The term “mental illness” creates angst in the minds of many people. Whether we like it or not, “mental illness” is the name contemporary culture has assigned to certain types of human suffering. These mental illnesses and “disorders” are no respecters of human persons. No status gained in this earthly life guarantees immunity from such suffering.
Three factors keep the climate surrounding the church and mental illness unstable: the difficulty in establishing the facts of what constitutes mental illness, the reality of our fears when dealing with mental illness, and the friction inevitably brought when people of biblical conviction attempt to find unchanging expositional foundations for ministry to ever-changing experiential problems.
Each member of the Mental Health Advisory Group (MHAG) appointed by Frank S. Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, brought to the table his or her own understanding of mental illness, how the Church should respond to it, and how the Scriptures are to be properly used in particular cases. But, we were unified by the fact that many people, inside and outside the Church, are presently suffering in ways that exceed descriptive accuracy and that our churches are often ill-equipped to effectively help them.
Describing the work of this group in detail would take a book, not an article. The present article is an attempt to represent the nature of the MHAG’s work and the hope generated among the members because of their work. The process behind the appointment of the MHAG, the names of all group members, a record of the MHAG’s work, and a brief synopsis of the report can be found in a series of articles provided by previous issues of SBC LIFE. Our combined hopes developed into a singular aim to present a report to Dr. Page containing the best current data to assist Southern Baptists in developing a biblically-grounded strategy in the relentlessly demanding service of caring for people suffering from mental illness and its far-reaching fallout.
We dream of our work becoming the “starting line” in a marathon of continual efforts by Southern Baptists to provide the best of help and greatest of hope through our Lord Jesus Christ to souls ravaged by indescribable emotional and mental suffering. We pray that the proper tension of conviction and compassion will keep us all on task in our efforts to serve this hurting group of people who are strangely forgotten and maybe even ignored by far too many churches.
Psalm 111:2 says, Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them. The human soul is an astounding creation of God. We believe the greatness of our God and His command to love our neighbor are more than sufficient reasons for Christians to lead the way in the study of human nature.
Psychology, which literally means “study of the soul,” certainly falls within the domain of the Church. However, we are not the only ones studying the human soul.
Research concerning mental health and mental illness is more than one could read in a lifetime of constant reading. But, the facts are far fewer than psychologists and other social scientists are willing to admit. A simple study of the history of mental illness reveals that many dogmatic statements of “fact” have been forced into revision because time showed again and again that conventional psychological dogma was often little more than personal preference based on insufficient evidence.
Given this, can we learn from others, especially unbelievers? Should we? Answers to these questions are vital and often cause the friction alluded to earlier.
Christian history shines helpful light on this dilemma.
Augustine taught that all branches of “heathen learning” have false and superstitious fancies which believers ought to abhor and avoid. But he immediately balanced his instruction saying, “but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality.”
He noted that truths discovered by unbelievers are things “which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad.” The ancient saint concluded his instruction on the matter saying, “Their human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life, we must take and turn to a Christian use” (citations from Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Chapter 40, Book II).
So, what facts must faithful Christ-followers affirm in regard to mental health?
First, that the Scriptures are trustworthy in every facet; but we need God’s wisdom to use His Word as He intended it to be used in every arena of life.
Humility and honesty cause the wisest among us to admit that working with people ravaged by the sneak attacks of mental illness is a ministry filled with mystery. As a people committed to the unchanging truth of God’s Word, mysteries typically make us uncomfortable. Ministering to people with various forms of mental illness can make it appear that our Gospel-grounded answers don’t work. People seem to experience things contrary to what the Bible says is so. Our reaction at times is to develop a systematic process to eliminate the mystery and thereby relieve our own need of having an answer for everything. Serving people with serious instability of mind or emotion is draining, confusing, frustrating, and at times seems fruitless. Working with the eternal, unchanging, perfectly trustworthy Word of God in such an environment produces more tension in the caregiver than many imagine. We have all been guilty of forcing our own answers into situations to make things “better” or to at least make some sense of apparent nonsense.
Second, “mental illness” by whatever name one prefers, has been experienced by believers since the beginning of the Church. Pretending it does not exist will never help us find the “true facts.”
