Noting that we are in “a new day of awareness” about mental health issues, Frank S. Page addressed the members of the Mental Health Advisory Group at their final meeting, expressing appreciation for the work they had done in anticipation of the group’s final report.
In response to a motion on mental health ministry and a resolution on mental health concerns introduced at the 2013 SBC annual meeting, Page, president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, appointed the Mental Health Advisory Group to “report and advise [him] on possible ways of better informing Southern Baptists about available mental health service providers and resources.” Numerous individuals both within and outside the SBC have been encouraged by the elevation of mental health ministry needs and the work of the advisory group, Page said.
Following the group’s first meeting last spring, Chairman Tony Rose, pastor of LaGrange Baptist Church in LaGrange, Kentucky, divided the group into teams to investigate various facets of mental health ministry in SBC life. The full advisory group met again on November 21 in Nashville to discuss each team’s findings and begin the process of collating their findings into its report.
Professional and Church Counseling Services
The Professional and Church Counseling Services team, comprised of Ray Cleek, Chuck Hannaford, Brad Hambrick, Pepper Pratt, and Lennox Zamore, sought to define professional and pastoral counseling roles, describe mental health ministry models, give examples of best practices, and offer recommendations for churches to navigate the legal and liability issues that may arise.
The team identified various formal and informal components that may be present in a church’s mental health ministry, depending on the size and resources of the church. They discussed a “full-orbed” model including formal professional counseling, informal “one-another ministry” between laypersons, informal pastoral counseling, and community-based small groups, all seamlessly integrated.
“Whatever model we have, it’s necessary to reduce the stigma [of mental illness] and bring in a caring concern for those families and people with mental health issues,” said Hannaford, a clinical psychologist and president of HeartLife Professional Soul Care. “And whatever ministry takes place in the acute phases,” whether or not someone is referred to an outside professional for care, “we get those people back into the body of the church,” he said.
The Denominational Services team, which included Kelly Campbell, Belva Weathersby, Doug Carver, and Ken Sartain, investigated the mental health and counseling services currently being offered by local Southern Baptist churches, associations, state conventions, and SBC entities. They surveyed each state convention and sought guidance from LifeWay, NAMB, Baptist Child Care Executives (leaders of twenty-three Baptist Children’s Homes affiliated with state Baptist conventions), and other SBC organizations.
Carver, executive director of chaplaincy for NAMB and a retired major general in the US Army, emphasized the importance of restoring community in churches. “One of the loneliest places is a church pew,” he said. “There’s a lot of isolation within the context of our churches, so how do we break that code on restoring community?”
He also said that mental health ministry needs to continue to be a priority for the SBC even after the current attention wears off. “We can’t let this momentum cease,” he said.
Academics and Training Resources
Ian Jones, Eric Johnson, Sam Williams, and Matthew Stanford, the Academics and Training Resources team, researched the current offerings of the six SBC seminaries in the areas of pastoral and professional counseling, offered suggestions for best practices, and researched other training options.
They found that the seminaries were diverse in their offerings, with different counseling programs available, course requirements for ministry degrees, and general philosophies of the nature and treatment of mental illness.
Williams, professor of counseling at Southeastern Seminary, pointed out that a balanced view of mental illness needs to have respect for God’s common grace in scientific and medical research without diminishing the importance of the Gospel. Warning against attributing mental illness to a single cause, he said, “We want to make sure that we avoid some of the crass reductionism of how we understand people and their problems. . . . We need to recover a more nuanced, careful understanding of all the variety of factors that go into something as complex as a mental illness.”
Curricula and Resources
Debby Akerman, Kay Arnold, Will Bacon, and Shannon Royce served as the Curricula and Resources team, compiling an extensive list of resources designed to offer accurate and helpful information to individuals suffering from mental illness, as well as to pastors, counselors, and those with loved ones who are suffering.
Some of the resources the team identified, particularly those relating to major mental illness, came from secular sources. “We are just beginning to engage as the church,” so Christian organizations don’t always have sufficient resources about severe illnesses such as schizophrenia, said Royce, president and CEO of ChosenFamilies.org. The group advocated using the good information available in secular resources, but be aware that they are not coming from a biblical worldview—an “eat the meat, but spit out the bones” approach.
The Communication team of Daniel Darling, John Jones, and Kent Choate explored the possibility of a mental health online resource for Southern Baptists, acknowledging that the Mental Health Advisory Group itself will not launch or execute any official SBC ministries. They identified possible sources of materials from within the Southern Baptist family and partnerships with like-minded existing ministries. They suggested a three-track system—resources for families dealing with mental illness, for pastors who want to better serve their congregations, and for pastors who suffer from mental illness themselves.
Many pastors are struggling in isolation, and there needs to be resources available to help them, said Choate, community groups pastor at theChurch.at in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. “If we don’t have healthy pastors, we’re just not going to have healthy churches,” he said.
“I discovered when I was working for [the Oklahoma Baptist Convention] that our pastors struggle, really struggle, and are feeling like they’re on islands, especially in their mental health issues. And they have no one to talk to,” he said. The group referenced NAMB’s pastoral care line, 1-844-PASTOR1, as one way that pastors can receive confidential help from counselors.
After the November meeting, the group continued to collaborate remotely and presented its forty-two page final report to Page in April, who referenced it during his Executive Committee report in the Tuesday afternoon session of the 2015 annual meeting and will use it in continuing conversations with the Convention’s Great Commission Council, comprised of the chief executives of the SBC Executive Committee, the SBC entities, and WMU, the auxiliary to the SBC.
Mental Health Advisory Council Members:
- Tony Rose, chairman; pastor, LaGrange Baptist Church, LaGrange, Kentucky
- Debby Akerman, president, Woman’s Missionary Union
- Danny Akin, president, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
- Kay Arnold, mental health counselor, Babb Center, Hendersonville, Tennessee
- Will Bacon, president and CEO, Georgia Baptist Health Care Ministry Foundation
- Kelly Campbell, regional vice president, Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes
- Doug Carver, executive director of chaplaincy, North American Mission Board
- Kent Choate, community groups pastor, theChurch.at, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma
- Ray Cleek, administrator/assistant director, Babb Center, Hendersonville, Tennessee
- Daniel Darling, vice president for communications, ERLC
- Ronnie Floyd, senior pastor, Cross Church, Springdale, Arkansas
- Brad Hambrick, pastor of counseling, The Summit Church, Durham, North Carolina
- Chuck Hannaford, president, HeartLife Professional Soul Care, Germantown, Tennessee
- Eric L. Johnson, professor of pastoral care, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
- Ian Jones, professor of psychology and counseling, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
- John R. Jones, executive vice president and chief operating officer, GuideStone Financial Resources
- Pepper Pratt, executive director, Youth Town of Tennessee, Jackson, Tennessee
- Shannon Royce, president and CEO, ChosenFamilies.org, Falls Church, Virginia
- Ken Sartain, senior pastor, First Baptist Church, Hughson, California
- Matthew S. Stanford, professor of psychology and neuroscience, Baylor University
- Belva Weathersby, director of staff development, Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities
- Sam Williams, professor of counseling, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
- Lennox Zamore, pastor, Ebenezer Memorial Baptist Church, Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands
Rebecca Wolford is communications specialist with the SBC Executive Committee and is a member of Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tennessee.