Month: April 2020

Roundup Week: College students, leaders navigating “new normal” amid COVID-19

College student ministry leader John James isn’t afraid to admit that in the recent weeks surrounding the COVID-19 crisis he’s felt “drained and discouraged.” And he knows he’s not alone. 

The university ministry director at Fredonia Hill Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas, was one of about 350 attendees who tuned in online for Roundup Week, a time of training and encouragement for college ministry leaders and students. The annual collegiate conference, which this year was spread out over five days, was hosted April 20-24 by the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

James said he had experienced an initial period of sadness when events began to be canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic, and he realized he may not see some of his students until the end of August.

 “We’re used to living every day with our students, having them in our home, loving on them, serving with them,” he said. “And to have that removed, honestly we had to go through a phase of mourning that loss.”

While James is now in more of a mode of acceptance these days, he said, he’s still working his way through the ongoing changes. 

And Mitch Tidwell, lead associate of students and collegiate for the SBTC, noted the purpose of the event was to help these leaders and students navigate a “new normal” in college ministry. 

The annual event, which drew registrants from more than 30 states, was originally scheduled to be held at Austin Stone Community Church in Austin in May. But Tidwell, who helped coordinate the event, said it needed to be rescheduled as concerns from the pandemic grew.

Tidwell said he wanted to help ministry leaders not only figure out how to move forward, but also consider “how do we care for our souls and the souls of those who are with us right now.”

I wanted us to remind leaders that God is sovereign and in control and they can rest in him,” he said.

During the online event, guest speaker Paul Worcester challenged ministry leaders to keep in mind the need to stay faithful to Christ in the midst of the crisis. A recent survey by Faithwire, he noted, discovered that 21.5 percent of non-Christians were starting to read the Bible and listen to online sermons during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Think about your friends that are not Christians,” said Worcester, director of Christian Challenge at California State University in Chico. “Most of them are very lonely. Most of them don’t have Zoom Bible studies to go to … So many are struggling with mental illness, depression.” 

“And we have the answer. Jesus is the answer,” he said. “And my prayer is that many people will one day say, ‘I became a Christian during COVID-19.’”

James, who has attended the event the last couple of years, said one of the biggest things leaders will need to realize is the need to pivot and adjust their ministry to better minister to their students. 

“I think the biggest thing I’ve taken away is I think the church has the responsibility to understand that times are changing,” he said. “And we have to be proactive in evaluating a situation and evaluating how we do ministry in order that we can thrive.”

Much of the focus for him in recent weeks, he said, has been on working remotely, utilizing a lot of phone and Zoom calls and fostering relationships through social media. 

And while that is typically an environment where students today thrive, the downside is that a growing number of college students are struggling with mental health issues, James noted. And leaders will need to respond to this challenge.

“Mental health [issues are] running rampant for a college campus right now,” he said. “Depression, anxiety, suicide … feelings of isolation. That just runs rampant through our ladies and through our men.”

College student Jordan Hammock said she’s experienced her own share of pain this semester after learning her month-long mission trip overseas had been canceled.

“I am crushed that was canceled,” said Hammock, a student at University of Texas-Arlington, who is a leader in her campus ministry and at Fielder Church. “… That doesn’t mean God’s plan isn’t still in action. It just looks a lot different than what we thought it was going to look like. And we just really got to lean into it.”

And for Hammock, that means embracing the needs around her, whether it’s for those who may have lost loved ones to illness or had their plans turned upside down in recent weeks. 

“We should all definitely recognize that everyone is in mourning right now,” she said. “Even though we’re going through a pandemic, it’s okay that you’re sad that plans were canceled.”

But she noted, “This is a time where we could see a revival.” 

SBTC board members give thumbs up to contingency plan, praying for CP support

GRAPEVINE—Chairman Danny Forshee of Austin combined use of online technology with old school communication to walk Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Executive Board members through an abbreviated  April 28 meeting. Using Zoom video conferencing, 36 of the 46 members participated from their homes or offices spread out across Texas, signaling with their thumbs up the approval of some motions. 

Originally scheduled as a two-day retreat, the scattered assembly quickly got down to business, hearing from church ministries associate Lance Crowell for an overview of the SBTC’s COVID-19 Task Force, which he chairs. Launched in March to develop ministry to SBTC churches in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, the group helped churches transition their services online, find solutions for online giving, tap into a new digital database at sbtexas.com/covid19 for over 100 resources and tools available in English and Spanish, and understand the CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program.

From there the task force moved on to develop 17 weekly Zoom calls to provide regular engagement between SBTC staff and local church leaders based on affinity needs. Attracting 6,100 different participants over several weeks, video conferences range from a Monday afternoon dialog with 155 preschool, children’s and family ministers from 11 states and two countries to a panel discussion on theological ramifications of observing baptism and Lord’s Supper ordinances online. 

