NASHVILLE (BP) – Attention to mental health across the country increased over the last year due to the potential effects brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a touchpoint, though, that has been gathering steam across the Southern Baptist Convention since 2013.
At the annual meeting in Houston that year, current SBC Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd – then as a messenger and pastor of Cross Church of Northwest Arkansas – submitted a resolution on “Mental Health Concerns and the Heart of God” that was passed overwhelmingly by messengers. The resolution, which came after a year of mass shootings and suicides that had rocked the nation, marked a significant moment for Southern Baptists’ attentiveness to the issue.
May is recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month. This month, Southern Baptists are urged to continue being mindful of others’ mental health as well as their own. Floyd’s words from 2013 still ring true.
“Jesus called us to care for the suffering, ‘the least of these,’” Floyd began in his presentation of the motion. “We often overlook them. At times, their lives are so disrupted and severe they require intervention. These people and their families are often isolated, stigmatized and rejected. They are referred to as ‘the mentally ill.’”
Floyd recounted the suicides of well-known Southern Baptists and others struggling with mental illness, a tragic occurrence that has continued since then. The response, he stipulated, is no less necessary than when a tornado hits a small town.
“When disasters occur, we do a phenomenal job as Southern Baptists in the middle of material and physical rubble,” he said. “Now it is time that we do as great of a job in our churches and our communities, demonstrating compassion in the emotional rubble that can be piled high in the people and their families who deal with mental health challenges.”
COVID-19, societal upheaval and a contentious presidential campaign were just a handful of factors making the last year a particularly tough one for pastors and their mental health. Baptist Press published 20 articles in that time on the subject, including one outlining “decision fatigue.”
“It’s been stressful, just, because there’s differences of opinion about what needs to be done,” said Richard Bray, pastor of Rock Hill Baptist Church in Lexington, Tenn. “We’ve got people in our church that don’t think you ought to wear a mask, and people that say ‘If you don’t wear a mask I’m not coming.’
“You’ve just got both ends of the spectrum. So probably the most difficult thing is trying to steer through the middle of this path without hurting people’s feelings.”
School closures and the lack, in many locales, of a return to in-person learning have also had a profound effect on the mental health of children and teenagers. A recent Time article cited the findings of surveys sent last summer to families in Chicago public schools. Among the findings, it reflected a 13.4 percent drop in students talking about plans for the future, 13.6 percent decline in positive peer relationships and 28.3 percentage increase of students saying they were lonely.
Shane Pruitt, executive director of Next Gen Evangelism at the North American Mission Board, applauded churches’ responses to the mental health of students in a column last fall. However, he encouraged diligence toward increasing those efforts.
“Our spiritual disciplines play a very important role in mental and emotional health – but some have clinical struggles that need additional attention,” Pruitt said. “Don’t underestimate the power of open, honest and vulnerable dialogue with the youth in your church about their worries, anxieties and fears.”