JL: From a broad perspective, what would you say the state of mental health in the church is right now?
MS: In general, we’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go. There’s still a significant stigma about mental health and Christian counseling. We take very seriously that not everybody who calls themselves a Christian or a Christian counselor actually approaches counseling from a Christ-centered perspective. I do think we’re establishing more and more credibility in our church and in our community.
Just to put some context to this, I’ve got 14 counselors here in our counseling center—all licensed professional counselors. We see about 500 appointments a month—that’s a huge number of people. I say that just to give you some perspective of the need and the growth of this ministry. The numbers are growing and our ministry is growing, which I think is a good sign that the community at-large and our church is recognizing the need for what we provide. It’s a constant battle educating people about the reality of mental health issues. Normalizing the struggle is a big part of what we like to try to do.
JL: I know there’s no easy answer for this, but why do you think that stigma exists?
MS: That’s a really good question. I did a message here a while back at Sagemont trying to communicate this very thing and illustrating various characters in the Bible.
I focused a lot on Elijah and his struggle with depression and, frankly, suicidal ideation. I also illustrated the struggles that Paul alludes to, that even Jesus alludes to—a kind of emotional distress that was not uncommon even for him in his humanity. There’s a few points I think I would emphasize about why there’s this stigma.
I think some of it, unfortunately, is a certain amount of bad theology, to tell you the truth. Most of us evangelicals are aware of and cautious of the prosperity gospel, in terms of financial prosperity. But I think we as Southern Baptists and evangelicals have fallen prey to an emotional prosperity gospel. In other words, if you get saved, if you pray, if you’re active in reading the Bible and you go to church regularly and you serve and you give, then you should be living a victorious Christian life that doesn’t include struggle. Obviously, those [spiritual discplines] are all relevant and important, but I contend that there is a kind of overpromising that I think pastors and teachers are a bit guilty of. I think even with the best of intentions, there’s a tendency to emphasize that if you walk seriously in the faith, your marriage will be great, your kids will be great, and you will be psychologically and emotionally healthy. That is not the reality for a lot of people.
What we’re saying is, that sinfulness of the fall—the depravity, the radical corruption—infiltrates every part of our life. It affects us relationally, psychologically, spiritually, neurologically, physically. So we’re trying to approach mental health much more comprehensively than a lot of the more simplistic thinking that exists out there about what it takes to be healthy.
JL: In Western culture, the idea is often that we’re supposed to achieve, we’re supposed to climb, we’re supposed to rise to the top. But that kind of thinking seems to clash with the message of Christ, who says, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
MS: It’s a bit paradoxical. I think it gets back to even why there’s a stigma, because I agree with you—I deal with all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds every day in my office and I think there is more and more recognition that, because of the radical corruption of sin and the fall, we all walk with a limp. I mean that figuratively, but it’s a very profound notion to get your head around as a Christian, as opposed to the message that if you’re a Christian you don’t have any limp at all and life should be great. I just don’t think that’s biblically true, theologically correct, and certainly it’s not practically evident.
JL: Can you give me a general sense of what kinds of struggles you’re seeing among leaders right now?
MS: Church leaders are dealing with so many of the same kinds of normal things that everyone else is. We see a lot of depression. Discouragement among pastors and staff is high because sometimes the expectations are so high. They struggle with a lot of performance anxiety, which I think of as “encore anxiety”—you know, “What are you going to do next time to make it bigger and better?”
We see a lot of addictions in church leaders and pastors. We’ve got a lot of pastors that are struggling with sexual addictions … social media can be quite addictive, in its own right. So many pastors are just struggling with the normal emotional issues that we all do, like fears of rejection and failure. Those kinds of things are so real in the lives of so many pastors who feel pressure to feed the monster—building the congregation and meeting the budget and attracting people. I do a lot of marital work and I see a lot of pastors and church leaders who look really good on the stage or behind the pulpit, but their marriages and their families are falling apart—for all kinds of reasons that yours or mine could, too, but with the additional stresses and strains, the expectations, the time and the energy—it’s really difficult.
JL: Among those pastors and church leaders who seem to be turning a corner and improving, what are some of the commonalities you’re seeing?
MS: First, they’re reframing their expectations. That’s a good place to start. They’re coming to the realization that, “If I’m struggling, I’m not weird, I’m not messed up, I’m not crazy and, frankly, I’m more normal than the people who are not struggling.” Just getting your head around that can help validate the struggle.
I think another big part of what helps people get better is when they’re heard—whether it’s a good friend or a therapist or a mentor—somebody you trust enough to be open and authentic with, to share the real you. Get in the company of someone you trust that you can be radically honest with. I don’t know of many people or pastors who wouldn’t benefit from having a good friend or mentor or professional counselor. I’ve got my people that I have to talk to that give me perspective and let me vent and hurt and wrestle and be messy. I think those pastors and leaders who are making progress have that kind of open and honest relationship with someone else, too.
It takes a lot of guts for a pastor or a staff member to show up at a counseling center and admit that he or the family or the marriage is a mess. That takes a humility and a vulnerability, and I don’t think that’s easy. It may be hard to find that person, but that’s such a crucial part of good mental health and self-care—having someone who can speak into your life. If you don’t have that, you’re going to die on the vine. If you don’t have someone filling up your cup, you can give out of your cup for a while, but you’re eventually going to run dry.
Mike Schumacher is an ordained minister and associate pastor at Sagemont Church in Houston. He has been the director of the Sagemont Counseling Center since 2001.