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How Should Pastors Approach Mental Health in the Church?

Church training in the area of mental health support is most effective when it begins with leaders who demonstrate both the humility to cry out for help and the wisdom to know where to seek the best help.

Contributing Writer
Updated Oct 31, 2023
How Should Pastors Approach Mental Health in the Church?

With so many materials available related to mental health, even from within the church, one might think that discussing mental health would have become mainstream. In fact, this is not the case overall.

While many Christians are becoming more comfortable talking about mental health, and some sermons even hone in on this topic, there is still a stigma to overcome. How should pastors approach mental health in their churches?

1. Be Open

Bob Smietana believes that while pastors should not dump every detail onto their respective congregations, “they could acknowledge they struggle with mental illness.” A church’s leader can be an example for his flock and legitimize a subject that, to many, is a matter of prayer and faith.

Congregations look up to their pastor and often picture him as a man of faith and regular prayer: if he still deals with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or some other issue, then it must be real.

If he chooses to say nothing, however, a pastor loses his opportunity to reach a group that might not hear the news otherwise.

Without the guidance of this church leader, it can seem that the subject is taboo. This would reaffirm the notion that mental health should be a secret, private matter one does not discuss openly in church or that, unlike cancer or MS, it is not real.

Consider utilizing those in the church who are willing to share their testimony with others, perhaps as part of a small evening session where people feel comfortable sharing.

A truthful description of how one has wrestled and is still wrestling with the temptation to despair can be powerful if it is realistic and not tied up neatly with a happy ending, thereby promoting an unattainable example.

Often, part of healing is knowing we are not alone in our pain, even if the pain is an ongoing battle with clinical depression.

2. Be Biblical

A pastor’s choice to speak about mental health is validated by the Bible itself. This theme is rife throughout the pages of Scripture.

Everything from circumstantial depression (Job) to systemic illness (Saul) is addressed within these pages. David dealt with mental health (Ibid.); Judas committed suicide; any number of men in the Bible were overcome by rage (Cane, Joseph’s brothers, Moses).

In many places, the Psalms are an ongoing lament. “These are songs of people crying out to God in despair,” wrote Lieryn Barnett. God’s people can take heart knowing they are seen and heard by a loving Father who cares about how they feel. Scripture is a tremendous resource.

In the same way that Christ defended himself from Satan by quoting Scripture while he was tempted, the Christian can quote Scripture to his or herself when tempted to despair.

We are taught not to rely on feelings because they do take us down a dark path. But when feelings arise, Scripture encourages and empowers us to recognize the truth and/or lies behind our emotions and determine what to do next.

If we are keeping company which stresses us, for example, the Lord speaks to this. “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, [...] lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare” (Proverbs 22:24-25).

The Apostle John’s counsel to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1) is also a call to test what you hear or think against what you know to be true, which is whatever the Lord has said.

We are loved and valued by our Heavenly Father. But we are sometimes caught in the snares of our own sinful thinking.

3. Be a Student

Part of the pastor’s job is to counsel, but pastoral training is not counselor training per se. So much of what the pastor and other church leaders must understand about the subject will be a matter of ongoing study, just as those in the field continue to gain insight and ideas about the many facets of mental illness.

A pastor will find several excellent, biblical resources, of which the Bible itself is one. Studying obvious references to mental illness, good and bad responses, and the results of those responses can be helpful.

One observes the way Jesus addressed the man in the graveyard and realizes that Jesus can heal considerable sickness of the mind, but what if he chooses not to heal in a given case?

One examines the situation Judas faced and understands that confession and repentance are a choice that could have led Judas down a different path, even after he had sold Christ to the authorities. Yet, sin is not the cause of all mental pain.

There are excellent, highly trained authors on the subject, many of whom contribute to the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF).

Professionals from this organization explain that “as the care of souls, biblical counseling is the ministry of the Word done face-to-face. It [...] brings the many facets of the gospel of Jesus to the details of daily life. [...].”

They consider this work “one-another ministry,” which is not exclusively the purview of pastors, but is to be “carried out by every person in the church in which we speak the truth in love so that we might all grow up into Christ (Ephesians 4:15).” This truth includes knowing when to support an individual to seek medical intervention.

4. Train Others

As indicated above, this is a ministry for the whole church. “Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). The law was fulfilled by Christ, so Christians fulfill the law by pursuing a Christ-like life.

An element of this life is bearing each other’s burdens. “Being in Christ does not mean we won't have burdens to carry in this earthly life. We will. One of those burdens is the weightiness of our temptation to give into sin and the heaviness of trying to get out of it. Paul wanted us to share that burden and not battle sin and temptation on our own.”

Pastors cannot do all of this work on their own. There are opportunities to address mental health issues from the pulpit, but that short time on a Sunday is only the start of their week, during which time pastors are met with many requests to help.

Consider Jesus, who showed compassion to the crowds pursuing him, even while he was in great need of prayer and comfort following his cousin’s execution: pastors face crises and their communities still make demands.

The Body of Christ has a responsibility and is given a unique opportunity to serve God by serving the people right in front of them.

When pastors equip members of their church to offer guidance and support, they serve and please their Lord and Savior which is what devout believers want to do. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

So long as they understand the limits of their counsel and do not try to diagnose.

5. Be an Example

Christ is enough, and where do we see Christ? How does the Word live in and through us? God’s Word is alive through the work of the Spirit, and the Spirit is at work in the community. Pastors are leaders of a community, yet they can become isolated.

Perhaps the hardest part about compassion and empathy is learning to turn these on oneself and seek truthful, compassionate support.

A pastor must set boundaries for the sake of his own well-being and the well-being of his marriage, his relationships with children and friends, and in order to show others what this looks like.

But a pastor must first be aware of his need. The nature of pastoring is such that, as one follows Christ’s example, he sets aside personal needs over and over. This can lead to burnout and resentment, even to depression and anxiety.

One writer comments, “Pastors and church staff are far from immune from mental health issues. In fact, the nature of pastoral work can often create a ripe environment for mental health issues and hurt to set in.”

Church training in the area of mental health support is most effective when it begins with leaders who demonstrate both the humility to cry out for help and the wisdom to know where to seek the best help.

For further reading:

What Should the Church Know about Mental Health?

Did Jesus Address Mental Health in the Bible?

What Does the Bible Say about Struggling with Mental Health?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/PixelCatchers

Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.

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