For thousands more, the personal approach of a phone call gave SBTC ministry and support staff the opportunity to encourage local church pastors, pray for their needs and point them to the new resources, he added. Now the task force has shifted to helping churches envision what regathering will look like as local authorities provide opportunity for varying degrees of in-person worship services. 

SBTC chaplains set up a new toll-free hotline at 1-800-921-3287 to provide counseling and prayer to both Christians and unbelievers, often meeting physical and spiritual needs, Crowell related.

Meanwhile, the SBTC executive committee joined with the administrative committee to tackle urgent matters prior to the board meeting. Administrative committee chairman Todd Kaunitz of Longview reported those actions, including:

  • pursuit of a loan under the Paycheck Protection Program of the CARES Act in the amount of $867,496,
  • allocation of up to $100,000 for a grant from SBTC reserves to respond to ministry needs resulting from the pandemic,
  • up to $50,000 from reserves for a consultant to pursue grant awards on behalf of SBTC, and
  • reallocation of $200,000 from state missions funds to state missions disaster relief for pastor and church assistance in connection with financial difficulties caused by COVID-19. 


The two committees also reported on proactive measures they authorized the executive director to pursue if necessary as a means of further cost reductions. Executive Board Vice Chairman Mark Hogan of San Antonio outlined available steps which include reductions in salary and health insurance benefits, and added, “Our prayer is these will not be necessary.” 

In response to a question raised later in the meeting by board member Joe Rivera of Grand Prairie about the impact of utilizing CARES Act funds for personnel costs, CFO Joe Davis said the PPP loan provides temporary payroll help through at least June and maybe July. “It sure gives us more time to make decisions and hopefully for CP to come back,” he estimated.  “It will get us down the road at least three months.”

In his financial report, Davis said Cooperative Program receipts in 2019 amounted to $26,961,907, within about 1 percent of the record-breaking 2018 CP receipts of over $27 million. “So, it was a pretty good year in 2019,” he added.

Net operating income through March was reported at $383,193 with net worth listed at just over $17 million.

“We ended the first two months through February about $275,000 ahead of budget, so the year was pretty good at that point,” Davis said. “Then along came March and the pandemic.” With shutdowns occurring by mid-March, SBTC began to see a decline in CP receipts which continued into April, he observed.

“We’re looking at those numbers as we try to forecast where we may be going,” Davis added. “We, of course, don’t know what CP will be going forward, but if those last two months are our template—if we were to be $400,000 [per month] under budget for 12 months—that would make us $4.8 million under budget.”

Clarifying that his projections represent both the in-state (45 percent) and SBC (55 percent) portions for the CP budget, Davis said if the estimate of CP receipts holds true, the in-state budget would need to be reduced by a little more than $2 million next year.

“We are assessing receipts and expenses as we go and the next few months will better determine where we are,” he said. However, he anticipates next year’s budget to be a challenge. “We will know more about that by the time we get to our summer meeting. We will manage the budget based on whatever receipts are,” he pledged.

Board member John Meador of Euless asked Davis to clarify his goal for reserve funds. With a goal of six months of in-state reserves, Davis said 2019 ended with $1.3 million more than that, providing a seven-month contingency which the executive director has the authority to tap for emergencies.

Acknowledging the difficulty of decisions being made and the reality that CP giving is declining, board member Russ Ponder of Farwell remarked, “Not only has God provided for this state convention an incredible staff, but financially. I just want to say God has blessed us in a big way that we do have the money there [in reserves].”

On behalf of the credentials committee, Chairman Jason Gray of Abilene shared how God is blessing the SBTC with more churches, offering a list of churches requesting affiliation—more than twice the number that were presented at last fall’s board meeting. The 28 local congregations were approved by the board, bringing the total of affiliated churches to 2,744. That number includes the removal of 23 churches that had either disbanded or merged.

A joint recommendation of the executive committee and administrative committee provided another potential cost-cutting move by authorizing the executive director discretion to end a “matching benefit” contribution to the GuideStone Financial Services retirement accounts of qualified church employees and evangelists across the state if circumstances indicate the need to do so. The current budget has set aside $415,000 for that line item to provide $210 per year to recipients.

In his report to the board, Executive Director Jim Richards said, “God has placed us in this time to rise to this occasion to be what God would have us to be in order to honor his name.” Grateful for the privilege to serve, Richards said, “Believers are being strengthened by the Holy Spirit during this trial and the gospel is going forth as never before,” he said “Electronic means have exponentially extended outreach for these churches that have struggled to reach their communities.”

Referring to new resources assembled by the COVID-19 Task Force, counseling being made available to pastors who are discouraged, and many other initiatives to serve local churches and pastors, Richards said, “Your generosity through the Cooperative Program enables the SBTC to provide these services and ministries. So in the midst of the chaos, ministry continues.”

