The need to revise our framework
Some time ago I participated in a day of meetings with evangelical leaders from across Canada. Many of them were pastors and denominational leaders. We sat in circles at tables. The facilitator asked each of us to introduce ourselves to the group at our table and, as part of our introduction, to describe the most pressing or challenging issues we are currently confronting.
At my table each participant shared their challenges. In my turn, the last to speak, I mentioned that I work at Shalem Mental Health Network, a ministry focused on supporting faith communities to deal effectively with mental health challenges from a gospel perspective.
What happened next astonished me. Each of the participants got wide eyed and said, "Oh, you work in mental health!" And then each described a hugely difficult, stubbornly persistent mental health situation in their congregation or environment they were currently struggling with and felt unsuccessful at – things were getting worse, not better. They were at their wits’ end and didn’t know what to do or who to turn to. It was draining them and having a negative effect on their ministry. As I recall this was the case for each person sitting around the table.
Clearly it was these mental health scenarios that were the most pressing, vexing challenges they were currently facing, not the other ones they identified, as real as they were. But not one of the participants named the mental health issues they were struggling with in the list of their most pressing challenges.
What was going on there?
I have thought a lot about that since. My growing conviction is that we evangelical Christians lack a sufficient, comprehensive enough framework for understanding what it is to be human, one which would enable us to integrate mental health issues into our evangelical ways of seeing the world.
We lack a sufficient theology of the person.
To use scholarly language, our anthropology is too narrow and incomplete. It’s not wide enough to capture the fullness of human experience, including the realities of mental illness. In theological language we might say we lack a sufficient theology of the person. We speak from doctrinal statements about God (and they are important), but not from theologically sound anthropological statements.
The result is we don’t have the language to talk about mental health or mental illness. Without language we can’t surface mental health issues to talk about them, even though they may be the most pressing issues we are dealing with. Our framework doesn’t have the explanatory power needed to understand them and therefore deal with them.
WHERE OUR FRAMEWORK FALLS SHORT
Our currently flawed evangelical approach to understanding people jumps too quickly to issues of morality, especially sexual immorality. In the case of marital infidelity or pornography, for example, as Evangelicals our default impulse is to want to reimpose biblical morality in the relationship. Similarly we see violence as a moral evil, and our first response is to seek restitution and forgiveness.
Morality is important. But in and of itself morality is not sufficient. It doesn’t take in the realities of relational dynamics, attachment, sexual intimacy, trauma, loss or the impact of the various emotions we feel. It doesn’t account for the latest remarkable discoveries of neurobiology, which make so clear now how wired we are as human beings for relationship –how God, our Creator, has made us relational creatures, both with Him and each other.
A focus on morality can easily undervalue emotions like anger, sadness, joy, creativity and the roles they play in our lives. It doesn’t easily give us the nuanced language we need to apply a wider gospel perspective on our understanding of how families function, what goes on in couple relationships, and how we understand gender – in a deep and nuanced way.
This is especially problematic in situations where things are going wrong. We need to focus on more than morality to understand the dynamics of relationship repair, and what is happening when attempts at repair cause more harm rather than healing. How do we comprehend realities like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, addiction, shame and bi-polar?
A focus on morality can easily undervalue emotions like anger, sadness, joy, creativity and the roles they play in our lives.
And how do we understand the impact of trauma in our lives, including sexual assault and abuse? What are the dynamics of abuse and how does healing happen? What is grace in those contexts and what is not? How do prayer, medication and psychotherapy relate to how we heal? What about the mental health impacts of racism or poverty?
Such questions can help us realize how our evangelical morality framework for understanding what it is to be human isn’t comprehensive enough to account for these things adequately from a gospel perspective.
A GOSPEL ANTHROPOLOGY
The French philosopher Simone Weil once wrote, "Even before presenting ‘a theory of God,’ a theology, the Gospels present ‘a theory of man,’ an anthropology." In a similar vein my former Old Testament professor at Calvin Theological Seminary John Stek taught, "The Bible is about God, humankind and the earth, and not any of these in isolation."
Talking about God comes easily in evangelical Christianity. But we are weak in talking about humankind and the earth because our framework for understanding them is underdeveloped.
