the shape of leadership

The Struggle Is Real

How to pastor emotionally wounded people

Jared Pingleton on July 10, 2019

Every pastor dreads handling that chilling suicidal emergency phone call at 2 a.m. Likewise, it is far beyond most leaders’ comfort zones to confront the secretive affair between members of the worship team, deal with a chronic alcoholic, intervene in an abusive family situation, or cope with a seriously depressed parishioner. These and similar personal ministry challenges can be highly stressful, frustrating and cumulatively overwhelming to any shepherd.

There have always been people with mental and relational health problems in the Church. It’s just that, historically, we haven’t properly trained and equipped pastors to recognize, and minister effectively to, these needs. Bible colleges and seminaries generally do a good job of teaching hermeneutics, exegetics, systematic theology and homiletics. Yet pastoral training programs seldom provide specialized instruction regarding the day in, day out demands of practical ministry to hurting people and broken relationships.

Research indicates church people will likely turn first to their pastor, priest or other church leader for help when they experience a mental or relational health issue. The horrible irony is that most pastors simply do not have the time or training to minister effectively to these serious human needs. Thus, many pastors try to learn on the fly how to care for and cope with people who are in the throes of a panic attack, controlled by an addictive substance or behavior, or headed to a divorce lawyer.

The truth is, mental and relational health problems can be messy. And complicated. And costly. And intimidating. They typically require major, labor-intensive investments of time, effort and attention, which consume disproportionate shares of precious and limited church resources. Consequently and tragically, many pressing human needs are never adequately addressed, and others are ignored altogether.

Scope of the Struggle

Contrary to much implicit — and some explicit — teaching and preaching, just because we are Christians does not mean we are immune to adversity, anguish and afflictions. The pain, pace and pressures of modern living have taken over countless lives. People are hurting in virtually epidemic numbers. Consider these statistics from the National Institute for Mental Health, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and other agencies regarding many of the major mental and relational health issues in the U.S.:

  • 20–25 percent of adults suffer from a diagnosable mental illness in any given year; 50 percent in their lifetime
  • 14–20 percent of children and adolescents suffer from a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder
  • 20–25 percent of the population meet criteria for alcohol use disorder
  • 60–80 percent of adolescent and adult males, and 40–60 percent of females, use pornography on a regular basis
  • 25 percent of women have had at least one abortion (an issue that affects the mental health of both women and men)
  • 5–10 percent of the population abuse prescription medications
  • 64,000 people died from opioid overdose in 2016 — 175 per day, on average
  • About 117 people commit suicide every day (one every 13 minutes)
  • More than 40 percent of all marriages end in divorce
  • In 2015, 48 percent of all live births were to unwed parents
  • 1 in 3 girls, and as many as 1 in 4 boys, are sexually abused before age 18
  • 1 in 5 women will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime
  • Only 33 percent of children will reach age 18 in a household with both biological parents
  • Over 30 million people suffer from eating disorders, and someone dies from an eating disorder every hour
  • Nearly 2,000 children are abused and/or neglected every day, in addition to adult elderly and disabled persons who suffer abuse and neglect
  • 1 in 6 couples is infertile, 1 in 6 pregnancies miscarry, and most couples never adequately grieve or even discuss those losses
  • 24 people per minute are victims of domestic violence by an intimate partner — with children witnessing 22 percent of these incidents — and domestic violence is the leading cause of physical injury to women

Sadly, many people who face these challenges never receive treatment. There is also evidence that many mental and relational health issues are as common among church people as they are among the general population. The individual and cumulative pain these realities represent is staggering. The struggle is real indeed.

Sources of the Struggle

As discouraging and overwhelming as these statistics can be, we should recognize the struggles around us as potential growth opportunities and redemptive ministry assignments that can reveal and demonstrate God’s love, grace, mercy and transformational power.

To gain a proper perspective, we need to understand more about what’s going on beneath the surface. While a full analysis of each of these issues is beyond the scope of this article, we can identify five general sources of pain, pathos and pathology.