He welcomed SBTC Disaster Relief Director Scottie Stice to describe how CP dollars are allowing volunteers and staff to serve municipalities and individuals in Texas. Currently deployed to three locations, Stice described recovery efforts in two East Texas towns following an April 24 tornado in Onalaska where four professions of faith in Christ and 71 spiritual contacts were reported, and in the town of Linden where crews cleaned 24 homes damaged April 25 by severe straight-line winds and shared the gospel with nine people. Serving in a supportive role to the Houston Food Bank, volunteers prepared thousands of boxes of food for distribution to families at two neighborhood super sites and two church campuses.

“I wanted you to hear what God is doing,” Richards told the board. “People are getting saved. People are being ministered to. Doors are being opened.”

Richards told the board of three staff changes, including hiring Nathaniel Kuhns in February to serve as student associate, promotion of Mitch Tidwell as lead student and collegiate associate, and the resignation of church planting associate Jason Lankford, who leaves in July to begin training in Iowa to launch a collegiate church plant. 

Bart McDonald, executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Foundation reported preliminary fiscal year end 2019 results reflecting a net operating profit of $554,428 on over $2.7 million of revenue.

The board received a report from Marie Bosillo, a partner with PSK accounting firm who provided an unqualified opinion in regard to the annual audit of the SBTC. 

In their final action, the board approved 2021 meeting dates of April 19-20, August 24 and November 10.

SBTC President Kie Bowman of Austin closed the meeting by praying for wisdom in how to continue to evangelize, recognizing the expanded reach available through electronic ministry. He asked God for “souls to be saved, for people to grow in their relationship with Christ, and to keep leaders in the center of your will as they continue to make decisions in a constantly changing environment.”

Bowman appealed for people to respond financially in support of local church ministries and for Cooperative Program giving to be strong. “I’m asking in the name of Jesus that we will not have to have any of these major cuts at the SBTC that we have planned for. Your hand, O God, has brought us this far and we praise you for it and we pray that we would continue to be under your mighty hand and in the care of your great love.”

Lettie Perry, who had role in SBTC founding, dies at 85

Lettie Perry, a Texas woman who played a major role in the founding of the SBTC and the hiring of its first executive director, died April 24. She was 85.

Perry was a long-time organist and pianist, playing at churches her husband, Casey, pastored, and also at SBTC evangelism conferences and senior adult camps.

During the late 1990s, she was one of a group of individuals who argued the BGCT had drifted too far to the left and that Texas needed another state convention. 

She was a member of the committee that hired Jim Richards as the first executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, which was formed in 1998. Richards still serves in that role.

“When it became apparent that the state convention would not experience the same type of return to biblical fidelity as the Southern Baptist Convention, she was one of the voices calling for a new state convention,” said Richards. “Because of her courageous spirit she was chosen to be on the search committee for an executive director as the new convention was being formed.”

Lettie, Richards said, “stood by her convictions.”    

She and her husband served in North Dakota and Kansas as well as the Texas cities of Mercury, Terrell, Arlington and Malakoff. She started hand bell choirs at multiple churches.

She is survived by Casey, her husband of 64 years. 

“Over these last 20 plus years she remained a constant by her husband’s side in the advancement of the gospel,” Richards said. “Her musical talents and missionary zeal was only muted by her debilitating illness in the last few years of her life. She is now enjoying her eternal home she had secured by receiving Jesus as her Savior. My life was enriched beyond measure by my friendship with Lettie Perry. I look forward to seeing her again.”

Family will receive friends from 4 to 7 p.m. April 28 at Max Slayton Funerals and Cremations in Terrell, and from 4 to 7 p.m. April 29 at First Baptist Church of Malakoff. A graveside service will be held at 11 a.m. April 30 at Eastlawn Memorial Park in Early.

Nature’s revenge?

Is the created order hostile to mankind? This week saw tornados rip into several communities as cases of COVID-19 rose alarmingly around the world. The earth, innocent and elevated in the minds of some religions, harbors things dangerous to our lives. Pantheism, the belief that everything is God and popular in some Eastern religions, worships no personal god but rather the impersonal force of nature. What justice or purpose there might be in the universe is built-in, the same way gravity can punish someone careless enough to ignore it. Pantheism’s American denomination tends to worship nature as wiser and more benevolent than personal beings can be. It is the god of the environmental movement, whose radical wing refers to people as a virus and longs for pristine nature untainted by human interference. I’ve often wondered if radical environmentalists imagine themselves exempt from the “no humans allowed” rule. 

Catastrophe always leaves us with hard theological questions, but natural catastrophes would seem to be a particular challenge to those who consider nature worthy of worship. Pope Francis seemed to illustrate the confusion of modern pantheists when asked about God’s role in sending the coronavirus pandemic, “There is an expression in Spanish: ‘God always forgives, we forgive sometimes, but nature never forgives’ … I don’t know if these are the revenge of nature, but they are certainly nature’s responses.”