The Church’s history clearly reveals that a full spectrum of mental/emotional maladies has always been found among Christians. Not that everyone experiences such things; but serious psychological problems have affected some in every age of the Church. Our history shows that life-draining, soul-wounding, family-ravaging, suicide-creating mental and emotional extremes are part of life for some Christians this side of heaven.
We must admit this to be true if we are to rightly serve these suffering fellow believers with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Present cultural influences combined with our personal preferences may have influenced us to form an inadequate concept of normal Christian experience. Mental and emotional suffering should not be marked with an invalid and unkind stigma. We are convinced that ministry to people who suffer from mental illness is a normal part of Christ-honoring, Gospel-grounded ministry.
Third, if people are motivated to serve the mentally ill by the anticipation of timely and measurable improvements, they are likely headed for a ministry of drained disappointment.
Before dismissing that last statement, think it through. We believe the deepest motivation for serving these hurting people is the glory of Christ gained through their improved state. Our aim, if we are at all like Christ, should be to comfort these sufferers and see them set free from the grip of an unsound mind. However, such work is slow, arduous, and at times seemingly futile. Every one of us on the Advisory Group would say that no matter how demanding and no matter how small the fruit, IT IS WORTH IT! Sometimes the grace of God is the most beautiful when the mystery of our work can only be explained by “God did it.”
We hope our work becomes a catalyst for many believers to step into biblically-grounded, historically-informed, and skillfully-applied care for troubled hearts and minds. God grant us wisdom we do not yet have as we walk forward.
The winds of fear are a strong climatic influence in the world of the church and mental illness. On one hand, we find ourselves quite fearful when a fellow member’s behavior is out of the realm of “normal.” On the other, we are afraid of doing something “wrong”—that is, something unbiblical or emotionally hurtful—and somehow bringing harm to a person’s soul. Of course, the most intense fears are those within the believer who suffers from invisible, inexplicable, and often unbearable pain of body and soul.
We have reason to reject the fear of facing mental illness. God’s most oft given command to His people is “do not fear.” The Psalmist wrote, When I am afraid, I put my trust in you (Psalm 56:3).
Though mental illness has been called by different names at different times, it is clearly God’s intention that the Church bear the responsibility of caring for people who suffer from mental and emotional distress. It is time to admit both our ignorance and our fear. Left unfaced, these self-chosen blind spots can become the seedbed of many malformed ideas and efforts in the Church. We serve the God whose “Do not fear” is not limited by time, or space, or ministry need. We plead with fellow followers of Christ to let faith working through love become the fuel for facing the fearful mysterious unknowns of mental illness.
This Advisory Group agreed that our understanding of mental illness must continue to deepen. God and His Word are our only authoritative and sufficient sources to face our fears of mysterious unknowns and guard our minds against any unworthy research. But we blur our vision when we fail to learn from ages of documented Christian experience and helpful current research in medical and scientific fields.
Caring for the mentally ill is exhausting. Possibly our reluctance to fully face the issue is because it is so difficult and complex. Few pastors and churches have the necessary skills to care for the mentally and emotionally disturbed. We have learned to leave “counseling” to the experts. Whether the expert is a well-trained biblical counselor or a Christian psychologist, the majority of people who do soul care in today’s churches are specialists.
The mysteries surrounding these maladies keep the Church off balance. The tenacity to remain biblically-faithful and experientially-accurate has proved strenuous. We presently are unable to claim being on the leading edge of efforts to understand and care for people caught in the grips of mental illness.
Friction begins to build when we seek to determine worthy resources and biblically-faithful methods for learning about the operations of the human soul. Differing perspectives on how to address mental illness have developed within the contemporary Church and at times have become battle grounds to determine which approach is the “most biblical.” A defensive posture that opposes all modern/secular psychology rarely yields objective data and may hinder the Church’s ability to help those who are the most desperately needy. When fellow believers assume an offensive posture aimed more at different approaches to ministering to those with mental illness, it is possible that our need to be “the most right” has blinded us to the real needs of the hurting people over whom we are arguing.
Further, unnoticed by most of us, pastoral skill with engaging individual souls at their deepest levels of need has frequently become marginalized in our mediated age. We’ve become convinced that much of what a pastor needs to know about people can be obtained through some form of media: books, blogs, surveys, podcasts, and conferences where we are instructed by specialists. These media are the accepted means for becoming what the contemporary believer wants in a pastor—an effective mediator of spiritual experience.
