“But the church can really play a role in that,” Stanford says.
Stanford is also the CEO of the Hope and Healing Center & Institute, a comprehensive mental health resource provider in Houston, Texas. He advocates that churches need to engage this issue effectively. It turns out churches may not have a choice when it comes to engaging the issue—only in how they do so.
That’s because some evidence suggests that when people seek help for a mental health issue, they may be more likely to seek out clergy, rather than medical professionals like physicians or even licensed therapists.
If pastors are as likely to be asked for help as mental health professionals—or perhaps even more likely—then a crucial question arises: are churches and church leaders equipped to handle this issue?
Unfortunately, many aren’t.
“We did a study of seminaries to see what kinds of mental health training pastors get,” says Stanford. The results were not encouraging: “it’s next to zero.”
So what training do pastors receive in seminary for these issues? “Most get one counseling course, and those focus more on family and marriage issues,” says Stanford. “When we do surveys of pastors, a vast majority—80 to 90 percent—say that they feel ill-equipped to deal with people with mental illness.” Considering the “next to zero” training for pastors in this area, that’s not too surprising.
What’s stopping the church?
Mental health is a complicated field, one that is foreign to much of the general population. And it’s seldom talked about publicly, even in churches: places meant for depth and healing. But mental health professionals have said that churches’ avoidance of these issues has recently started to change.
Amy Simpson, a popular speaker and author who writes about mental health issues in the church, has noticed a difference. “I get to be part of these conversations that are happening at churches, sponsored by churches, that were not happening 5 to 10 years ago.” Despite those noticeable changes, there are still factors that keep churches from directly, wholeheartedly addressing mental health issues.
Hoefs has years of experience with his Fresh Hope support group ministry, and he thinks he knows the reason churches don’t talk about, let alone actively engage, this issue. “They’re scared of it,” he says—and churches know too little about mental illness to allay their fears.
Hoefs thinks there’s a misconception among pastors when it comes to the reality of mental health, something echoed by other experts interviewed for this piece. That misconception is, in part, due to many in the church failing to see that the brain is like any other bodily organ. It can function well, and it can also malfunction.
The experts interviewed agreed that there’s a tendency in the church to over-spiritualize mental health issues. For example, church leaders can mischaracterize depression, a clinical psychological condition, as solely the result of a lack of joy, one of the fruits of the spirit. In this way, the bodily nature of the brain as an organ is somehow separated, in church leaders’ minds, from the rest of the body. The problem with that, says Hoefs, is it neglects the reality that “we’re whole beings.”
Stanford, too, knows plenty of examples of this misunderstanding of mental health by churches and church leaders. He recalls one instance: “[A] gentleman brought his wife in [to a pastor] and said, ‘She spent all our money. We literally have no money left. I don’t know what to do.’ The pastor said, ‘This is a spiritual issue, and you’re a bad steward.’ The pastor put them in a Dave Ramsey course.” Stanford says that while he loves Dave Ramsey, this was not a stewardship issue. The wife wasn’t a bad steward of God’s resources: she had bipolar disorder.
Being aware of these differences—and the need for different treatments—will be a crucial skill for any pastor offering counseling. It will also be an important skill in protecting the church from potential liability.
Do churches face liability with mental illness?
When it comes to those in ministries who help people affected by mental illness and the attorneys who advise churches on these issues, there’s a fundamental separation. Both groups agree about the seriousness of mental health issues, but they differ when it comes to seeing potential liability for churches in the area of counseling. Therefore, church leaders will need to make their own decisions about how to weigh these risks.
The legal argument for caution in counseling
Attorneys say there may be real liability in offering counseling services to those suffering from mental illness. Churches may still decide that the pastoral need outweighs the legal risks and offer some counseling services, but that decision should be carefully considered.
Erika Cole, a Maryland-based attorney who operates a practice dealing with church and nonprofit law, says that churches, in general, are not equipped to properly navigate counseling services for those with mental health issues.
“It is a legal quagmire, frankly, for churches,” says Cole. “It is a difficult area to maneuver for a lot of reasons.” Those reasons, according to Cole, include limited pastoral training, a lack of expertise in this area, and understaffing. In most pastoral counseling, pastors are “dealing with everything from marriage counseling to raising kids,” she says. “Mental health really is its own area of concern.”