By Jim Estep
Upon seeing a familiar person in the church lobby and asking them, “How are you doing?” we all know the answer that is expected: “Fine!” . . . even if it is not true.
I have often wondered what would happen if someone were open and honest about their struggles.
“How’s it going?”
“Well, do you really want to know?”
I remember a church member calling to share about a family member who had suffered a heart attack. They asked for prayer and whether someone from the church could visit with their loved one and the family. I immediately offered to help in whatever way I could.
At a Loss for Words
However, to my embarrassment, I sometimes hesitate when I receive a call from a church member or acquaintance about a family member or friend who has attempted suicide or been admitted to a facility for anxiety, depression, or some other psychological condition. I feel awkward discussing the matter and can stumble in finding the right words to say.
Churches seem well prepared for helping with physical ailments and short-term emotional needs of people in the congregation, but mental health challenges can elicit a curious veil of silence. Too many people in the church and community unfairly stigmatize people with mental health issues. A failure to frankly discuss these issues during the week—and on Sunday mornings—can lead to further complications and problems, for if those with mental health challenges do not receive proper care, they can resort to maladaptive self-care such as pornography, abuse, and addictions that fail to address the real issues.
What Can the Church Do?
Here are a few ways the church can help people who have mental health challenges:
• Be the church . . . a loving, faithful community! Paul urged the church to “[bear] with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2). He also said to “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). If we, as God’s people, can be open with one another about ourselves, it is a step in a healthier direction.
• Raise awareness of mental health in our community and congregation. We can no longer simply sweep mental health issues under the proverbial rug or bury our heads in the ecclesiastical sand. Perhaps we could familiarize ourselves with the needs of our community to reach out and minister to those in our neighborhoods.
• Be sensitive, don’t stigmatize. We need to defuse any embarrassment people may have for their mental condition and the stigma assigned to it by others. We mustn’t shy away from or ignore people who are suffering; rather, we must give those in need our presence and demonstrate our willingness to embrace the fullness of their story . . . all of it, not just the more acceptable parts.
• Provide emotional triage, point people who are suffering toward long-term professional treatment. Most ministers are trained to provide short-term pastoral counseling to members of their congregation, but few are trained to address clinical, ongoing mental health issues. While ministers and elders may be the church’s first line of response to the issue of mental health, people who are suffering should also have access to competent, qualified mental health professionals.
• Encourage church staff self-care. People serving on ministry staff also may occasionally struggle with mental health issues. They may use the pulpit or their pastoral title as a blind to hide behind. Leaders need to practice self-care, and those to whom they are accountable need to promote their self-care. And, of course, elders need to care for the caregivers.
Jim Estep is a cofounder of e2: effective elders. He serves as dean of Lincoln Christian Institute.
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Steve Austin and Robert W. Lee, Hiding in the Pews (Fortress Press, 2021)
Janyne McConnaughey, Trauma in the Pews (Berry Powell Press, 2022)
Helen Thorne and Steve Midgley, Mental Health and Your Church (Good Book Company, 2023)