My leadership and mental health

Emotional health and the church

Every single one of us participates in the daily activity of balancing life’s stresses with the emotional resources available to us. We will usually do this unconsciously, in the same way that our bodies prompt us to replace energy lost through physical activity. We all have emotional health issues, just as we have physical health issues. Some people are largely able to take their wellbeing for granted; others will need to make particular efforts to stay well; still others may need to receive much more comprehensive care to live a full life.

Whilst society has become increasingly conscious of promoting investment in physical wellbeing through diet and exercise, far less has been done to encourage investment into emotional and mental wellbeing. We acknowledge the 1:4 statistic – that 25% of adults will suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in their life. However, this very statistic can mislead us into thinking of mental health concerns as something that affect the minority, instead of recognising that mental health is a concern for humanity in general.

As Christians, we are motivated to care not just for those who are currently suffering from mental illness, but to see unity in the body as a whole. Paul reflects this unity in 1 Corinthians 12:26 when he says: ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.’

Both Livability and Mind and Soul have encountered a significant and yet unspoken disunity in the body of the church where mental health is concerned. All too often we have seen those in greatest need overlooked or even ostracised because their suffering either does not conform to the theological outlook of the community, or because it creates too much anxiety for the broader church family.

There are many ways in which we can address the ‘dismembering’ of our churches on this issue but primarily all begin with ‘remembering’ Jesus’ own mission. The story of Zacchaeus contains many parallels to our intentions here: it demonstrates the impact of stigma, isolation and exclusion and also the power of connection, trust and inclusion. Ultimately, as Luke 19:10 states succinctly: ‘The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.’

The work of ‘remembering’ the community begins by identifying what is lost:

When we are lost to ourselves
Being ‘lost to ourselves’ has two distinct meanings within this context. The first is what we would describe as a lack of self-awareness or self-understanding: when we have failed to engage with our own mental processes or acknowledge our own emotions, we are more likely to both stigmatise others and suffer surprising setbacks ourselves.

All leadership carries acute pressures and stressors that will provoke reactions within our emotional worlds. Whilst not all leaders will experience mental health issues, all leaders benefit from intentional mental self-care. This enables healthy leadership to be both lived by us and experienced by others. Find out more on this site about how you can live well in leadership.

The second aspect of being ‘lost to ourselves’ is specifically within the experience of mental health problems. For some people, the dramatic onset of panic, anxiety or depression will give them a very strong sense that they have ‘lost themselves’. Of course, while this is objectively untrue, some familiar emotions may be unavailable to them for a time. For those experiencing psychotic symptoms, there may be equally intense distress and confusion during times of lucidity. Being treated differently by others, particularly by family or church, hugely exacerbates this anxiety and sense of disquiet.

Church carries a specific call to ‘seek and save’ when we are lost to ourselves by providing a ‘holding’ community. One that is reassuring, non-judgemental, patient and familiar.

When we are lost to each other
To return to Luke 19, we see Zacchaeus separated from Jesus by the suspicion and prejudices of the crowd. This sense of being ‘lost to each other’ is a common one where mental health is concerned.

Very often, well-meaning leaders have theologised away the genuine mental suffering of individuals in their care by taking scripture out of context. These simplified messages are absorbed by the wider community and then embodied as principles (and prejudices).

Let’s take 1 John 4:18 as a classic example. In the face of anxiety, the leader states: ‘Perfect love drives out fear. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.’ The anxiety sufferer hears: ‘I am fearful; I am not made perfect in love. God clearly doesn’t love me. Perhaps I am not really saved.’

The actual text has nothing to do with general anxieties: ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.’ John is addressing the very specific fear of punishment for sin, which is removed by Christ’s death. Therefore, if you still fear punishment, you are unaware of the love of God in Christ (that is, not made perfect in love). For the anxious Christian believer, this verse offers little remedy, apart from reaffirming that there is one thing (punishment for sin) that they don’t need to be concerned about!

Leading our communities responsibly must involve teaching to ‘remember’ not ‘dismember’. This may mean that we seek to identify the implications of our theological positions for the whole community, including those with mental health issues. It may also be that we need to directly address superstitious beliefs, assumptions about ‘demonic’ activity and general misconceptions around particular disorders. The detailed guides in this resource will give you both specific information and an ethos to reference your leadership with.

When we feel lost to God
Even the most enthusiastic Christians experience seasons of doubt and dislocation in their faith. For most, these periods of struggle are simply seasons, rather than extended periods of months or even years.

The specific psychological impact of particular mental health conditions can be to literally ‘switch off’ portions of our brains responsible for ‘feeling’ faith. As a result, many previously faith-filled members of the church community can feel ‘lost to God’.

Paul offers some comfort in Hebrews 11:1 when he says: ‘Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.’ But even the smallest ‘confidence’ and ‘assurance’ can seem lost in the depths of a depression.

Objectively nothing has changed: God is still God regardless of our feelings about him. At the same time, particular traditions place more emphasis on feelings and experiences – and as a result, members of their communities may feel especially distressed during times of mental ill health.

Developing a leadership that is more inclusive of those suffering mental illness must be one that does not only look for faith solutions to psychological problems. It must be fully incarnational, where we minister with our hands and feet as much as through our thoughts and feelings. It may be that rather than seeking to restore someone’s faith during a period of depression, we seek to affirm a faith that they will not be able to ‘feel’. This could look very practical indeed, but it will be no less profound.

Celebrating God’s ministry through us

These opening reflections are fuelled by the excitement and confidence we carry in the power of the Church and the love of God to minister to those suffering with mental illness. We firmly believe that the Bible is filled with deep and often practical wisdom about these issues, and that the leadership of God’s Church is uniquely compassionate and positioned to love and serve.

Whilst we may use some examples here of weaker practice to inform learning, the broad and continued service of the church community to those in emotional distress is unparalleled in the world today. Our history is rooted in pioneering care and treatment in this area and, while we can all appraise and develop our leadership, we should not miss out on celebrating God’s ministry through us.

Equally, regardless of our specialist skills, our denomination or theological emphasis, we acknowledge that this is ultimately a work of Jesus Christ, who came to seek and save what was lost, and who invites us to do likewise in his name.