CHICAGO (ELCA) – In observance of May’s National Mental Health Awareness Month, members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) recall their commitment to providing a community of support for all those who suffer from mental illness, their families and caregivers.
“So many people with mental health conditions experience loneliness and isolation,” said the Rev. Cherlyne Beck, program director, ELCA disability ministries.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, one-half of Americans in their lifetimes “will have a serious mental health condition but fewer than half of them will receive treatment.”
To help raise awareness of mental illness, the ELCA Church Council in 2012 adopted “The Body of Christ and Mental Illness,” a social message intended to offer reflection and direction and inspire action. Social messages of the ELCA are documents on specific topics adopted by the ELCA Church Council to focus attention and action on timely, pressing matters of social concern to this church and society.
The ELCA’s message reads in part, “As Christ was not afraid to be vulnerable, or to show his wounds, the church when living faithfully as the body of Christ is not afraid to be vulnerable and wounded.” The message goes on to state that “when people with mental illness are present as full members, as their true selves, the church as the body of Christ is both wounded and authentic.”
“With our message we are letting people know that (this) church truly cares about them. By placing the words ‘the body of Christ’ alongside the words ‘mental illness,’ we are making a statement that Christ is there for all and we, as part of the body of Christ, will work to follow that example,” said Beck. “As the message reminds us, we ‘can be a sign of God’s presence in a time when God’s presence cannot be felt in any other way.’”
The Rev. Kaari Reierson, co-author of the ELCA’s social message, said this church “has a lot to contribute in terms of grace and empathy for our neighbor and a recognition that none of us is perfect and everybody still belongs in the community. A lot of people who are struggling with mental illness, if they are religious, they visit a pastor first. The church is on the front lines of some of these things and pastors should be prepared, not to treat mental illness and not to diagnose it either, that’s not their job, but to direct people and support people who are seeking treatment.”
“I’ve been trained as a spiritual director, which is not the same as therapy, but there is a fine line between what it is to support, to be someone’s companion, to talk about what is going on. I do feel adequate to have the conversations with people about it, asking questions and usually supplementing their other primary support,” said the Rev. Craig Mueller, pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chicago.
For members who are in need of professional counseling, Mueller considers his role as pastor only one component of their entire treatment plan. “We might need seven things to help us cope. And I offer myself to be part of that care package.”
“It’s important for pastors to know how to appropriately refer people in terms of the congregation being the body of Christ and being supportive, but also referring with appropriate resources,” said Carol Schickel, an ELCA associate in ministry and a licensed psychotherapist in Chicago who has an office at Holy Trinity’s Spiritual Life Center. The center provides spiritually focused services, which include individual counseling, retreats and classes.
Rachel Schipull, a member of Holy Trinity, is one of Schickel’s patients referred by Mueller. “It really just makes sense that if your aim is to be a congregation of believers who are supporting someone spiritually, that if they are also struggling mentally then you would do what you can to support them in that as well,” said Schipull. “If, as a church, we can find a way to ease the day-to-day pain of having a mental illness, then if we can do that in any way then we should.”
Mental wellbeing for clergy
The ELCA’s social message also emphasizes the need for pastors to pay attention to their own emotional health. “We also encourage you to treat your own mental health as essentially important in your life of baptismal vocation,” the message reads.
In a May 2013 article for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Schickel reported that among ELCA rostered leaders who completed the 2012 Mayo Clinic Embody Health Assessment, 62 percent reported that emotional health was one of the highest risk factors to their health.
In his work with seminarians from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, one of the ELCA’s eight seminaries, Mueller stresses the importance of a taking care of both physical and emotional health. “I want to make sure from the very beginning that that kind of commitment is there. If you aren’t attending to yourself in whatever the challenges are holistically, then you can’t be as effective for others. On the reverse side, when you are aware of your own needs or brokenness or whatever you call it, I think we are better pastors because we are aware of the human condition,” said Mueller.
“My sense is that parishioners yearn to hear, on a certain level, their pastor say ‘me too,’ (and) to resonate with their own experience. For their pastor to say ‘this is what helped me find my way through difficult times.’” said the Rev. Thomas S. Taylor. “And that could include consulting with other professionals. Parishioners look to their pastors to model, in their actions as well as words, possible ways to deal with the dilemmas of life. If my pastor seeks out professional care, a person of faith I respect, maybe that's an option for me to consider as well."
Taylor, a psychotherapist and clinical supervisor for the Lutheran Counseling Center in New York, also served several congregations in New York from 1985 to 2002. He said that having a therapist during his professional ministry has “been an invaluable resource well beyond its need as a crisis management in my life. Built into my own self-care and professional care is that kind of mentor–mentee relationship, consultant relationship, that is both a place to talk about my personal life but also my professional [life].”
“Pastors need to turn this on themselves, use the mirror really to reflect on their own life and how their own emotional health and wellbeing reflects out into their ministry. I think that’s really important,” said Schickel, who served as ELCA director of candidacy from 1998 to 2005. “Our population of rostered leaders is very similar to the greater population in terms of not only having stress and anxiety and depression, but having other much more significant kind of diagnoses too. There are people with major depression, stress disorders, (and) bipolar disorders. Nobody is exempt.”
“I think one of the main issues that I’ve learned from my therapist is not to feel like I’m failing because I’m not fixing the problem. That’s a big deal,” said the Rev. William Heisley, pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in New York and one of Taylor’s patients. “I am able to be more effective simply by having acknowledged my humanity and being able to move on.”
Heisley said that during his seminary training “they always warned us against having ‘Jesus complexes.’ A Jesus complex is when you feel you have been ordained to become the savior of the community. There is only one savior of the community and it is not William, it is Jesus.”
“A pastor is not perfect and if they present themselves as guarded and private, then it’s very difficult for a congregation to be the body of Christ with them,” said Schickel. “That’s one of the challenges especially around mental health, which is why it’s important for pastors to model their own vulnerability.”
To help congregations utilize the social message on mental illness, the ELCA has published a congregational study guide to assist pastors in conducting study sessions.
“Talking about mental illness requires sensitive leadership. Privacy is important. Yet, support and care is also important,” said Beck. “The congregational study guide gives directions for the leaders and members of congregations on ways to best approach this important topic, as well as suggestions for how they might move forward in accompanying those with mental illness and their caregivers.”
“The work that is being done by the ELCA gives me great hope that the ground work is being laid, the resources are being provided for our congregations and our leaders to be more reflective to increase their ability to be more reflective on mental health and how to be supportive of those who deal with mental illness,” said Schickel.
Information and resources are available at http://www.elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Messages/Mental-Illness
---About the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with about 4 million members in nearly 10,000 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of “God's work. Our hands,” the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA's roots are in the writings of the German church reformer, Martin Luther.