Last week, LifeWay Research and Focus on the Family released the results of a recent survey conducted among Protestant Americans, including 1000 senior pastors. The survey was designed to reveal attitudes and experiences related to mental illness in churches.
We’ve seen other similar research in recent years, including some conducted by Dr. Matthew Stanford and a far less scientific poll I conducted and reported on in Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission. For the most part, the results of this LifeWay/Focus on the Family research are similar to what others have found. And it reflects the experiences of so many who have gone to the church for help in dealing with a mental health crisis and found little help, inadequate guidance, or even harm.
The study confirms that while churches may have good intentions, they’re often doing little to bring discussion of mental health out into the open, and their silence effectively reinforces the problems of stigma, shame, and isolation among people directly affected by mental illness either personally or in their families.
But while there’s plenty the church should do better when it comes to mental health, the study highlights another reality that’s easy to lose sight of. One of their major findings confirms something that should not be news to any of us: pastors are ordinary humans. And because they’re ordinary humans, they are affected by mental illness at the same rate as everyone else. As in the general adult population, about 1 in 4 of the senior pastors surveyed have “personally struggled with mental illness.”
For those of us wondering why the church isn’t doing more, here is one clue. This very statistic may provide one of the reasons so many pastors are not leading their churches in talking about mental illness: they’re living under a cloud of shame and fear that someone will discover their own mental health problem. Of those in the survey who indicated they had experienced mental illness, only half said they had received a formal diagnosis–let alone treatment. There may be more at risk for a pastor than for many others in the church. They may fear for their jobs, they may be afraid they’ll face mass rejection, they may anticipate the bruising impact of falling off pedestals erected by members of their congregations.
For this and other reasons, let us remember that the leadership required to change the church’s relationship to mental health cannot come only from pastors. After all, Ministry Isn’t Just a Job for Professionals. And pastors need ministry too. When it comes to mental health, many congregations have members with knowledge and experience that place them in a much stronger position to challenge the status quo, educate others, and establish church-based ministries that will offer help to many who come looking for hope.
In Troubled Minds, I profiled a few churches who have thriving ministries to people with mental illness. All of them are led by people who have a well-managed mental illness or a close family member with a serious illness. Those of us who share these realities are called to make something of them. I encourage you to pray, asking God to put your experience to use. And I encourage you to share your story. Who knows? Perhaps the first person you help will be your pastor.
© 2014 Amy Simpson.