Monthly Archives: October 2015

When God Cries

Desmond Tutu’s beloved children’s book God’s Dream describes a young boy who cries when he realizes that his selfish actions have caused a rift in a friendship with a classmate. Tutu writes that God cries, too, when we hurt others and are ourselves hurt. I’m taken by this sentiment of God crying with us; and the message that God is not too holy to feel. God is not above emotion, but God is below. We find God alongside us in the depths of our suffering; God cries, too.

In my children’s sermon about mental health, I show the children a small, unopened package of tissues. I ask a volunteer to open the package and share with us what they discover inside. Carefully a tissue emerges from its package. Then I ask for a tissue from the child. I share that I need it to wipe my eyes because I had been a little teary that morning. 

We talk about how when we have big feelings that don’t have words, they come out as tears. I share Tutu’s book, showing them the page where the boy is crying. I read to them about how when we are crying, God cries, too.

We talk about how tissues are also used when we are sick and have a runny nose, a bad cold or a sinus infection. Sometimes when we are very sick, we go to the doctor and get medicine. 

Our brains, just like our hearts and our lungs, need to be healthy. But sometimes when we are not feeling good, we go see a doctor. I share that my brother went to the doctor because his brain was not feeling good. The doctor gave him medicine to help him feel better.

Now my brother is home from the hospital and his brain is doing better. Mental health means taking care of our whole body; including our brain. When our brain is healthy, we feel better.

Sometimes we cry when we are feeling sad. And when we cry, God is with us. When we are sick and not feeling good, God is with us. We are never alone because God is always with us. God loves us even when we cry and when we feel sick, even when we are happy and feel healthy.

Let us pray: Thank you God for tears that express how we are feeling. Thank you God for our brains that help us know your love. Thank you God for mental health and for people who help us feel better when we are sick. We love you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Clergy in the Closet

It’s not pleasant to think about the minister you know and love checking himself into the psych ward after church. After all, earlier that day he was on fire: his sermon was passionate, he baptized a whole family that joined the church and then after two worship services he taught confirmation to the largest class of youth the church has seen in decades.

What happened to the pastor?

This particular scenario, while fictitious, closely resembles true stories that I’ve heard again and again since I began working with churches on the topic of mental wellness. The most tragic part is that mental illness experienced by ministers is frequently endured in secret for fear of the church finding out. Ministers fear losing their jobs, or worse, being removed from ministry by losing their authorization to serve the church. There is not yet a safety net for clergy mental health; a way for clergy to seek mental health recovery and treatment without stigma, shame and judgement by the church. 

There are exceptions, thankfully; clergy whose churches graciously allow medical leaves to recover from depressive episodes and then welcome the minister back into the pulpit. But even in this case, the church was already a safe community for the minister to reveal their mental health challenges before there was a crisis.  The minister was not “in the closet” about living with a mood/brain/mental illness/disease/disorder. 

Why are so many clergy in the closet when it comes to their mental health status? Studies have shown that in general clergy tend to experience depression at a higher rate compared to the general public. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that one in five persons will experience an episode of mental illness in a given year. Clergy are human, too, and not divinely protected from experiencing mental illness.  

We also know from research based on the national Transition into Ministry programs that young clergy who leave ministry often report that it was because of loneliness, social isolation and depression. There is also increased risk to clergy for addictive behaviors as a coping mechanism. Additionally, clergy often serve in communities with fewer mental health resources, making quality care challenging. It’s not unusual for the minister to be the only “counselor” in a small town. 

How can Christian communities create healing, safe spaces for clergy to come out of the closet about their mental illness? The first step is to eradicate the stigma and shame. There is nothing shameful about a minister who has a diagnosis. We don’t attach stigma to clergy who have heart disease or diabetes. 

If a pastor is in the hospital following a heart attack, the church prayer chain is activated and hot dishes and brownies are baked. But when a pastor is in the psychiatric hospital after church on Sunday because of a psychotic break, what happens? 

Nothing. 

Why? Because the minister and his family are too afraid to tell anyone in the church. They are silent in the midst of their suffering. No prayer support. No hot dishes or chicken casseroles. 

Instead, after five days in the hospital and after being discharged with a new diagnosis and new medications, the pastor is back in the pulpit the following Sunday and nobody knows any better. Closeted in the church by stigma and shame, clergy and their families too often suffer alone and in silence. And the church suffers, too. I’ve sat in circles with youth who share that their pastor parent has bipolar disorder, but it’s kept a secret from the church. The young person said being in the closet about the mental illness made the parent seem like a hypocrite. Not knowing about their minister’s mental illness, the church is unaware of the complex life their pastor and their family live. This silence that leads to a lack of knowing creates unhealthy dynamics that negatively impacts everyone involved. 

The crisis of clergy in the closet when it comes to mental illness will not improve until seminaries and authorizing bodies address comprehensive clergy mental health, and churches become educated about mental health, equipped to support people with mental illness and their families, and encourage clergy to make mental health just as important to their spiritual life as prayer. 

May God bless clergy who dedicate their lives to caring for others, sharing the love of Christ with a hurting world. May God give churches and clergy the courage to kick mental illness out of the closet.  The only thing that should be in a minister’s church closet is a robe. 

World Mental Health Day

What does a world look like where mental health is treated with as much urgency, compassion and care as heart health or breast health? 

What does a world look like where no matter what your income, age, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, education, or legal status you could access affordable and excellent mental health care? 

What does a world look like where there is no shame or stigma in naming out loud the daily and personal and corporate realities of schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, or other mood, brain and behavioral challenges?

What does it take to make such a world possible? 

Today, October 10, we are invited to observe World Mental Health Day, and ask these questions as a global community, knowing that each one of us in our small ways can be part of the big changes that we wish to see in the world.

There is much for us to learn about mental health from our global neighbors. While in South Korea for the gathering of the World Council of Churches I learned from another culture and heard an expression that understood the brain as an instrument. It was said that the mind of a person with schizophrenia is like a violin with broken strings. I value this perspective from my international friend because it helps reframe mental illness with non-medical language. I can see in my mind’s eye the image of a beautifully hand crafted violin, worn from devoted passion, with yellowed strings frayed and dangling down. 

I also like the hope embedded in this metaphor of the violin. Just as new strings can be added so that music can be played, mental illness can be treated and recovery is possible. 

All of us, no matter what part of the world we call home, know the transcendent power of an instrument played well. World mental health, when at its best, is the sound of a world class orchestra.