On January 7, 2019, I was introduced to the staff at St. Peter’s Lutheran (Columbus, IN) as their new Faith & Mental Health Advocate. This position is both an extension of what I do with Delight in Disorder ministries, and a big step forward for St. Peter’s. I believe God will bless us both and others as we work together.
Why is such a position needed?
In spite of perceived improvements in the mental health care system, we still have a long way to go. St. Peter’s already has a staff of quality, trained counselors responding with Christian care to the needs of many with emotional, relational, and behavioral issues. Pastors, principals, teachers, a social worker, support staff, and volunteers work hard to better understand those impacted by a mental illness. My role will not be to replace any of them, but to enhance what they are already doing with insights I’ve gleaned both personally and pastorally as a minister who has served for decades while battling bipolar disorder.
Is the need really that great?
In short, yes. Absolutely.
Lifeway Research’s 2014 Study of Acute Mental Illness and Christian Faith reveals many things, such as:
74% of pastors personally know someone who has been diagnosed with clinical depression and 76% know someone with bipolar disorder.
Pastors are often on the front lines of mental health care. For various reasons, many people both within and beyond the church confide in pastors before they seek psychiatric consultation. In spite of this reality, pastors receive next to no training in seminary or beyond on how to best care for those with mental illness or how to care for themselves when others lay such burdens on them.
23% of pastors indicate they have personally struggled with mental illness of some kind.
Pastoral ministry can be a consuming vocation. Many pastors feel the burden of being all things to all people and neglect their own spiritual, physical, and emotional needs. I know this very well. While God graced me to serve fruitfully in spite of a mental illness, my lack of self-care led to unexpected time off and an early retirement. And it’s not just pastors. Church leaders in every position are often expected to be miracle workers and when they fall short of unwarranted demands, they pay a steep price.
47% of individuals with acute mental illness say their church has not been supportive.
This figure is staggering, but it doesn’t surprise me. As I meet with persons who have mental illness, I hear many stories of churches and individual Christians who shun them when they struggle with mental health issues. Sometimes this is subtle, such as not inviting you to a fellowship gathering; sometimes overt, such as excluding you from ministry opportunities. Stigma is rampant and it is a violation of Christ’s clear call to radical hospitality. Studies show that 20-25% of persons have acute mental illness. If almost half of these are not receiving our care, that’s a lot of lost sheep.
70% of individuals with acute mental illness would prefer to have individuals who get to know them as a friend in their local church.
A faithful and fruitful mental health ministry does not begin with buying the right curriculum, recruiting a big name consultant, or tapping into the latest technology. It begins by making friends. This is the heart of all discipleship, and it is essential for sharing faith with those who have troubled minds. Four years ago, Eric Riddle and I started a faith-based mental health support group called Faithful Friends. We have met every Tuesday night for over four years. We pray. We read Scripture. We share our joys and our struggles. Sometimes we laugh so hard we start to cry. Other times our tears flow so much they turn to laughter.
What will I do at St. Peter’s?
One thing I will not do is get in the way of what God is already doing. St. Peter’s already has qualified and competent pastors, administrators, teachers, support staff, and volunteer ministers to serve the congregation and community. My role, working under the supervision of Pastor Teike, Jan Kiel, and Mike Hinckfoot, will be to equip the staff and members to better care for persons impacted by mental illness and, as they do, care for themselves. What this will look like remains to be seen, but I’m eager to discover just what God has in store.