But nature is not our judge or the earth our lifeboat or created things our god; we must then have another guide, rescue and god. It is no surprise in the biblical worldview that a corrupted earth will sicken and kill corrupting mortals without any intent. The best the world bent by sin can do is breathtakingly flawed in its beauty and careless in its cruelty. We know why that happened. 

It started with us, the lords and ladies of creation—servants of the one Creator of all things. We, at our fall into sin, became the harbingers of predation and pestilence in the good creation. The animals dread us, the crops resist us and weeds and diseases—themselves perversions of something good—fight our lives and well-being. This is not because we are the enemies of creation but because we are its stewards.  

How strange to worship the things that cannot by the order of creation be better than we are. Thus, the world will not be healed until we are healed. Neither will the world be healed by any means except the means of our salvation. To remove mankind from creation altogether is no salvation for the created order. Cruelty and disease would continue without us. Creation would suffer then without hope. 

In a biblical personification more satisfying than that offered by Francis, Romans 8 tells us that suffering creation—which suffers because of our sin—“eagerly awaits the revealing of the sons of God.” That’s us. Creation will be delivered from corruption by our salvation, just as creation was delivered to corruption by our sin. 

So this earth is not our mother, or even our source. It can be a revelation of God (Romans 1:20) or a proving ground as we learn to follow God (Hebrews 12:1-2); it certainly is a stewardship for which we are accountable (Genesis 1:28). It cannot be our master. 

Pantheism as an organized religion, a private conviction or a political movement is the very definition of the sin described in Romans 1:25, serving and worshipping the creation rather than the Creator. It is therefore very much a part of the problem and no true answer to any question.

It is my hope that many who do not worship the God who made them will come to the end of themselves during this season of man. There is no hope in nature, and our own strength is laid low by something we can’t see without lab equipment. Modern as we are, our sense of autonomy and ability has taken a hard hit by weeks of involuntary isolation and doubt. All of us may come to the end of our own power. 

How easily our perceived ability to save or prosper ourselves has been stripped away. Some of us will never again be so self-assured as we were. We’re hearing reports of men and women seeking hope and finding it in Jesus. I expect believers and churches are also walking more humbly before God and gently toward mankind in this season of anxiety. 

Nature is as broken as we are, and for the same reason. But it does not punish us for our sins. It cannot forgive our sins. The problems we face are always essentially spiritual—whether disease or poverty. If we are laid low by these it is to drive us back to the God who alone can save us. That’s the lesson. That’s always the lesson.  

Online baptism, Lord”s Supper among webinar”s discussion topics

GRAPEVINE—Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have varied among pastors in the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

Bart Barber of First Baptist Church in Farmersville has performed a baptism since the congregation he leads stopped gathering in person, but he feels the Lord’s Supper should not be administered online. Pastor Nathan Lino hasn’t administered either ordinance since coronavirus scattered Northeast Houston Baptist Church, but he believes both are permissible online. Pastor Tony Mathews of North Garland Baptist Fellowship is concerned about nonbelievers potentially participating in an online Lord’s Supper, yet he suspects benefits will outweigh risks if the stay-at-home order drags on for months.

Those are just some of the views expressed April 23 in an SBTC webinar entitled “Online Ecclesiology: Worship Services, Preaching , Ordinances, Membership, and Social Distancing.” Joining Barber, Lino and Mathews in the discussion were SBTC executive director Jim Richards and Juan Sanchez, pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin.

Webinar panelists agreed that the biblical norm for a church is gathering physically and that the Baptist Faith & Message defines parameters of Southern Baptists’ doctrine of the church. But they differed over which church functions can be performed online during the COVID-19 pandemic, with congregations unable to assemble.

The discussion has taken on heightened relevance in recent weeks. By the end of March, just 7 percent of U.S. Protestant churches were still meeting in person, according to data from LifeWay Research. Only 8 percent of pastors were not providing video sermons or worship services. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott told residents to stay at home except for essential trips out beginning April 2, effectively pausing most church gatherings.

Panelists were unanimous that the pandemic has temporarily removed an essential element from church life.

“There is, in the physical gathering of a church, a supernatural presence and dynamic that is not present when the church is not gathered,” Lino said, citing Matthew 18:20. “We are still the church” despite physical separation, but believers are “missing out” whenever they are not able to assemble.

Richards went a step further, asserting “there really isn’t a church scattered. There are believers that are scattered,” but “the only time the church exists is when it’s together.” By definition, the Greek term for “church” in the New Testament (ecclesia) refers to “a called out assembly,” he said.

Webinar host Tony Wolfe, SBTC director of pastor/church relations, asked viewers in a poll whether they agreed that “for the local church of tomorrow to be effective in the Great Commission, she must integrate online ministries and activities with on-campus ministries and activities.” Of roughly 100 participants voting, 57 percent agreed, 39 percent disagreed and 9 percent were undecided.

All panelists disagreed with the statement in the poll question, citing online ministries as helpful in many circumstances but not demanded by Scripture.