As more and more people in our congregations engage life through some mediated process, opportunities for observing the specific shaping influences of life and death, relationships and realities, sin and grace in the lives of fellow believers have been greatly diminished.
Faith learned through virtual experience removes actual life experiences of soul care too far from many within the Body of Christ. We run the risk of losing our skill and responsibility of virtuous spiritual attentiveness to fellow church members. Caring for souls belongs to the whole of the Church, not just to pastors or specialists. Our prayer is that present frictions turn from being sources of conflict to being catalysts for developing church-wide systems of soul care ranging from one-on-one member-to-member ministry all the way to intentional strategic partnering with professionals when necessary.
A final point of friction, almost too dark to mention, is that ministry to the deeply broken does not help “grow” the church (in the short term at least). Ministry to those who are suffering the inexplicable torments of an unsound mind costs the church in every way. Yet is it not strangely convicting that such a ministry sounds just like authentic Gospel ministry—it costs in every way?
People in need of intense care are often unable to contribute to the church in service, witness, or finances. Targeting ministry toward people who drain the church’s energy and money seems impractical. We call attention to this without any form of accusation. With an impassioned plea we mention such realities in order to point out the costs of ministering to the mentally ill.
We are convinced that God has called the Church to be at the forefront of serving the mentally ill. We want to ask you to join us—but we do not want anyone to consider joining this cause without the opportunity to count the cost.
At the conclusion of our prayers, research, and meetings, the Mental Health Advisory Group presented Dr. Page a lengthy, detailed report. Our task was to provide resource information useful for making strategic decisions. It was to equip him to determine how best to call Southern Baptist churches, entities, and other ministry partners for effective ministry to people suffering from the widespread effects of mental illness. The recommendations we proposed can be summarized in five broad categories.
1. Educational Materials—having a strategy for producing materials to rightly educate the local church concerning mental illness, to equip the church membership for ministry to individuals and families suffering from mental illness and its surrounding difficulties. A primary focus in this recommendation is the elimination of the stigma that still accompanies mental illness in the church.
2. Resource Guides—producing resource guides for various-sized churches wanting to develop a multi-level soul care/counseling ministry for their membership and community. The senior pastor will need to give his full support for such a ministry to thrive. But, he will need several layers of helpers. Levels of help would range from one-on-one ministry of church member to church member to some type of healthy relationship with professional caregivers.
The typical church does not have the necessary expertise for developing a counseling practice that extends to the level of addressing necessary legalities, fiscal responsibilities, and clinical excellence at a professional level. Such guides will help the church understand the risks and liabilities involved in developing such a counseling program.
3. Seminary Training—wondering at the possibility of our six seminaries developing an agreed-upon minimum standard for all graduates in the understanding of mental illness and the foundations of care for the mentally ill.
We are aware this recommendation holds difficulties and may prove unworkable, but considered it worth recommending with the hope that interactions over these concepts may initiate new developments in preparing our students for ministry to people suffering from serious mental and emotional problems.
4. Resource Website—determining the possibility of a resource website that provides educational information and resources concerning mental illness and directs users to available resources produced by trustworthy churches and ministries. The site could also serve as a directory for all ministries across the Southern Baptist Convention in the field of mental health care as well as acknowledging sound Christian ministries outside the Convention.
There are certain liabilities with this recommendation that may prevent the Convention from producing such a website since the SBC cannot be put in the position of “endorsing” specific mental health care ministries or mental health care providers.
5. A Mental Health Champion—providing specific leadership singularly focused on developing and implementing SBC mental health initiatives. We think mental health initiatives will need a “champion” if they are going to receive the attention needed for successful development and implementation.
Specific leadership could be provided by placing the issue of mental health initiatives under one of our existing entities, by hiring a qualified individual to lead in this area, or a combination of these two options.
We presented these suggestions to Dr. Page as recommendations only. Some may be great ideas and yet simply not be possible. Some may not even be great ideas. We humbly submitted them with prayer for our Southern Baptist leaders as they develop how best to address this area of ministry across the Convention.
Tony Rose is pastor of LaGrange Baptist Church in LaGrange, Kentucky, and served as chairman of the Executive Committee’s Mental Health Advisory Group, 2014–2015.