the shape of leadership

Encountering Mental Illness in Ministry

Know when to refer individuals for professional help

Chris Colvin on May 24, 2018

May is Mental Health Awareness month in the U.S. Chances are, you or someone you know has experienced mental illness. The numbers speak of widespread concern in our pews and in our homes.

About 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. suffer from a mental illness in any given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In her book, Troubled Minds, Amy Simpson reports that 98 percent of church leaders surveyed knew of at least one person in the congregation struggling with a mental illness.

Although mental illness comes in different forms, it almost always feels like a tidal wave to those experiencing it. For pastors trying to care for sufferers, it can feel just as frustrating and daunting.

Pastors spend much of their time preparing to preach and teach, not counsel. I’m reminded of the apostles’ quick answer to concerns about the Early Church overlooking Greek widows: “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2).

That may seem insensitive, but I doubt any of us got excited about the idea of cleaning tables when God called us to ministry. We might say the same about cleaning up messy lives.

Yet God entrusted those lives to our care. Pastors are sometimes the last resort when difficulties arise. According to Simpson, nearly half of church leaders say people approach them 2 to 5 times each year seeking help with mental illness. About one-third of pastors say this happens even more often, up to once a month, on average.

For those with no training in mental health, those challenges can seem overwhelming.

Of course, we can’t expect every pastor to hold a formal degree in counseling. Those who do are vastly more prepared for this problem. But the “ministry of the word of God” is still our first calling and passion.

However, every pastor owes it to his or her flock to be ready to extend a helping hand. And that begins with knowing when to refer serious mental health issues.

Warning Signs

During my first years in ministry, when I was a wet-behind-the-ears youth pastor, I had my first experience with mental health. One of our students started sharing with my wife and me about personal struggles with mental illness.

When this person withdrew, eventually dropping out of our youth group altogether, we gave the student space instead of trying to follow up. That was not what the student needed from us, though. This student went on to tackle the issues and eventually came back to church.

Having a basic understanding of mental health issues is fundamental for anyone engaged in ministry.

Nearly a decade later, while serving as a college pastor at another church, I got a call late on a Friday afternoon. A friend of one of our students was depressed over a recent breakup and was talking suicide.

With more knowledge and understanding of mental health issues, I was able to lead an intervention, eventually getting him some help. The difference between the two examples was time and maturity on my part, but also knowledge.

Having a basic understanding of mental health issues is fundamental for anyone engaged in ministry. Your church will likely see some problems due to mental illness, and ignorance is not an option.

The first lesson you should learn is when to refer someone to professionals who can provide the proper help. You don’t have to be an expert, but you do need to read the signs.

Mental Health America, or MHA, offers an excellent online resource that can help you navigate these issues. Look for the warning signs.

Among adults, is the depression prolonged and debilitating? Can you identify the difference between being sad and an inability to cope with emotions? Is the sufferer withdrawing from friends and family members, or is his or her thinking confused or delusional?

If you’re dealing with someone younger, is the bad behavior prolonged, the fears overwhelming or the hyperactivity all-consuming? Look for excesses when considering the signs.

Refer and Support

After you’ve identified a mental health problem, how will you refer the person? Get acquainted with your community’s mental health support structure. Is there an institute or hospital nearby ready to handle these issues?

Go for a visit, meet some of the staff, and ask questions about the process. Knowing what happens after the referral equips you to be an excellent minister.

Once you’ve referred a member, his or her journey is just beginning. Navigating the system is sometimes like running a maze blindfolded. There will be plenty of starts and stops.

Misdiagnoses are not at all uncommon. Medications may not work the first time or even the second or third. For those reasons, your journey isn’t over at the point of referral either. That person will need your help in the coming months.

Knowing what happens after you refer someone can help you see the road signs ahead. You can be an advocate, helping the individual with paperwork or speaking up when a doctor has trouble understanding.

Reach out to family members who might feel ashamed or spiritually inadequate because of what they’re going through. Some churches have even started small groups focused solely on individuals dealing with a family member’s mental illness.

No problem is too big for God. But He does not equip all of us with the same tools, so we need one another. His power is expressed most fully through the full body of believers. Knowing your role in the Body as an advocate is vital.

Take the time to become educated about the problems you may encounter, and then start thinking through how you can help. Prayer is the beginning and will fuel you and others throughout the process.

Godly wisdom resulting from prayer gives you the edge in applying what you’ve learned and referring someone who needs professional help. That is often the first step toward deliverance and freedom.


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