Online ministry is “not required at all,” Mathews said. Still, North Garland began offering online worship services amid the pandemic, and they have yielded both additional attendees and new givers to the church. When physical services recommence, he said, “we have to be prudent” not to present online worship as an alternative to gathering with the church.

All panelists said it is not biblical to join a church and be considered a member in good standing without ever gathering with the congregation physically.

Regarding online baptism, webinar viewers were split but all panelists said the practice is permissible. In response to a poll question, 41 percent of viewers agreed it is “biblical” to video baptisms privately and share them with the congregation through an online platform. Thirty percent disagreed, and 28 percent were undecided.

In support of online baptisms, Sanchez cited “examples in Scripture where there were true baptisms” under “irregular circumstances” apart from a local church assembly—like the Ethiopian eunuch’s baptism beside a road in Acts 8:39. “Some flexibility” seems to exist in how a church administers baptism during the pandemic, he said, provided the congregation practices believer’s baptism by immersion and regards baptism as “the initiatory rite for the new covenant community.”

When discussion turned to administering the Lord’s Supper online, opinions varied among both viewers and panelists. Just 21 percent of viewers agreed it is “biblical to lead observance of the Lord’s Supper through an online platform with church members participating in their own homes.” Fifty-four percent disagreed, and 26 percent were undecided.

In expressing his openness to online administration of the Lord’s Supper, Lino cautioned that it “should take place under the authority of the local church.” He will “probably” observe the Lord’s Supper online if the stay-at-home order extends for months, but he wants to help Christians understand it is improper to observe the Lord’s Supper on their own, apart from a local church.

Barber grounded his opposition to online communion in a congregation’s responsibility to take the elements as a body.

Baptism can be administered online “because the function of the congregation is to witness the baptism” after affirming the new believer’s testimony of faith in Christ, he said. “But in the Lord’s Supper, we are partaking together and that is a different mode of participation for the congregation.”

All topics considered in the webinar “are tough issues,” Sanchez said. “Each pastor and each church leadership is responsible to the Lord for studying the Scriptures” and obeying according to their conscience. “We’ll all give an account.”

The full video from the event is available at https://training.sbtexas.com/onlinetraining

Scripture “speaks to the deepest needs” during pandemic

FORT WORTH  As people navigate the increased levels of fear prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, churches such as Christ Chapel Bible Church in Fort Worth are reaching out to offer the hope of the gospel through biblical counseling.  

Greg Cook, Soul Care pastor at Christ Chapel, said Scripture “speaks to the deepest needs of our hearts and our experience.” Soul Care primarily uses trained volunteers to minister along the lines of 2 Corinthians 1, he said, with people who have been comforted then comforting others. 

In Christ Chapel’s counseling ministry, volunteers lead people to “the Helper, the Counselor,” and discipleship drives the ministry, Cook told the TEXAN. 

“As we’re called to share the gospel with others, make disciples of them and send them out, there’s no difference between that and what we’re trying to do; it’s just a specific area,” Cook said.

All counseling is about change, Cook said, adding that the fundamental change a person needs is a restored relationship with God.

“For those who don’t know Christ, we try to introduce them to the real source of true comfort and peace because unless we’re restored to God, we can’t be restored well to others,” Cook said.

Soul Care, in part using curriculum from LifeWay Christian Resources, guides individuals and small groups through loneliness, fear, rejection, grief, addictions and struggles with purity, among other challenges.

“Oftentimes in the individual care process, I’m having others observe and learn how to do this work of caregiving,” Cook said. “It’s formal. I hope it translates to something more informal later on. We have a lot of dedicated volunteers who just give their time to listen and then hopefully speak biblical truth into each other’s lives.”

Christ Chapel has continued their small groups online during the pandemic. Their website includes an invitation for people to seek help, and they plan to offer more training online in the coming days.

“We have individual mentors, and they continue to make calls,” Cook said. “That ministry has continued. Part of our ministry is individual-based, part of it is small groups-based and part of it is training and equipping.”

Some of the classes Soul Care offers encourage people to think about the role of emotions, “and that opens people up to the idea of the heart as a focus of change, realizing our emotions are never disconnected from the rest of us. They’re closely connected to our desires and longings,” Cook said.

“How do we understand our angry responses, our fearful responses, our depressive responses in light of what the Scriptures say is true about us?” Cook said. “Of course we have hope because by the work of the Spirit we can be transformed and become more and more like Jesus. Those emotions can come under the control of the Spirit and the purposes of the Savior.”

Last year Soul Care served an estimated 750 people, and they typically have 20 to 30 lay counselors, Cook said. 

Cook reminds people of God’s sovereignty and his unchanging character during this uncertain time. 

“It’s helpful to know God is in control, and though this [pandemic-prompted] change represents a great threat to us, it’s never threatening to God. There’s a great hope in knowing the one who is unchanging is guiding us through, whether we can tangibly feel it or not,” Cook said. “He’s always presenting himself as a source of peace to us, and I think the peace comes from the knowledge of his character.”