1. Biochemistry and genetics. Just as predispositions to physical maladies — like diabetes, myopia, hypertension, cardiac disease and some cancers — can result in generational transmission of those health concerns, many brain and mental disorders have a genetic component. Certain inherited neurochemical factors often play a primary role in mental health conditions. While some of these disorders can be treated by appropriate medications, many cannot. Still others are difficult to diagnose precisely.

Conditions such as bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and some forms of chronic depression are best addressed utilizing a combination of counseling, medication and loving support in specific groups and from a healthy church community.

2. Environmental influences. King Solomon insightfully counseled that a person gains wisdom as a result of hanging around wise people but suffers harm when consorting with fools (Proverbs 13:20). The apostle Paul observed that bad company corrupts good character (1 Corinthians 15:33). And God warned Moses that the sins of parents can have consequences for their children (Exodus 20:5).

Unhealthy patterns of behavior often filter down multi-generationally and become self-perpetuating and maladaptive. The actions of parents and guardians can deeply affect the children in their care. Children’s workers and youth pastors have only one or two hours per week to try to reverse and redeem the effects of the toxic environments many kids are in the rest of the week.

A plethora of clinical research verifies the common-sense reality that children of divorced parents are themselves more likely to divorce, most pedophiles were themselves molested as children, kids who grow up around gangs tend to engage in higher-than-average levels of antisocial activity, etc. Our environments rub off on us.

3. Faulty learning. Dysfunctional family systems generate their own unique sets of issues and problems. Family relationships comprise the contextual framework within which children originally learn who, what and how they are. Children in single-parent homes suffer from the absence of the other parent, and typically internalize a sense of false guilt for the abandonment and rejection they feel, which results in low self-esteem and insecurity.

People are hurting in virtually epidemic numbers.

Children raised around substance abuse tend to develop codependent personalities and maladaptive coping styles, thus subconsciously seeking out people with those similarly unstable and unhealthy but familiar dynamics (Proverbs 26:11; 2 Peter 2:22). Many sexually abused children grow up with damaged identities and become promiscuous; since sexual contact was the primary way they received attention, they may falsely believe that is all they are good for.

4. Traumatic experiences. Trauma can leave an enduring neurological imprint upon us and literally alter our brain chemistry, identities and relationships. Combat-related experiences, gruesome accidents, horrific assaults, and a multitude of other events suffered in our fallen world can create an unexpected-yet-devastating impact on one’s soul and interpersonal relationships, often leaving permanent scars — both visible and invisible.

5. The Fall. Last but certainly not least, we all have a sin problem (Romans 3:23; James 4:1). And sin kills — individually and collectively, literally and figuratively — though not necessarily immediately. Many of the struggles we face are the direct or indirect result of sinful attitudes and actions. Poor choices and wrongful actions affect and impact our lives and the lives of others. Not doing the righteous things we know to do (James 4:17), as well as doing the evil things we know not to do (Romans 7:14-25), creates a lot of problems.

Much pain is the consequence of being sinned against. Sexual assault, childhood abuses, witnessing domestic violence and substance abuse as a child, spousal betrayal, and a host of other problems create a significant portion of our mental and relational health challenges.

Solutions to the Struggle

So what is the Church to do? How can the community of Jesus become a place of refuge, restoration and redemption? How can churches become centers of and catalysts for ministering help, hope, health and healing to the hurting? What is our mission to the multiplied millions of broken hearts, lives and relationships all around us?

First, we must make a concerted and intentional effort to ensure that the Church is both a figurative and literal sanctuary for shattered souls and a haven for fractured relationships. Unfortunately, for many hurting people the Church is not a safe place they can trust and feel free from judgment, criticism or condemnation. We must become emotionally safe, accepting, consistent, trustable, and authentic people with secure, reliable, and biblical boundaries.

It is imperative that we strive to embrace the brokenhearted, emancipate those in captivity, and enlighten those in darkness. But to do so, we must confront what I call the unholy trifecta of silence, shame and stigma that exists in many quarters of the Church surrounding mental and relational problems.

