Playing a Dangerous Game

Pastors are not trained as counselors or psychiatrists. When they claim to have a full understanding of mental health, they are fooling themselves. And the consequences may be lethal.

One of my favorite movies (and terribly underrated, IMO) is “The Big Short.” This spin about the 2008 financial crisis opens up with a terrific quote from Mark Twain. “It isn’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

When a minister is just getting started, it is a tremendous benefit to have mentors that will drill this axiom into their head. If there is one thing that I learned from the pastors who tutored me over the years, it is that I do not know everything. And pretending that I do will result in healthy doses of humility.

Still worse, such pretense can result in actual harm and irreparable damage in the lives of others. This is a risk that ministers cannot afford to take.

But in recent years, I encounter more pastors or ministers who take this approach regarding mental health. Saying that you understand it when you do not is a dangerous game.

Reality check: the majority of pastors and ministers are not trained as counselors or psychiatrists. When they claim to have a full understanding of mental health, they are fooling themselves and their constituents.

And the consequences of that can be damaging, perhaps even lethal.

Most ministers are trained in what we call “pastoral care.” This means a couple of classes in seminary where they learn to listen, pray, provide spiritual support, and generally practice not saying anything really dumb during a crisis situation. This is assuming they attend a viable, accredited seminary.

Some take additional classes in pastoral care or counseling, perhaps even getting credentials through other degrees or programs. Even with such training, they are rarely prepared to deal with the full range of mental and emotional issues that people face.

For this reason, it is vitally important that ministers use extreme caution when counseling or working with people who suffer from mental or emotional illness. And we are too often failing to acknowledge that reality.

Some of my students this semester are survivors of mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical abuse. Some suffer from hereditary disorders or mental issues that plagued members of their family before them. Some are trying to recover from unimaginable trauma. Some are sadly experiencing all of the above.

One student and I share an inside joke that she is the “alphabet soup” of disorders and trauma. If it exists, she has it. We laugh at this to keep from crying under such an unbearable weight.

The all-too-common reaction they hear from ministers is blame. Mental health is “just sin attacking you.” These issues are you “weak faith.” If you would just “pray harder and trust God,” then all these problems will go away. And my personal pet peeve: if you would “deal with your sin,”then mental health wouldn’t be an issue for you.

It is unimaginable for me that a minister would say such a thing to a student suffering from mental/emotional illness. But according to multiple students, this is not at all unusual. My disclaimer is that I did not witness such comments. Whatever was said, these are the messages that students heard from both church members and ministers.

Let us assume for a moment that these are accurate reports. The responses betray a dangerous lack of understanding of both mental health and the teachings of Christ. Not to mention the role of a minister in offering spiritual encouragement for someone struggling with trauma.

What if a person walked into the pastor’s office and said, “I’ve been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.” Would the pastor condemn that person by calling their cancer a result of sin? Would they encourage them to stay away from doctors and instead just pray about it? Would their words insult them for seeking some type of medication or treatment?

If a minister pulled such a stunt, it seems likely that people would be outraged. So why do we view it as acceptable to treat mental/emotional issues in such a way?

This points out a reality that we need to face in our society, government, health care system, and churches. Mental health is health! Pretending that we can explain it away as “sin” or dismiss it as a lack of faith diminishes the real trauma and illness that many endure. If God chooses to cure someone, God can certainly do so. Aside from such a miracle, those suffering from mental health issues depend on the care of competent, trained professionals to help them persevere.

As Ministers of the Gospel, why would we push them away from the resources they have? Why would pastors encourage them to turn away from the best care available and towards those who have only partial training to assist? How do we know that the Spirit is not providing the doctors and medication necessary to empower people to get better? It is the height of arrogance for ministers to believe that they are the sole “keymaster” for the well-being of those who seek their help.

More than one thing can be true. Spiritual guidance and resources can prove extremely helpful to anyone who seeks them, particularly those struggling with mental health. At the same time, there is nothing flawed, broken, or sinful in seeking health resources that merge with their spiritual journey. It is entirely possible, perhaps likely, that God provides such resources to empower people who want to get well.

There is a story about a man caught in a terrible rainstorm/flood who stood outside his house as the waters began to rise. As he stood on a hill near his house, a firetruck came by and offered to take him to safety. He declined the offer, saying, “I prayed that the Lord would save me, and I have faith that the Lord will do that!” As the water rose, he climbed a tree when a boat came by to offer assistance. “No thanks, I prayed and have faith that the Lord will save me!” Finally, he ended up at the peak of the roof on his house when a helicopter came to get him. “No, I don’t need you. The Lord will save me!”

Eventually the man died in the flood. When he got to heaven, he angrily went straight to Jesus. “Lord, I prayed faithfully that you would save me from the flood, and you didn’t do it. You let me die! Why???”

Jesus said, “Well, I sent you a fire truck, a boat, and a helicopter. Why didn’t you take the help I sent you?”

Our “pastoral” reactions to mental health may be no better than bypassing the resources God is providing. Ministers are ill-equipped to deal with mental, emotional, or physical trauma—and there is no good reason for them to shun the help that professionals can provide.

Do those suffering from mental health issues need the spiritual to help them through? Almost certainly. Do they also need professional counseling, medication, and well-trained doctors/counselors to assist? Absolutely.

Turning to mental health professionals does not demonstrate a lack of faith. To the contrary, it may show evidence of tremendous faith that the Holy Spirit provides resources from a wide variety of people and places.

We cannot afford to let our God be small when it comes to mental health. Ministers and believers alike need to open their faith to the reality that God can work in all fields, all disciplines, all ways. When we limit our belief to only our view of how God works, then we miss the abundance that God provides for us to deal with our trauma.

As a people empowered by the truth of the Gospel, may we open our eyes to see all the resources that God provides to those experiencing mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma. After all, someone’s life may depend on it.

There is no shame in admitting that we do not know how to deal with something. But there is unimaginable danger in pretending that we know something that just ain’t so.   

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