Often, Cook said, the temptation to try to predict how things will go “only creates chaos.” 

“When I’ve struggled off and on with depression, it’s overwhelming fear and also a hopelessness,” he said. “Hopelessness is attention to a circumstance or our own power, so when I look to the person of God, his character always settles what’s unsettling to me. In other words, my focus is either on the circumstance or on the Savior.”

Churches meeting mental health needs brace for COVID-19 fallout

“Global pandemic.”

It’s a term that can strike fear in the hearts of anyone—even those who trust in God’s sovereignty. But for those living with mental health disorders the COVID-19 pandemic adds angst upon angst. And while the various stay-at-home orders may slow the spread of the virus, isolation and a break from normal routine accelerates the onset of anxiety and stress for some.

“Isolation is one of the breeding grounds for more anxiety and depression,” said Nicole Fitzpatrick, a licensed psychologist and director of counseling at Hyde Park Baptist Church Counseling Center. Depression and anxiety are two sides to the same coin she said.

Mike Schumacher said the months-long anxiety stoked by COVID-19—compounded by a ravaged economy—can exact a toll from once healthy lives and relationships. Schumacher, director of Sagemont Church Counseling Center, is a licensed professional counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist.

“I don’t think we’ve thought through the outcome,” Schumacher said of the pandemic and the government response.

Schumacher and Fitzpatrick spoke with the TEXAN in March as diagnoses of COVID-19 rose exponentially in some regions of the country and local and state governments ordered residents to stay at home and practice social distancing.

“It’s not only catastrophic just for a handful of people,” said Schumacher. “But all of us are going to have struggles. This is a chronic long-term traumatic situation. It’s going to have some long-term implications.”

Typically, Fitzpatrick meets virtually with 30-40 percent of her clients who live in Austin and around the world. But in March both counseling centers closed their doors to all in-person meetings and moved all client meetings to online or teleconferences.

‘It’s normal to struggle’

Since the days of the early church, Christians have sought to alleviate human suffering by caring for the sick, widowed and orphaned. Meeting physical needs opened the door for communicating the gospel and humanity’s fundamental need for redemption. But physical security and comforts could not assuage fears, anxieties and depression brought on by external circumstances or mental illness.

In the wake of the COVID-19 global pandemic, Fitzpatrick and Schumacher anticipate an increase in clients. Some will have pre-existing mental health problems. Some will be returning clients. Others with no diagnosed health issues may simply want help processing what has happened.

More than 30 years ago members of Hyde Park Baptist Church and Sagemont Church saw the need for mental health care in their respective communities. They opened counseling centers to offer healing along with the hope that is found only in Christ.

Christians “are not immune from struggle, from mental illness. It’s normal to struggle” Schumacher said. And after three decades of developing relationships in their communities and speaking to churches and ministry groups, he said, Christians increasingly view mental health care as part of overall health care. Fitzpatrick said most Christians recognize that caring for others —spiritually, mentally and physically—requires they care for themselves in the same way.

“You can’t pour from an empty vessel,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s not living truth. People see that.”

Mental health in the church, by the church

Biblical counseling and church-sponsored support groups play important roles in the church, Schumacher said, but some individuals also benefit from professional counseling. Effective lay counselors work in partnership with those counselors and can refer their clients for individual care.

The Austin and Houston centers treat the whole person with “Christ-centered” counseling. Their licensed counselors “… offer a broad range of expertise to treat conditions including addictive behavior, anxiety and depression, compulsive behavior and substance abuse. The centers also offer premarital and marriage counseling.”.

Their clients are children and adults. They are Christians and non-Christians. Most of Sagemont’s clients come from the congregation. Most of Hyde Park’s come from the community. Others are referred by their home churches and a network of individuals and ministries.

They struggle with a wide-range of mental health disorders, and are referred to staff members who specialize in specific areas of care.

Clients may meet with a counselor for a few sessions learning skills they can apply independently without further meetings. Others require long-term care—weekly sessions for a few years. Putting off counseling only exacerbates the problem and inevitably requires longer care, Schumacher said.

Their convictions about how clients might be perceived dictate where their ministries are located. The Sagemont Counseling Center is located off campus. Christians seeking mental health care should not have their struggles compounded by shame. Schumacher said his clients need the assurance that their visits will be unobserved by fellow church members or staff.

“It’s hard to share, ‘I’m struggling with depression or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and I’m not doing well,” he said. Many of the pastors and missionaries he sees have no confidant within their respective ministries and they “feel trapped” and want privacy.

Originally established off campus, the Hyde Park Counseling Center is now in the church building. First-time clients must pass through the church to get to the offices, reminding clients—if they were uncertain—of the ministry’s Christ-centered ethos. Returning clients are given a pass code to enter the offices from the street.

