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Mental health and the Church: 5 reasons why it's ok to not be ok

Following the news that Inland Hills lead pastor Andrew Stoecklein has committed suicide, Christy Wimber challenges church leaders to change their attitude toward mental ill health

I felt so many emotions after hearing of the 30-year-old pastor from Chino, California who took his life this last weekend.

What’s so difficult besides the obvious great loss to his family are the rippling effects suicide can take on the many affected.

Suicide never takes the pain away; it just passes it along to those left behind. Every suicide is a great loss and news like this should break our hearts as well as shake the Church. It demands we ask the hard questions. How are we doing in making safe spaces for those hurting?

One in four are struggling with mental-ill health. The suicide rate among young men is the highest it’s ever been, and even though it is growing, only a few churches are responding adequately. I often hear it’s the government or the health care system who should be caring for those who have mental-ill health and while this is partially true, there are also some things only the Church and God's people are called to do.

Having led a church myself I do understand the fear of not knowing how to help the hurting. I understand the initial fear attached in not knowing what to do, but I believe as the Church goes forward, it will not be a few churches who will have to learn more and become places for healing, but any church who chooses to ignore the reality of what people are struggling with today will not be effective in the coming years.

It is important to know the statistics, but we must remember each person is a real, living, breathing individual made in the image of God. Each person represents a family, a history, a heritage that matters greatly. And when one person has mental-ill health it not only affects the person struggling, but the many who care and love those who are struggling.

Unpopular message

I’ve learned much about mental health these last few years and one of the heartbreaking realities I have encountered time and again is that it’s not popular.

It’s not popular to highlight mental-ill health at events, and it’s rarely spoken or addressed in church. And for the person struggling they will tell you they either feel as if they don’t fit in or they are rarely called upon for prayer as everyone knows they won’t get instantly healed. In some circles we have so popularised the instant miracles that anything less isn’t as interesting. Who wants to hear about someone who gets prayer but is still in the struggle? We tend to want everything now.

Yet, the reality is most of our healing won’t be found at an event. Our healing is found in daily walking through life with people as we "share in their sufferings" as the Apostle Paul so clearly encouraged us to do. We don’t fix suffering, but we are called to share in what other people are walking through. Church leaders must be included with this encouragement. We not only need to acknowledge and allow safe spaces for the hurting, we don’t get to pick what people are hurting with. So instead of trying to fix people perhaps we can begin by acknowledging that many are living in struggle and each week in church we are sitting next to the suffering. And many who are suffering in silence.

I have prayed for countless leaders these last years who feel that if they tell their elders or congregations they have some mental-ill health they will no longer be looked upon as someone who is able to lead. Many are afraid they will get fired. I have known leaders to get fired once they shared their hardship, so this is real. 

We cannot change the past, but we can take steps for the future. I encourage every church leader to first take a look at their own mental health. As leaders we tend to focus more on what we are doing rather than how we are doing. How you are affects how you live and how you lead. You cannot serve your people effectively if you are not first caring for yourself. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. It takes more courage to seek help and to be honest about your struggles than to pretend like nothing is wrong. And the truth is people don’t identify with our strengths, they identify with our humanity.

Here are a five helpful insights for those in ministry as well as those who need some support:

1. It’s not a sin to be sick

There is nothing in Scripture that says being a leader means you will never be ill. This includes the mind as well as the body. Due to our celebrity culture we still tend to look at leaders as superheroes, which only puts them on a pedestal which is unrealistic for anyone to live up to. It also makes it nearly impossible to seek help. My encouragement is to seek the help you need and find some trusted friends who can walk alongside you as well as your family. This is serious. If you don’t deal with the stuff inside of you, that stuff will deal with you.

2. Sickness is not a sign of having less faith

Sickness is a sign of the broken world we live in as Romans 8 speaks to so clearly. God is healer, but the way God heals or when God heals is often much different than what we plan. Just because you can’t ‘pray away’ what you’re dealing with does not make one less spiritual. It only makes us more human.

3. If your doctor prescribes medication, take it

It’s not just for you, but also for the people who love you. The stigma still attached to medication for the brain is ludicrous. Think about it. If you had to take medication for your heart no one would ever question your ability to lead. So why is it okay to take medications for every part of the body but not the brain? Taking medication is not a sin, nor does it mean you aren’t the spiritual leader God has called you to be. It just means your body may be lacking in an area and thank God we have the medical profession to come along and help when needed.

4. Mental-ill health is no respecter of persons

It has nothing to do with religion, income, gender, or the colour of our skin. Yes, mental-ill health can be heredity, which is why getting educated is important. There are several factors which can cause mental ill health and there is never just one reason why one struggles. You can take great care for your body and still suffer with anxiety.

5. Don’t allow yourself to isolate

What is so heartbreaking about the young pastor who took his life was that on the outside he had it all. He had a thriving church, a loving wife and three small boys yet unless others were aware he was suicidal, he was too vulnerable. Just because someone looks fine does not mean they are fine. To isolate in ministry for any reason is deadly. But if you struggle with suicidal thoughts you cannot afford not to let people into your life and to put the needed safeguards in place.

Re-defining victory

I do believe that when church leaders start becoming more vulnerable about their own weaknesses, including mental-ill health struggles, it will then create safe spaces for others to be honest too. This is when true healing will take place within the Church.

One of my prayers is that we re-define victory. There is victory when we have the courage to seek help. There is victory when we pray and God heals us quickly but there is also victory in the one choosing to get out of bed each day, who fights through pain or anxiety, yet still loves Jesus. That is a loud victorious message we must highlight and celebrate.

There are places you can seek help, please don’t wait or overthink it, just call. If you are struggling at the moment you can contact Premier Lifeline 9am to midnight every day of the year on 0300 111 0101. Or if you live in the USA please dial 1800-273-TALK

Christy Wimber has been involved in church ministry for over two decades. She is now focused on leadership, mental health and the training of leaders and planting of new churches. Her main ministry has always been her children, Camie Rose, who is now married to Hobie Johnson, and John Richard II who is still in high school. For more information visit ChristyWimber.com

Click here to read Premier Christianity's Profile interview with Christy

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