By Eddie Pipkin

Last week I wrote about Simone Biles, her impact on attitudes toward mental health, and the intersection of mental health awareness and ministry.  This week we’ll explore that further.  It’s a big topic, worthy of some focused attention.  Leaders and volunteers can face enormous levels of stress – maybe not equal to that of a world class gymnast spinning at a dizzying height through the air – but then again, the stakes can be pretty high for folks in ministry.  Biles described a mental loss of orientation that beset her mid-event, a scary and paralyzing condition known to competitive gymnasts as “The Twisties.”  The parallels to ministry are profound.  It’s time we talked frankly about the mental stresses of leadership, serving, and how to cope with our version of The Twisties when they inevitably impact our performance.

A vivid explanation in USA Today of what having The Twisties is like is compelling reading.  The authors discuss the muscle memory and kinesthesia (cool word alert) that results from thousands of hours of practice and how terrifying it is to suddenly lose that subconscious sense of where you are and what you are doing – like suddenly forgetting how to drive a stick shift after decades of driving a stick shift.  Except for a gymnast, it’s potentially catastrophic.  Simone Biles, by honestly communicating her mental health challenges and valuing her own safety and wholeness above the glory of competition, fostered a valuable public discussion.  It’s okay to acknowledge when we’re struggling; it’s okay to prioritize our long-term mental well-being.

For ministry leaders, an increase in stress – perhaps brought on by the pressures of leading during a seemingly unending pandemic? – can lead to our own version of The Twisties.  We are disoriented.  Our sense of who we are and what we are doing is potentially compromised.  And, of course, everybody we are leading is dealing with the challenges of their own stress and disorientation.

A focus on mental health is critical.  We need to be able to talk honestly about these challenges in our leadership circles, and we need to be able to talk honestly about them with our congregations.  We should be able to provide needed mental health resources to our staffs, volunteers, and congregation members.  We should be fearless in seeking them out ourselves.

And we must acknowledge that mental health and spiritual health are two different things.  Yes, mental and spiritual health are intertwined.  In fact, research continues to show that participation in a local church has significant mental health benefits, as related in this WebMD article, “Going to Church May Improve Mental Health”:

A new survey of nearly 37,000 men and women shows that people who regularly attend church, synagogue, or other religious services are less likely to suffer from depression and other psychiatric illnesses than those who don’t.

“The higher the worship frequency, the lower the odds of depression, mania, and panic disorders,” says researcher Marilyn Baetz, MD, of the University of Saskatchewan in Canada.

And connection to a faith community is pivotal for many in maintaining their sobriety and providing much-needed accountability.  (Celebrate Recovery worship services and providing space for 12-step support groups, grief counseling, and professional counseling services are all part of local church efforts to provide mental health services.)

In researching this blog, I repeatedly encountered the statistic that one-in-four Americans will be affected by mental illness at some point in their lifetime: depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, anger management, and substance abuse are familiar topics to us, either because we have dealt with them ourselves or because we are closely connected to someone who has.  Frankly, I think that oft-cited one-in-four statistic is a little low.

Some local churches have actively embraced the opportunity to create organized mental health ministries.  This article from The Christian Citizen outlines five steps to starting such a ministry:

  • Identify and eliminate things we as leaders do that stigmatize mental health issues. As we preach, as we lead meetings, as we write articles, as we communicate on social media, are we overtly or subtly shaming people for their mental health struggles?  (Here’s an example provided in the article: “Imagine your pastor teaching the message, ‘God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.’ Now imagine hearing that as a person living with a serious phobia or anxiety disorder.”
  • Undertake a congregational mental health assessment.
  • Actively promote mental health literacy. (They recommend such resources as Mental Health 101 and Mental Health First Aid.)
  • Form a specific mental health ministry. This can be an interfaith project, a community partnership project, a congregational committee focused on this topic, or trained care teams that offer direct support to those who are struggling.
  • Provide for long-term sustainability.

Rick and Kay Warren of Saddleback Church were instrumental in developing such a dedicated mental health ministry after the tragic death by suicide of their youngest son.  Individual leaders and local churches have been inspired to action by tragic stories among their own friends, family, and fellow church members, but whether or not we have directly experienced such a tragedy, it is certain that there are people in our circle who are suffering and need help.  The Saddleback ministry is called Hope for Mental Health and features many resources for other churches that would like to offer their own mental health ministries.  The is the featured quote on their home page:

Studies show that when people are struggling with mental illness, the first place they call is the church. Let’s be ready.

I suggest following that link, if for no other reason, to consider the graphic which lays out the five biblically-based supporting principles of their Hope Circle (“You are loved.” “You have a purpose.” “You Belong.” “You have a choice.” “You are needed.”)

When considering a mental health initiative, we should leverage the gifted professionals in our midst.  There are many potential partners who are already part of our church families: individuals who are trained and experienced in these issues.  We should welcome their expertise and invite their guidance.  Thomas G. Plante, writing for The Berkley Center, addresses the opportunities for collaboration:

People of faith naturally turn to their religious traditions and communities for solace, consolation, and support when they, or their loved ones, suffer from mental health and related difficulties. Religious communities typically offer a welcoming spirit of hospitality and practical support services such as food pantries, support groups, healing rituals, spiritual direction, and other services that are usually completely free. Yet, clerics and pastoral staff members are generally not licensed mental health professionals and cannot professionally diagnosis or treat the often very serious mental health illnesses and problems that come to their attention.

Most mental health professionals such as psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and various types of counselors have little, if any, training or experience with religion and spirituality, and few have close collaborative working relationships with local clerics and religious institutions and organizations. Too often there is a big disconnect between the professional mental health communities and the religious and spiritual communities.

Plante argues it doesn’t have to be that way:

The religious and the professional mental health communities have much to teach each other and can potentially work collaboratively, cooperatively, and synergistically. The faith traditions have had hundreds, if not thousands, of years to reflect and offer thoughtful suggestions about human behavior and behavioral and relationship troubles. Sacred scriptures as well as spiritual commentaries over the centuries offer wise counsel on how to manage many of life’s challenges including psychological, behavioral, and relational ones. The professional mental health communities can offer the religious communities much regarding scientific, evidence-based, and state-of-the-art approaches to diagnosis, treatment, and consultation for psychological, behavioral, and relational aliments.

Resources for this kind of  exciting collaboration are provided by organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  They provide connections to a broad range of articles, discussion guides and studies, educational resources, potential collaborative partners, national mental health organizations, and even sermons on mental health topics.  This is material focused on mental health from a faith-based perspective.

My good friend, retired pastor and missionary Roberta Jones, points out that The Twisties is also an effective way to describe our occasional crises in faith, those periods of spiritual disorientation that come even for those who have been faithful disciples for decades (even for the iconically faithful, as in the case of Mother Teresa’s “dark night of the soul”).  Acknowledging this truth is another opportunity for supporting team members and congregation members.  We should be honest in letting people know that such crises of faith do not brand us as failures – they are quite common.  We can relieve people of the shame of thinking they are in some way irretrievably broken as they enter such periods of spiritual disorientation.  We can support them and provide them with the resources to persevere through these challenging times.

What is your ministry doing to promote mental health and help those who are hurting?  How comfortable are people in your congregation in talking about their mental health struggles?  What resources and connections can you provide to help them on their journey to wholeness?