As a pastor, I spend a significant portion of my time in ministry working with people and situations that involve health and illness. People who are sick or recovering or fearing or planning for illness… and the others who are affected by their loved one’s health situation.
I have never really tried to calculate it, but, anecdotally, I’d estimate that I spend much more time dealing with issues that come up around mental illness than physical illness. I’m not certain why that is, but I might guess that emotional disorders taking up more of my ministry has to do with the shame involved in what are classified as mental or emotional problems.
If you have gallstones you aren’t going to come to the pastor first! You go see a doctor. Sometimes, when people are scared or struggling, they speak to me about a physical condition. But usually people seek medical care, and I hear about it while they are awaiting a diagnosis or once a diagnosis arrives.
But with mental and emotional illnesses, the scenarios often work out differently. I often hear from people struggling emotionally before they have even thought of seeking medical care. Ok, many, maybe even most head right to therapy on their own. But I sometimes tease mental health professionals that clergy are the first line of grassroots mental health care, “because we are the ones who receive people without shame — we help people identify or name their situations and then refer them to therapy or psychiatric care.”
I do make a lot of referrals. Because I want people to get the help they need. And because I am not trained for what folks often need. And because if they get help, their lives can often be radically different, better.
Why do people come to the pastor before a medical care provider? I think often it has to do with the shame and secrecy that still so often enshroud emotional struggles. People can be private about physical health issues too, and have the right to be private about any of their health information (or anything else in their lives). Although as a society, we have gotten much more open about mental illness, there are still a lot of reasons — shame, stigma, misunderstanding, fear — that people feel they do not want to acknowledge or be known for their emotional struggles. That means, for many, it’s easier to come to the privacy of the pastor’s office than make the first appointment with a therapist. And often, I help out by giving them a referral and helping them into care.
Why do we feel more shy, more private, more scared of emotional illnesses than physical ones? It’s an ancient prejudice. While the Bible, comprised of stories from a pre-scientific age, can attribute all kinds of illness to somebody’s sin, demons, evil spirits, often it seems that disorders we today recognize as mental health issues are attributed in the pages of Scripture to someone having a demon, being influenced by an evil spirit or as a result of someone‘s sin.
And it’s not only long ago. In the last few months, a member of this church was told he has a demon,
and another friend shared that a well-meaning Christian told him he should throw away his psychotropic meds and pray instead.
Church, we are individuals, families and a community that deals with mental health issues, sometimes dealing better than worse. I would guess there’s not a person in our community whose life has not been significantly touched. Maybe there’s less reason for shame or denial than we fear…
The biblical descriptions both reflect and reinforce prejudice that existed in the ancient world. and they account in part for shame and secrecies in our modern world that often make accepting, treating and living with mental illness more difficult.
One of the reasons my mother was rarely medically compliant for care of her bi-polar disorder was she felt taking her medicine was public shaming tantamount to admitting she was crazy.
Beloved, this church will welcome and accept and hear and understand and pray for you if you are struggling with depression or some other mood disorder or mental illness, just like we‘ll pray for your troubles with gallstones and hypertension, diabetes and cancer. They are all just different vulnerabilities and difficulties that our incarnated selves face and endure. But in all these cases we‘re also always going to try and help you get to the doctor and take good, appropriate care of yourself or your loved ones because God means for us all to have the most life we can. I rarely have to make that case vis a vis physically illnesses. But with emotional disorders…
The Community Life SLG has taken up my suggestion that Old First become a WISE congregation in the UCC‘s Mental Health Network. WISE:
Let‘s break the silence and stop pretending and hiding and worrying and shaming. Let‘s help people get help and be well.
We have already reached out to the Rev. Sarah Lund to help us figure out how to best go about educating our community towards this WISE commitment to including and serving people in openness and love. We suspect we will invite you all to a kick-off in the fall. (Our opening and process might also include inviting other PennSE UCC Conference congregations to travel on this path with us.) You will hear more in the coming months about what it will mean for us to be a WISE congregation and how we plan to get there.
If you want to help out with making us a WISE congregation, please let either me or Darla know… We are forming a WISE ministry team under the Community Life SLG now!
See you in church,