So here’s my challenge. Let’s work together to build a stronger and more mature, biblically, theologically appropriate framework for understanding what it is to be human. We can draw on a range of Christian thinkers present and past. But let’s be sure we go beyond theologians to incorporate the wisdom and insights God has granted to psychologists, psychotherapists, medical professionals, economists, sociologists, artists, athletes and neuroscientists – to capture the rich multidimensionality of human life before God and one another. (And let’s not forget about the earth, an inescapable part of what it is to be human and how to understand who God is.)
HOW TO SUPPORT MENTAL HEALTH
Meanwhile, let me give some suggestions that can help the kind of people I talked with around those tables as to how Christian leaders can prioritize mental health in the life of their congregants, or their own ministry or communities.
Don’t settle for cheap answers
Does being a Christian exempt us from mental illness? No. Regardless of our faith all of us are subject to the same relational, genetic and family pattern vulnerabilities. That is because we are all human. We can’t say, "Come to Jesus and your mental illness will be over." Or "Just pray a little harder." Nor can we ignore mental health. We need to root our ministry directions in a much deeper, more nuanced and powerful understanding of the healing Christ brings.
Create safe spaces for real conversations in churches about mental illness. Stigma remains a powerful impediment to recovery. Churches will want to give clear, explicit permission to have accepting, nonjudgmental conversations about mental illness. Make it a priority and work at it. Seek out ministries like Shalem’s Congregational Assistance Plan.
Learn about mental health issues. Learn about the impact of sexual assault and the dynamics of post-traumatic stress disorder. Learn about depression, anxiety, suicide and self-harm, especially among young people. Have open conversations about grief and loss. Bring in a local Christian psychotherapist to give a workshop. Have several congregation members take ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) – outstanding mental health first aid for suicide prevention.
Support couple relationships
Have open conversations, including from the pulpit, about strengthening couple relationships in the context of the challenges couples deal with. A good place to start is to have a congregation-wide reading of the book Created for Connection: The "Hold Me Tight" Guide for Christian Couples by Dr. Sue Johnson, and to actively promote the related Hold Me Tight weekend retreats designed for couples. Numerous Christian therapists offer these retreats across the country.
Find new ways to minister to men
Thankfully women’s ministry is often strong. Men’s, not so much. Men are in trouble – the leading cause of death among men in Canada today is suicide. The extraordinary courage of many women is now, at last, exposing the endemic nature of sexualized violence across today’s society. But where does that leave men who themselves are sometimes victims of male violence? What is the deep despair underlying those awful statistics of suicide? As a culture we continue to work hard to separate men from their feelings. But churches can play a vital role in creating safe spaces for men to share their vulnerabilities with each other – and thereby reclaim their God-given capacity to stand against violence and bless the lives of others.
Support your pastor
Your pastor is on the front lines of mental health crises. Often a pastor is alone in this. A small group of Christian psychotherapists can act as a sounding board for your pastor and a support for the self-care your pastor needs. Burnout among pastors is much too high.
All these steps will help develop what we fundamentally need – a biblically sound framework for understanding what it is to be human, which will give us the language we currently lack to talk about mental health when we name our ministry challenges.
Mark Vander Vennen of Cobourg, Ont., just retired after 16 years as executive director of Shalem Mental Health Network, a Canada-wide ministry focused on the gospel and mental health (www.ShalemNetwork.org).
RETHINKING MENTAL HEALTH
Books and articles
Building the Bonds of Attachment: Awakening Love in Deeply Traumatized Children, by Daniel A. Hughes (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017)
Created for Connection: The "Hold Me Tight" Guide for Christian Couples, by Sue Johnson and Kenneth Sanderfer (Little, Brown Spark, 2016)
5 Means I Love You, a graphic novel for children by Anne Martin (Shalem, 2015)
No Future Without Forgiveness, by Desmond Tutu (Image, 2000)
Reading the Bible with René Girard, ed. Michael Hardin (CreateSpace, 2016)
"The Emotional Lives of Men," article by Mark Vander Vennen at www.TheBanner.org
The Little Book of Restorative Justice for Sexual Abuse: Hope Through Trauma, by Judah Oudshoorn et. al (Good Books, 2015)
Videos and websites
Sue Johnson: YouTube videos “Created for Connection” and “Soothing the Threatened Brain”
Grant Mullen: www.DrGrantMullen.com
Send in additional suggestions to [email protected].