Welcoming broken people should be the role of the church.
“There is a day when the brokenness of this world which stains everything is gone … that’s the working transformative power of the gospel,” said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. “My first place that I go is the scriptures because they are sufficient to counsel.”
Several Southern Baptist leaders joined Stetzer June 11 to discuss mental illness. The panel included Frank Page, president and CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Executive Committee, and Brad Hambrick, (Bradhambrick.com) counseling pastor from The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham.
The breakfast meeting was sponsored by the North American Mission Board (NAMB). Ryan West, NAMB’s national coordinator for LoveLoud, led the group through questions regarding mental illness. The event was during the SBC annual meeting in Baltimore, Md.
Stetzer said all people are hurting and broken. Often the first responders – police and pastors – feel inadequately prepared to face mental illness.
BR photo by Dianna L. Cagle
Ryan West, left, LoveLoud coordinator for the North American Mission Board, leads Brad Hambrick, center, counseling pastor from The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, and Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, through questions June 11 relating to mental illness.
“As evangelicals we may be uniquely unprepared because we don’t know how mental illness fits within the spectrum of spiritual struggle,” he said.
Stetzer said people like Page who share his daughter’s struggle with mental illness and suicide have helped open up the conversation in churches.
Another example is Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., being open about his son’s suicide.
“It is unfortunate that it requires tragedy sometimes to get our attention,” Hambrick said.
Page co-wrote Melissa: A Father’s Lessons from a Daughter’s Suicide with Lawrence Kimbrough after losing his daughter. He shared that his mother also struggled with deep depression and tried to commit suicide. “I do believe God is bringing good out of bad,” Page said. “We want the church to be at the forefront of helping people deal with these issues rather than always lagging behind.”
Page praised the efforts to make the discussion public.
People make a mistake when they think mental illness can be traced to one cause, said Hambrick.
Instead he encouraged churches to ask, “What types of things cause mental illness and how as a church can we become better at equipping people to identify where their struggle may come from?”
One of the things churches should be able to do is help people think through their mental illness.
Hambrick said churches need to be asking questions. Can the problem be traced to post-traumatic stress or postpartum depression? Is there an environmental factor?
Page emphasized using compassion with people suffering from any form of mental illness.
Mental illness exists on a spectrum, Hambrick said. People need to ask if it’s impairing their ability to function on a day-to-day basis? Does it keep a person from going to work or relating to friends?
In the midst of the suffering Page said he and his family have chosen to say, “we believe what we’ve always said. We know it’s true. God’s grace is sufficient. He does heal. He doesn’t remove all pain.”
Page said he refers to Romans 12 to renew his mind.
“Scripture is so wonderful at teaching us thought-control,” he said. “There is an enemy that constantly is wanting us not to apply those Christian thought control principles. Our God doesn’t leave us abandoned.”
Hambrick said it is helpful for people to understand who they are: sinner, sufferer and saint.
“We are all three,” he said. “I think we have to apply the gospel to those areas.”
Churches have improved on applying the gospel to a person’s sense of identity but an area that is still weak is applying the gospel in the area of suffering.
“Is [this] impacting me as a sin struggle?” Hambrick asked. “How do I bring the gospel to bear in each of those areas? We need to be able to engage in a conversation that shows discernment.”
Page encouraged pastors to stay with people who are struggling with mental illness, even if they refer them to a counseling ministry.
“Our patience level [and sensitivity level have] got to take a new turn,” he said. “A church must be a place where transformation does occur, biblical and spiritual tools are constantly applied to every area of our lives and the church should be the place where people are accepted, are loved unconditionally.”
Page described Melissa as “98 pounds of pure fire” and explained that she was sometimes hard to get along with but she was loved by the local church.
“There is a stigma associated with mental illness in particular in the church,” Stetzer said. “I was encouraged to see … the stories of a Melissa are more common than we know.”
He considers the church the “safest and best place for a move toward wholeness.”
High-profile people with struggles have raised awareness but it is much harder for the seminary student or a small church pastor because “the doors are closed for you,” Stetzer said. “We don’t allow people to struggle as part of the community. We have to break the stigma so people don’t suffer alone.”
One of the problems with a counseling ministry is it “tends to be a space hog,” he said.
Fear of lawsuits and volunteer burnout keeps many churches from getting involved. Church leaders need to familiarize themselves with issues of liability as well as confidentiality.
Hambrick said churches are prime locations for helping people.
“Where do adults gather that on a weekly basis at least where they are encouraged, they think about life, they get together in community?” Hambrick asked. “Is anyone else doing that? If functioning well, the local church should be the wonder and envy of the local mental health community … where the only requirement for membership is to acknowledge your brokenness.”
Earlier this year Page named a 23-member mental health advisory committee which includes four North Carolina leaders – Hambrick, Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Doug Carver, executive director for chaplaincy at the North American Mission Board, and Sam Williams, an elder at North Wake Church in Wake Forest and professor of counseling at Southeastern.
Messengers to the 2013 SBC annual meeting approved a resolution on “Mental Health Concerns and the Heart of God,” affirming the “immeasurable value to God” of those with mental health concerns, committing to “affirm, support and share God’s love and redemption with those with mental health concerns” and opposing “all stigmatization and prejudice against those who are suffering from mental health concerns.”