The church should be a place for healing, not stigma. A place where people can bring their troubles and trials and get real, lasting help.
But when it comes to the crucial area of mental health and mental illness, churches have not always done well. Sadly, some have spiritualized mental health issues, ultimately pushing people away who needed help by assuring them that spiritual disciplines alone would solve (or at least lessen) their mental illness.
Thankfully, this approach is far less prominent today than in decades past. Many faith leaders today recognize the need to address mental health and the church in a holistic way, one that tends to body, mind and soul. But they still have a problem: they don’t know how to do so.
We sat down with Dr. Henry Cloud to discuss why this is the case. Dr. Cloud is a clinical psychologist and biblical counselor with a rich career that spans both mental health and church health — and the convergence of the two.
Increasing Awareness, But a Lack of Church Leadership Training
While it’s encouraging to see an increasing awareness of the importance of mental health awareness in the church, the lack of quality training for church leadership is discouraging. There are resources out there, but few church leadership training programs seem comprehensive or holistic in their approach.
Many pastors have been frustrated by the lack of options available. And, of course, they’re busy with the many responsibilities of pastoring. Many may feel that they have neither the time nor the expertise to stop their regular work, comb through available resources, and put together a cohesive approach to their own counseling.
And that’s to say nothing of creating a resource that others on staff could rely on, like a digital toolkit for churches struggling in their approach to mental illness training.
Not Either/Or, But Both
Many of the existing church resources that deal with mental health skew hard in one of two directions.
Some of these resources veer into biblical counseling approaches, which seek to solve every issue with scripture. Because the connection between the mind and the soul is not something we can dissect or define, this approach has some attractiveness.
Of course, no one would recommend a verse from Proverbs as the cure to a broken arm. And therein lies the danger of trying to treat a broken mind with scripture alone.
Other church resources and church mental health programs head in the opposite direction, relying solely on secular psychology approaches to solving mental health issues. These programs seek to address mental health in near-clinical language, with the spiritual realm getting only brief or token mentions.
But the best approaches to mental health and the church aren’t either/or. They’re both.
Humans are complex beings with both bodies and souls, and both need attention and care. A truly holistic spiritual approach to mental health, then, must be one that passes muster on both fronts, both biblically and psychologically. These are church mental health programs that minister to the mind and the soul, not just one or the other.
Dr. Cloud offers some perspective on this:
“There are biblical solutions for your struggles with depression, anxiety, panic, addictions, and guilt, and these solutions lie in your understanding of basic developmental tasks—tasks that you may have failed to complete when you were growing up and tasks that bring changes that heal. These tasks involve growing up and into the “image” of the one who created you.”
Healing Starts with Pastors Themselves
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.
Churches That Heal starts with pastoral healing, because pastors cannot effectively minister to others in this area if they are themselves unhealthy.
The first step in Churches That Heal is a required staff retreat, where teams of faith leaders work through a program called the Pastoral Healing Journey.
By coming to grips with (and having a safe space in which to talk about) their own mental health concerns, pastors and church staff teams will better position themselves to be able to learn and to begin better meeting the needs of their churches and communities.
Dr. Cloud speaks to the importance of addressing church leaders’ own mental health first:
“We cannot control what has happened to us in the past, nor can we control the people in our lives now. But we can develop more and more control of ourselves today. We can work with God to make changes in our character and changes in how we relate to the important people in our life. These changes that we make will ultimately be changes that heal, because, through them, we will be redeemed from the damage done in the past and freed to grow our undeveloped parts into his image.”
Gain the Tools to Work Through Complex Problems
Not every problem can be solved with a hammer, yet far too many pastors have only one or two blunt instruments in their “mental health toolbox.”
In phase two, Churches That Heal equips pastors through formal mental health training, giving them practical tools and strategies for dealing with the real-world issues people are facing.
Dr. Cloud mentions the importance of equipping churches with the necessary resources to do this work:
“If we are helping someone grow and become aware of an area of life in which he or she needs something from God, we should think of other people as a part of the solution. We need to look to the church to see what resources are available to get that person’s needs met and help the person grow. We must not forget that Biblical growth is designed to include the body of Christ – other people serving as God’s instruments.”
Create Church and Community Awareness and Invite Conversations
Phase three of Churches That Heal is the church and community rollout. Getting your staff teams equipped to deal with mental health issues is a crucial step, but so is letting your church (and your surrounding community) know that you have resources to share.
Dr. Cloud observes God’s acceptance of us, despite our many flaws:
“The Lord accepts us fully, knowing that we will need time and experience to work out our imperfections. Our failures do not surprise him. If they surprise us, it is only because we have too high of an opinion of ourselves. We have a standing in grace that gives us freedom to achieve truth over time.”
Is this the posture your church has toward your community? Does the community see it the same way? To be a place that offers true mental health help, a church must mimic this posture toward its own community.
A Growing Need
There’s a great and growing need for more and better mental health church resources, including mental illness training resources for church leaders. Churches That Heal has the potential to transform your church into a haven for the hurting. If this approach resonates with you, feel free to explore more about Churches That Heal.