Struggles with mental health are a common human experience. Yet many in our congregations attest to feeling alone, ‘different’ or ill-equipped to address this reality with Scripture (p 71).
How do we even begin to approach such a personal and complicated issue that still holds stigma in our churches? How much should be left to the realm of professional counsellors and psychologists? How do we offer an appropriate pastoral response when people, situations and needs differ so greatly? How does this kind of care fit into the busyness of ministry and church life?
These are the concerns and questions that Helen Thorne and Dr Steve Midgley explore in their book, Mental Health and Your Church: A Handbook for Biblical Care (The Good Book Company, 2023). As they deploy the wisdom of the Scriptures and years of experience, the authors provide a comprehensive and practical handbook for biblical care (as the tagline suggests!)
The book is divided into three sections:
- Section 1: Understanding mental illness – introducing us to both the biblical and medical spheres of mental health. What does the Bible say about how our hearts and bodies are impacted by the world? What examples of depression and despair do we see in the Scriptures? What medications and therapies are available today?
- Section 2: What can we do? – taking us through practical steps we can consider and implement in our churches: i) The call to raise awareness ii) The call to relate iii) The call to remember iv) The call to refine and v) The call to practically resource. This section is helpfully concluded with a chapter on ‘Common questions’.
- Section 3: Caring in practice – utilising hypothetical, but relatable characters and situations, Thorne and Midgley apply the steps of the previous chapters to help us see what ‘care’ looks like in practice. Each chapter in this section covers a scenario with a different mental health struggle, for example anxiety, depression, addiction, psychosis, and caring for a carer.
Now, rather than breaking down every chapter (because you should read the book for yourself!), I thought I would share brief reflections on what I was personally helped and challenged by in my own care for others:
1) A catalogue of pain
Thorne and Midgley list an array of conditions, medications and therapies. Rather than being an intimidating reality, this became a helpful insight into the varying circumstances my parishioners may be struggling through. Not just as sufferers, but also as carers. The book provides a level of detail on the brokenness of our world and our bodies. Thorne and Midgley also point to the various experiences of God’s people in the Scriptures. From Moses, David, Job, Elijah and the prophets to the Apostle Paul, these servants experience raw mental, emotional and spiritual struggles that the Bible does not shy away from. This challenges the attitude that ‘mental illness [is] something that only happens to those whose faith is immature – as if a strong faith will prevent a person from ever becoming depressed’ (p 33).
With this reminder and by pointing out that mental health is more complex than we often may perceive, I found that this exposed something about my own heart: a lack of patience and empathy. The struggles that people face are not always obvious and straightforward. What is required is a listening ear, sincere curiosity, but most of all, great compassion.
2) A compassion like Christ
It is striking to me that the majority of the references to the word for ‘compassion’ in the New Testament are tied directly to Jesus! Reading Thorne and Midgley’s practical steps cemented in my mind the great need for a compassion like Christ.
For example, in their chapter on the call to relate (Ch 7), Thorne and Midgley argue:
…the Bible is clear that we are called to see those who are struggling as indispensible members of the congregation, who are worthy of special honour (1 Cor. 12:23). It’s worth letting that sink in for a moment: that precious image-bearer who is so very burdened is a priority, and they are absolutely worth the time and energy that we pour into them (p 85).
This call to relate to others and to bear each other’s burdens makes clear that this kind of Christlike, sacrificial love comes from a community of care.
3) A community of care
In their chapter on raising awareness (Ch 6), the authors suggest that:
Any good pastoral response will involve a multifaceted approach, but the best and simplest place to begin is to raise awareness: to help people know that what they are experiencing is within the bounds of normal human experience, that they are not alone, and that there is hope and help both in the Lord and through his people (p 71).
This can be done on a church-wide level through sermons and Bible studies (where appropriate), through dedicated information evenings, through your church bookstall or testimonies shared from the front. Many more strategies, resources and approaches are outlined throughout the book, but as those who serve the God of comfort and Father of mercies (2 Cor 1:3), just imagine the kind of care and compassion that is possible when we are thoughtful and intentional in this space!
Thorne and Midgley certainly offer a practical, realistic and accessible resource for the church here. While some might want a more in-depth treatment of the issue of mental health, this book helpfully addresses a pervasive, but often taboo, subject. The Bible’s vision of the church should continue to undergird our pursuit of caring well for one another.