When it comes to mental health difficulties and support from the church, we’ve heard it all! Many contact us to share their story and we see the eyes roll or fill with tears. Let’s look at the three major frustrations why those approaches don’t work, and three positive solutions.
1) Spiritual Stigma … unfortunately, pastoral staff members grow frustrated when they don’t understand why their ministry methods are not working. In response, they unknowingly go into “religious default” mode, which places the blame on the individual, rather than the ministry. Like Job’s friends, it’s assumed that this hardship/ problem is due to the individual’s sin, weak faith, or demonic oppression. Then, the church often backs away. One pastor was dealing with a person diagnosed with a mood disorder. When the pastor didn’t see it go away, he said, “It’s because the sin issues of his youth are finally catching up with him … he just needs to will himself into better choices.”
2) Spiritual Fix or Miracles … often times pastoral support will prescribe biblical counseling and intense discipleship to “overcome” or see “breakthrough”. Some will even insist on “deliverance” ministry or an intensive “inner-healing” ministry designed for immediate breakthrough. The idea is to have the individual do more constructive bible study, prayer, and intensive ministry for an immediate “breakthrough” to “overcome” … to “fix” everything. It forces the individual to “pray” or “believe” harder for a miracle breakthrough. We believe God can do the impossible, not us. For many this method doesn’t work and, in fact, it can make things worse. I helped one person with a debilitating anxiety disorder move away from a popular devotional that implied working hard to “overcome” would fix problems and produce positive results. The devotional warned, “If you fret you deserve what you get”.
3) Spiritual Steps … along the spiritual fix and miracles it is often viewed that this can be accomplished by a series of ministry “steps”. These are excellent ministry tools to address many emotional issues, BUT with someone with a mental health difficulty dealing with intense symptoms, unfortunately these inner-healing, or counseling, “steps” bring more confusion coupled with self-doubt. Many are left feeling they have failed the church and God. I’ve heard this from many, “I’m so frustrated with my church and God, I’m thinking of completely giving up on both”.
WHY IT DOESN’T WORK … It is important to note that although these pastoral leaders/ministries intend to be loving and well intentioned, they don’t have full understanding of this topic. Mental health difficulties are physiological dysfunctions of the brain, affecting thoughts, moods, and behavior. These types of disorders are more difficult to recognize than other health issues such as diabetes, cancer, or the common cold.
Difficult symptoms intensify negative thoughts and moods. The brain is not stable to process thoughts and emotions. Often many experience symptoms like, anhedonia or flat affect, which is an inability to feel or express pleasure or emotions, which leads to depressive moods and thoughts. Other symptoms include racing thoughts and impulsive behaviors (even destructive behaviors). All of these are uncontrollable and not easily “fixed” by most pastoral methods. By pressing these ministry methods, the individual experiences more disruptive emotions, confusion, and then God becomes a trigger.
So we need to re:THINK church support. The focus is on relieving suffering and revealing Christ.
1) STEPS vs. PROCESS … Mental health recovery is not linear, it is a process. The process starts with learning STABILITY, which means a transition from merely crawling through life, to simply standing up. Second, is growing into FUNCTION—visualize taking life from a slow walk and moving toward a light job. Third, is growing into PURPOSE, which means the individual has learned all about their condition, what works and what doesn’t, and how to manage life, so that they may avoid the pits. They are now living successfully whatever God has for them. We’ve seen many come from destruction and develop a purposeful life.
2) RECOVERY vs. TREATMENT … treatment focuses on medication and therapy alone. These are two important elements, and we need to find the right professionals to oversee that part. However, recovery addresses finding the right professionals, but also looks at all their life needs, understanding all the physical, mental, spiritual, and relational needs. (Click here for more understanding, FREE download “Daily Steps” )
3) REST vs. WORKS … instead of looking for fault and prescribing lots of work, let’s lead struggling individuals to rest. It is out of REST that we find comfort and strength. It is from REST we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, not vice versa (Philippians 4.13). We focus on validating their condition and take a simple approach that affirms their identity and recognizes key characteristics of God’s comfort and compassion. When we suffer, God doesn’t say, “Work harder and try to find Me … and if you do enough I will come to you”. Jesus came to us and He says, “Come to me … I will give you REST for your soul” all the while reaffirming gentleness and ease (Matthew 11.28-30).
TAKE A DIFFERENT APPROACH.
When dealing with this topic in the church, instead of doubling our efforts with more intensive counseling, ministry, programs, more meetings about stigma, etc., maybe we need to do what Jesus did with the blind man who could only beg for alms … just ask. “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10.51). Sit down with these folks who have these mental health difficulties and those who have experienced significant recovery, and ask them … what worked for you?
Let’s be reasonable and respond being seasoned with grace…
Let’s NOT respond with bitterness from any hurtful experience from the church, because none of us have arrived to the fullness of God’s revelation on this topic! Let us be forgiving. Let us remain “students” giving grace for all to learn. Learn from others who have great understanding and resources (see links below).
Let’s start the conversation … what worked for you … what would help the church? How do we keep it simple?
Comment here or on our facebook page with any thoughts you may have on this topic.
-Joe Padilla, CEO / The Grace Alliance
Other important organizations:
Mental Health for children: www.keyministry.org