Two things that we are told never to talk about in our culture are politics and religion. Excuse me while I break that rule. It is my opinion that mental illness in the church needs to be discussed in a big way.
I am not looking to address any particular denomination... but with full disclosure will say that I was brought up Methodist and then in my thirties I had an experience with God which was what they call “born again” and began attending an Assembly of God Pentecostal Church. This denomination is also known as what they called in the 1970s “Holy Rollers” and yes, we do believe in what's called the “ gifts of the Spirit “, which includes speaking in tongues. I have also been water baptized.
I have recently been attending a non denominational church with my husband. It is much more conservative than the Pentecostal Church, although a lot of the beliefs and core principles are much the same. I wanted to get that out of the way so that you knew where I was coming from. Again, I do not wish to speak to any one denomination per se, but I felt that it was extremely important for you to understand where I derive my point of view with regard to religion.
I recently sat down with a very close friend of our family who is also a church Minister. He has a beautiful wife and wonderful children and a thriving Ministry in a very large Church. Looking on his personal life and testimony of all that he has overcome, he is an inspiration and picture to me and others of the healing grace of God on someone's life. He is very into Outreach Ministry in his local community and well-respected by the other Pastors and members of the church.
We are choosing to leave his identity anonymous, and for the sake of this posting we will call him “Pastor John”.
What is very interesting about his story is that he was sexually molested by his brother for many years during his childhood. This obviously led him to develop mental health issues, specifically severe Panic Anxiety Disorder and Depressive Disorder. He dealt with suicidal thoughts and ideation for many years.
Pastor John has been with the ministry for over 19 years now, most of that being a Youth Pastor. What triggered him into a pretty bad place insofar as his mental health is concerned was when he married and made the decision to not tell his wife about his past sexual abuse. This led him into a state of severe anxiety and he began living a double life. This went on for approximately five years.
He felt as though being a follower and a Minister for Christ he was not supposed to have the issues he had mentally or suffer from the thoughts that plagued him emotionally. He shared with me that the picture we are given of God is that, once we become a Christ follower, we are made whole. When we do not fit that description, we feel as though we are living outside of the Christian box (so to speak). He suffered from severe suicidal thoughts and panic anxiety issues and was actually unable to take the platform and speak from the pulpit for many years. Pastor John was not under a doctor's care or on any medication at that time, nor did he know how to self-soothe…. This prompted him to have major anger issues and be very anti-social. His answer was to push everyone away and not form deep relationships.
The breaking point came when he heard a sermon about not having to be perfect in God's eyes, but having to have a willing heart to serve God. He then made the decision to confess to his wife, friends, his mentor and his boss. Fortunately Pastor John had a very wonderful outcome after his confession. He made the decision that he wasn't going to let people here on earth dictate or conclude that he was not intact spiritually. He expressed that he noticed it was very easy for others to judge his issues and not understand him. This is true for many of us when we consider sin. Our sin is ”acceptable”, your sin is not, is often the attitude.
Certain denominations believe in something called Deliverance. This can also be known as an Exorcism, and is used to get rid of the evil spirits that are plaguing the person. Pastor John explained, in his opinion, that there is a difference between inviting evil into your life through things like Satanism and Witchcraft verses something you have had to live through or experience, such as abuse or sexual trauma. There is not a need to exorcise “Demons of Mental Illness” from a person. In his opinion he feels the church just doesn't know what to do with the mentally ill. Often in the Bible we see Jesus casting out demonic spirits and evil spirits. But what we are discussing here is accepting a person who has had a situation or trauma happen to them that they did not ask for. This is a person who could be described as a broken vessel on the outside but their spirit is intact and they love the Lord on the inside.
I asked him what he would suggest when a Minister comes into contact with someone with mental illness. He said first off to remain calm. Second to not make any assumptions before you hear the whole story. Thirdly you need to be the right person to help in the situation. What that means is that a Minister who is not versed in helping the mentally ill may be quick to jump to Baker Acting or other drastic measures because they do not understand how to deal with someone such as this.
Pastor John would often resource people out to Mental Health Counselors or treatment centers that could take the person to the next level of healing. He would and continues to do research and educate himself with regard to dealing with issues that the mentally ill face. He believes wholeheartedly in the use of psychiatric therapy as well as the use of psychiatric medication. He himself uses prescribed psychiatric medication.
Pastor John went on to explain that not all were healed in the Bible. There are many examples where, such as the Apostle Paul, he was never delivered of the thorn in his side. We are never told what that thorn was he dealt with but we do know that God did not choose to take it away from him. Instead Paul had to learn how to deal and cope with it. Such as the testimony of Pastor John.
Pastor John feels that any church that does not have people on staff with trauma training has no business trying to counsel a person with mental issues. He is fully aware of the stigmatism and discrimination that is held against the mentally ill not just in society in general but also in the church environment. This includes discrimination insofar as allowing people with known mental illness to be in positions of authority in the church environment... such as a Minister or in a volunteer capacity in the church. Unfortunately because of this misunderstanding, many of the mentally ill are turned off or away from the church environment.
Pastor John does not hide his Mental Illness but instead chooses to live out loud and in honesty. He has learned to come to peace with the trauma he has suffered through and has built it into a platform whereby he can minister to others who have been through similar situations.
Many of the youth he has ministered to have come to him was Suicidal Tendencies as well. Pastor John explains that when dealing with someone with Suicidal Tendencies you need to remain calm and make sure the threat is real. It is also important to follow up with the person over the course of six months to a year and make sure that the individual is in continued counseling and under doctor care. He explained that the Minister should not give total access to their personal life when working with someone in trauma. Although Pastor John will give out his personal cell phone number, he very much guards his private life and his family from situations he may encounter in his youth group. He does not feel it is healthy for the Minister to become so entwined with the person they are ministering to. It is extremely important for the minister to keep healthy boundaries in these situations. He also suggests that you always have a third party witness in the room when talking to someone with such issues.
His suggestion to the person with mental or trauma issues is to keep searching for a church that understands you. If all the church wants to do is exorcise demons from you, tells you to go off your medication because you're not believing God or reading your Bible enough, or disregards you as a participating member of the congregation due to your disorder, then it is time to find another church. The other thing that Pastor John points out is that the building does not make a Christian. The church is an awesome gathering place, however there are many countries where Christians have to pray or read their Bible in hiding because it is illegal. It is the relationship with Christ that makes the Christian… Not a brick-and-mortar building.
I asked Pastor John who he felt were some of the best mentors and or Ministers out there right now that speak to this issue. He said that he has gained much from Pastor Rick Warren. It is widely known that Pastor Rick Warren's son had major depressive disorder and also committed suicide. The Warrens have used this as a platform to help others going through similar situations. He is also a big fan of Pastor Craig Groeschel. Pastor John also spends a lot of time reading books such as Healing for Damaged Emotions and he takes classes given by the community, that are free to the public, dealing with trauma issues. He is also an avid Old Testament reader and relates to Elijah who lived in a cave in trauma and devastation for 4 for 5 months and yet was used as a Prophet of God.
In summation, the church can and should be a place of healing and help for all those who are hurting and wish to find peace and solace in a spiritual relationship with God and Jesus Christ. Again that is my personal opinion. If the church response to the mentally ill is one of understanding, help, resourcing, and acceptance… It can be a very rewarding part of your healing. It is my personal prayer that those in positions of authority in the church will come to view helping the mentally ill as an extension of what they have to offer. This can take shape and form in many ways from counseling the church member to offering small group opportunities or outside resources where they can find help in a healthy way. It has been a long time coming and perhaps we are at a point of making some inroads in this very important topic. Thanks for listening.