If the centers’ locations do not testify to the foundation of their work, the initial interview should leave clients with no doubt. They are asked about their faith and informed of the centers’ biblically-based approach to treating the whole person. Agreeing to that approach is part of the contract between client and counselor.

That approach is what draws most Christians to their facilities, Fitzpatrick and Schumacher said. Even non-Christians will concede to the approach. All of them are looking for answers.

“There’s a lot of hope in that,” said Fitzpatrick.

The counseling centers incorporate the gospel into their sessions but differ on the approach.

“We pretty much bring [the gospel] in immediately. Life is too short not to share the gospel,” Fitzpatrick said.

Schumacher said sometimes the preliminary interview does not adequately assess a client’s relationship with Christ. That requires each counselor to discern how to effectively intertwine the gospel into each session. His hope is that healing and spiritual growth occur simultaneously.

But some clients bring anger toward God or the church into the sessions he said. For them, forgiveness becomes part of the healing and spiritual growth process.

Both Sagemont Church Counseling Center and Hyde Park Baptist Church Counseling Center are part of their respective churches but their operational models differ. Sagemont Church offsets operational costs so counselors can charge a lower-than-standard rate.

Hyde Park Counseling Center is funded by the professional-rate fees they charge.

Neither center turns away prospective clients because they cannot pay. Hyde Park offers scholarships and both centers will work with individuals to establish affordable rates.

Identity in Christ

The Christian life is not one of ease Schumacher said. Messages from pastors and teachers that preach otherwise—especially during global chaos—can be destructive.

In March both counselors said fears of COVID-19, isolation and economic ruin will take their toll on people’s mental health—even for the most faithful Christians. And, as with the coronavirus, no one is immune from the contagions of fear and anxiety.

In that climate people long for normalcy and the human connection daily routines provide. Even with the ability to “over-connect” electronically, screen time does not replace the sense of community people need, especially in a time of crisis said Fitzpatrick. While grateful that technology allows them to continue counseling, both said returning to a normal schedule that includes in-person engagement will help relieve anxious clients.

“There’s going to have to be some healing after this,” said Fitzpatrick.

Remembering who is in control of everything can bring peace to anxious hearts and minds. Fitzpatrick said Romans 5 “brought freedom to my soul” and she wants to share that with her clients. When the world and their lives seem out of control, understanding who they are in Christ begins the healing process.

Pastors open up about mental health struggles

Two years ago, Micah Meurer’s lifelong struggle with mental health came to a head. Constant panic and anxiety attacks led to an eight-day hospitalization to get the psychiatric care he needed. Thankfully, through medication, counseling, a healthy lifestyle and walking with God, his mental health improved. He was even able to resume his duties as assistant pastor at Paramount Baptist church in Amarillo.

But his mental health journey didn’t end there. When an opportunity arose to preach at Paramount last summer, he knew what God was calling him to do. “I felt like the Lord wanted me to share my testimony,” said Meurer, who also serves as a field ministry strategist for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

He did, and the response was overwhelming. Of some 1,100 people in attendance at Sunday worship, more than 300 contacted Meurer about the sermon, including many who confessed their own struggles with mental health.

“I was a pastor and I’d gone through it,” he said. “So they felt like, ‘I can talk to him.’”

At least two other SBTC pastors have joined Meurer in sharing their struggles with mental health: Danny Forshee in Austin and Byron McWilliams in Odessa. They urge all pastors to speak openly about mental health—regardless of whether they struggle with it personally—because such openness creates opportunities for ministry.

Pastors & mental health

Mental illness is not uncommon among pastors. LifeWay Research found 23 percent of U.S. Protestant pastors say they have experienced some kind of mental illness, a percentage similar to the mental illness rate among the American population at large.

Over the past decade, the rate of mental illness has been met by emphases on mental health within both the Southern Baptist Convention and the SBTC. In 2013, the SBC adopted a resolution “on mental health concerns and the heart of God.” A year later the SBC Executive Committee formed a Mental Health Advisory Council.

Last year, the SBTC adopted a resolution “on mental health, the local church, and the need for gospel compassion.” The convention also held a panel discussion on mental health at its 2019 annual meeting in Odessa.

Attention also has been drawn to notable ministers, past and present, who have dealt with mental illness. The Puritans wrote much related to mental health, including Richard Baxter’s A Christian Directory, which chronicled hundreds of mental, emotional and spiritual problems he encountered in pastoral counseling. Some have speculated that 19th-century Baptist pastor Charles Spurgeon would have been diagnosed with clinical depression had he lived a century later. Pioneering American Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson likewise struggled through dark periods emotionally.

More recently, prominent Southern Baptist pastor Rick Warren addressed mental illness following the suicide of his adult son. Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California, fought to remove the stigma from mental illness after his son Matthew took his own life in 2013.

