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What Pastors Need to Know About Mental Health, Ministry, and Liability
What Pastors Need to Know About Mental Health, Ministry, and Liability
How both legal experts and ministry leaders approach mental health issues in the church.
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  • Assess for risk of suicide or harm
  • Listen nonjudgmentally
  • Give assistance and information
  • Encourage appropriate professional help
  • Encourage self-help and other support

Smith cautions pastors against some don’ts in the realm of mental health, in addition to the dos. She tells them to avoid stigmatizing or shaming the individual: “shame is totally not productive.”

According to Smith, research shows that individuals struggling with mental health issues do better with the love and support of their communities. That’s why she offers her course to both church leaders and to entire congregations.

Another suggestion for pastors hoping to learn more about these issues? Talk with the therapists and licensed counselors in their own congregations, says Hoefs: “They [pastors] could learn so much.”

What mental illness offers the church

The church has an important role to play in helping those with mental health issues, and those who do suffer from these issues offer something to the church. They offer their own gifts and experiences, and they offer a chance for radical ministry.

Stanford, like others, is worried that, out of fear, the church will fail to be a place of hope and healing on this issue: “I think the real risk is we’re going to miss it—going to miss the opportunity to help a lot of people who have been broken by life circumstances.”

A major fear that could hold pastors back from engaging is that individuals with mental illness are more violent. That’s a mistaken notion, says Amy Simpson. “Most people with mental illness are not more violent than the rest of us; they’re actually more vulnerable than the rest of us.”

“Churches will become irrelevant if they don’t learn to help broken people.”

Simpson has been writing about the intersection of faith and mental health for years, and her own life has been profoundly shaped by witnessing her own mother’s struggles with schizophrenia. She is passionate about the good churches and faith leaders can do in mental health ministry and support.

To her, churches’ efforts to minister in this area don’t have to be an undue burden. “It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to walk alongside somebody,” she says, and it “doesn’t have to be a ministry that is added to the plate of a senior pastor . . . or a member of the church staff.” Instead, churches could have individuals versed in mental health issues—or who are stable in their own mental health struggles—leading mental health ministries. Many such ministry models already exist. (Note: Further resources are listed at the end of this article.)

Simpson and others want pastors to recognize that because so many people—even the non-religious—are more likely to turn to pastors for help in this area, pastors really are a vital part of the mental health care system already. To bear that role responsibly, Simpson encourages pastors to “connect with others in that system. Form partnerships, create a list of resources in your area, go to community events, go to a NAMI [National Alliance on Mental Illness] seminar.”

Basic training in mental health issues, like mental health first aid, can be acquired easily: Stanford says that training in recognizing symptoms and giving appropriate referrals can be given to pastors “in just a couple of hours.” And if you’re a pastor who is providing counseling, you might consider another recommendation from Simpson: asking that person to sign a release form allowing you to access information from the mental health provider in order for you to partner in this person’s care.

In other words, pastors should be prepared for the serious and sacred duty that they have in this arena because, says Simpson, “you are a first responder, whether you know it or not.”

“[U]ltimately it’s up to [pastors] to say, ‘I’m going to bypass my fear,’” Stanford says, and move on to minister to those with mental health struggles.

Hoefs agrees. “The church has to develop a theology that overcomes the stigma and fear and perceived risks,” he explains. “Churches will become irrelevant if they don’t learn to help broken people.”

In Depth

The following resources can help you go deeper on mental health issues and on effective ways to minister to those suffering from mental illness.

Samuel Ogles is Associate Editor and Special Project Manager for Church Law & Tax.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

May 30, 2017


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