I believe there are three basic aspects to loving hurting people in biblical ways that will effectively end the silence, eradicate the shame, and erase the stigma regarding our human mental and relational struggles.

First, we need to demonstrate compassion — love as empathy. (See Psalm 103:13; Matthew 9:36, 14:14, 15:32; Luke 7:13, 15:20; 2 Corinthians 1:3-5; Colossians 3:12.)

The first step in solving a problem is to acknowledge it and create informed awareness about it. Silence connotes and promotes denial.

In our book, The Struggle Is Real, Tim Clinton and I discuss a study by Focus on the Family and LifeWay Research that revealed 49 percent of pastors never preach or speak about mental health issues. That’s the bad news. The good news is that shining the light of the gospel onto people’s problems is not just good orthodoxy but also good orthopraxy. Knowing truth is liberating. Ending the silence is compassionate.

Etymologically, the word “compassion” means “with deep feeling.” When we minister with deep feeling, we put our hearts into it. Jesus’ empathy and compassion motivated many of His miraculous healings. Similarly, when empathy moves us, we can minister to the hurting and broken soul powerfully and effectively.

Simply put, when we exercise compassion, it proves we care. We must care enough about hurting people and broken relationships to speak the truth in love about mental and relational health concerns. We preach and practice what we care about. And when we acknowledge and minister to people’s needs openly, they will encounter the love of Christ.

The second aspect of showing Christ’s love to the hurting is counseling — love as discipleship. (See 1 Chronicles 27:32; Proverbs 11:14, 15:22; Romans 12:15, 15:1; 2 Timothy 4:2.)

Just as exercising compassion ends the silence, providing counseling eradicates the shame. Shame is perhaps the deepest and most painful emotion humans can experience. We can best understand shame in connection with, and in contrast to, guilt — and both shame and guilt have clear theological significance and implications.

Basically, guilt is feeling badly about what one does or doesn’t do (actions), whereas shame is feeling badly about whom one is (identity). Shame penetrates to the very core of what it means for us to be vulnerable, fallen creatures, causing us to reflexively and subconsciously hide — lonely, humiliated and afraid.

Humans have been struggling with shame since Genesis 3, and it is always toxic and destructive. The contextual framework for the onset of shame was in loving relationship, so it stands to reason that the Creator designed the redemptive cure for shame to be contextualized within loving relationship.

Much like cleansing the dirt out of a deep wound to promote healing, it is therapeutic to disclose our shame within a safe, trusting, secure relationship with someone who is able to non-judgmentally and competently listen, support, and guide us through the humiliation and excruciating pain of our human suffering. Whether individually or in small groups, counseling connotes caring, and thus can empower a hurting person to reveal hidden or buried pain, exposing it so that the wounds can begin to heal through love and truth.

Finally, we need courage — love as action. (See Galatians 5:13, 6:1-2,10; James 1:27, 2:1-8; 1 Peter 3:8-9, 4:8-10; 1 John 3:16-18, 4:7-12.) Among other things, leadership requires boldness in both attitudes and actions. It takes a courageous servant’s initiative to intervene in crisis situations with marginalized, disadvantaged or overburdened people.

When we actively love people in their stress and distress, it erases their stigma. When we step into their stigmatized situations and circumstances to carry the part of their burden they are staggering under, we enable them to walk — perhaps even with a spring in their steps. Normalizing and accepting their pain, pathos, and pathology liberates and empowers them to heal, grow, and become all Christ designed them to be.

In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus talked about the eternal importance of ministry to people who suffer marginalization and stigmatization because of homelessness, hunger, poverty, alienation and imprisonment. It is a tragic but well-established fact that mental illness and relational problems of various kinds are major causes of homelessness (as well as many other major societal problems).

Acting courageously to care for hurting people and relationships in the face of their stigmatizing conditions activates and demonstrates the love of Christ to and in them.

Let all of us pray the Holy Spirit will educate, empower and equip us to do the rigorous-yet-rewarding work of caring for wounded, suffering people and fractured relationships. The love and commands of Jesus compel us to do so.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Called to Serve, the Assemblies of God Ministers Letter.

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