know how broken, hurt, dependent and traumatized people in our churches are. I have a good estimate of the high percentage of them with a diagnosable mental illness: relatively close to the general population, which is around 20% in any given year (but more than 50% will be diagnosed at some point in their lives).
So if people in our communities and congregations are dealing with these issues, why did half the pastors say they “rarely or never talk” about mental illness?
This response is even more disconcerting given that 23% of these pastors acknowledge that they too have faced mental illness (and I suspect this number is grossly underreported).
After thinking about it, considering the pressures that I and other pastors I know well feel, and reading the research, I narrowed down the most likely culprits to three traps our churches, congregations, and leaders fall into in matter of mental disorders. sickness and the church.
The Trap of Perfection
I grew up going to a church where everyone was expected to behave their best. You were dressed in your “Sunday outfit” and “rubbed pink” (I think there were ethnic assumptions there too). The church was a place where people performed and sometimes even competed in appearance and behavior.
I remember the rather childish habit people had of looking around and whispering when a child was doing well.
If this perfection were the norm for children, imagine the unspoken demands on other members, let alone church personnel!
Maybe it started in the concept of presenting your best to God in an act of sacrifice, but I believe the hint of pride set in and turned the church experience into the “main game”, making Sunday morning a competitive perfectionism.
Does this “better Sunday” mindset fit with the teachings of the New Testament?
Jesus says he came to save the sick, not the righteous (Matthew 2:17). He viewed the humble prayers of the humble heart as those that justify (Luke 18:14). And Paul made it clear that it is in our weakness that God’s strength is most evident (2 Corinthians 12:10).
I think the churches have made good progress since I was a child. . More churches seem to get the message I heard Rich Mullins give at a concert in 1995: “Every time you go to church, you confess anew to yourself, to your family, to people you meet on the way, to the people who will welcome you there, that you do not have everything in hand and that you need their support; you need their direction, you need some responsibility, you need help.
The same report I quoted above indicates that 68% of Americans say they would feel welcome at church if they were mentally ill. Glad to hear that, but wondering if this still applies to mothers of children with special needs or other issues that might be considered disruptive?
Either way, there is room for us to grow by following Christ’s view of our frailty.
I argue that those of us are tempted to look judgmentally at the mother with the disruptive child, who could easily have a history of trauma, ADHD, autism, or just lots of energy. . . Well, maybe it’s our attitude that needs to be adjusted.
The not-here trap
“Stay up if you have four children. Five? Six? Seven?”
Many churches are probably still doing some kind of special counting of children to celebrate Mother’s Day. But you don’t notice the women who never come to Mother’s Day.
We can assume that none of them faced an abortion, miscarriage or unintended pregnancy as a result of abuse, assault, incest or simply taking teenage decision. Surely the women in our churches don’t deal with those kinds of issues, do they?
But of course they do, and Mother’s Day can easily be a date of confusion, regret, and heartache.
This is just one example of the kind of challenges people can face when they come to church after experiencing trauma. Consider how much more complicated the experience can be for people with clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobic disorders, or whatever other burden of mental illness that so many carry as members of our congregations.
The “Bible is enough for everything” trap
We know we can’t learn to drive a stick shift from the Bible. However, the patience, endurance and temperance required to drive a stick can be learned by living the text. Do we only need the Bible to deal with mental illness, or is it like learning to drive a stick shift? About one in three Americans say mental illness can be overcome through Bible study and prayer alone, but I think that usually requires skills outside of the Bible.
Of course, what the Bible teaches us about life and godliness, training, reproof and correction applies to all aspects of our lives, including mental illness. Consider how they also apply to medical learning, rehabilitation, and culinary skills.
However, just as with these examples, biblical truth does not in any way negate medical learning, conduct techniques, or therapeutic theory when they are also true.
In other words, all truth is God’s truth.
Truth springs from him, whether that truth is rooted in math, law, or the treatment of mental illness. We must never stray from what the word of God reveals to be true. We must never fall into the trap of thinking that every true statement in the universe is also found in the chapters and verses of the Holy Bible.
Fortunately, it’s clear to me as a pastor and professional counselor that these pitfalls are being avoided more often in churches all the time. Local churches are making real progress in providing a safe haven for those of us who suffer from mental illness.
I hope this trend will continue!