Yet despite the heightened emphasis on mental illness, many pastors don’t feel comfortable broaching the subject from their pulpits. According to LifeWay, 66 percent of pastors seldom speak to their congregations about mental illness. Health care professionals and pastors who have opened up wonder if enough ministers will address mental illness to improve mental health among churchgoers.

Chuck Hannaford, a Tennessee clinical psychologist who counsels ministers in his practice, told LifeWay Research pastors need not share the details of their diagnosis, but they may want to consider acknowledging that they struggle with mental illness.

“It’s a shame we can’t be more open about it,” Hannaford said. “But what I’m talking about is just an openness from the pulpit that people struggle with these issues and it’s not an easy answer.”

‘Even my pastor deals with this’

Forshee, pastor of Great Hills Baptist Church in Austin, has told the congregation about his longtime struggle with anxiety and depression. He also has preached a sermon on mental health at several guest speaking engagements over the past two and a half years. In addition, he has shared his mental health journey with the SBTC Executive Board, which he chairs.

Today, Forshee takes a mild anxiety medication daily and says his wife and the Holy Spirit “have kept me sane in ministry.” But he hasn’t always done so well. During a previous pastorate, he once pulled his vehicle off the road on the way to church and thought, “I don’t know if I’m going to make it into church to preach.” On another occasion, he had an anxiety attack while lying in bed and thought he was dying.

Sometimes church conflict brings on anxiety and depression, Forshee said. Sometimes heavy sadness and discouragement come on almost inexplicably.

“The pressures of ministry intensify” depression and anxiety, he said. “Oftentimes I’ve dealt with it on Sunday morning … It’s not nearly as frequent now. It used to be every Sunday morning.”

The clinical depression and anxiety disorders faced by these pastors are distinct from normal sadness and worry, even intense and prolonged sadness and worry. Some common symptoms led both Meurer and Forshee to conclude they were facing true mental illnesses. The sadness became debilitating, it didn’t wane when circumstances improved and it made them want to withdraw from people.

The problem is part physical, part emotional and part spiritual, Forshee explained. So the solution is multifaceted too. For Forshee, that has meant medication, exercise (marathons and triathlons specifically), observing a weekly Sabbath day and spiritual accountability.

He has discussed both the problem and the solution with the people he pastors.

“My being open and transparent about it empowers people,” Forshee said. “It lets people go, ‘Wow, I’m not alone. Even my pastor deals with this.’”

McWilliams’ struggle with anxiety hasn’t been a lifelong battle, like it has been for his two colleagues in ministry. But it has been intense and inhibiting. Four years ago, he began to feel the pressure of ministry in a new way. It hit him acutely on a hunting trip with his son while sleeping outdoors in 25-degree weather.

“I felt a sense of anxiety and panic that I’d never felt before,” said McWilliams, pastor of First Baptist Church in Odessa. Despite the freezing temperature, “I just had to come out of the sleeping bag because there was just a sense of great panic and dread and anxiety upon me.”

Initial healing for McWilliams came after the hunting trip when a fellow staff member at First Baptist came to his house and shared about his own struggle with mental health. Later, McWilliams called his doctor and learned other ministers experience similar mental health challenges. A major part of his recovery has been setting boundaries—like turning off his phone from early evening until morning, being more protective of his time during the day and relinquishing some control of First Baptist’s ministry to the staff.

McWilliams has come a long way from an earlier phase in his ministry, when he viewed people with mental illness as somehow weak or deficient.

“I can remember standing in the pulpit and preaching that if you can’t manage your anxiety and stress apart from taking medication, then there’s something wrong with you,” he said. “I realized how foolish and stupid I was … When somebody comes to me with anxiety now, I get it.”

McWilliams has applied his newfound knowledge by preaching a sermon series on overcoming anxiety, this time with rounded counsel about spiritual, emotional and medical solutions.

How to minister

When openness about mental health prompts other believers to confess their struggles, the three pastors said, there are several steps pastor can take. First, listen to their story.

“If a pastor loves his people, listens to them, shares the Word of God with them and just empathizes with them,” Forshee said, “that goes a long way.”

Second, pastors should know the reliable Christian counselors in their area and refer to them individuals dealing with mental illness, Meurer said. When necessary, a counselor can refer a patient to a psychiatrist for medical treatment.

Churches also can provide classes, books and other resources on mental health. Among the books the three SBTC pastors have found helpful:

  • Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness by Matthew Stanford
  • Walking on Water When You Feel Like You’re Drowning by Tommy Nelson and Steve Leavitt
  • The Emotionally Healthy Leader by Peter Scazzero
  • Leading on Empty by Wayne Cordiero

As for Meurer’s personal mental health, he continues to do well through a regimen of physical, spiritual and emotional care, including biweekly visits to a counselor. While he’s glad “God can redeem our struggles for his glory” in this life, he also looks forward to eternity—when mental illness will be no more.

“Mental illness is real and painful,” he said, “but our God is able.”