Tag Archives: clergy

A Personal Perspective: The Mentally Ill in the Pews

By Rev. Dr. Scott Rosenthal

There seems to be a grave misunderstanding about the nature and cause of mental illness in the church today. Leaders often imply that sin or a lack of faith is the primary cause. This leads the sufferers to blame themselves, feel extremely guilty, and miss out on experiencing the love and compassion of God.

As one who has lived with Bipolar Disorder for over a decade I have become particularly sensitive to this subject. I have been an active church member, minister, counselor, and student of faith-based mental health.

Admittedly, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause of mental illness. There are so many factors that can contribute to its existence. However, research over the last decade is revealing that there is a strong biological correlate. Studies conclusively show that the majority of cases are tied to a chemical imbalance in the brain. Most mental illness is now thought to arise due to physiological causes in the body. In this light, it is no different from any other physical disease such as cancer or hypertension. Patients with biologically based illnesses are not blamed for their condition. Nor should we blame the mentally ill for what is now believed to be largely a disorder of the brain. There is a huge genetic factor that predisposes me to develop mental illness. I have inherited genes from both sides of my family that are responsible for bipolar disorder.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t environmental, spiritual, or personal responsibility factors to be considered. It is wise to investigate all possible causes. When it comes to self-help, there are certainly things we can do to cope and deal with illness more productively. For example the heart patient may need to improve his diet to ensure longevity. The depressed patient may need to seek social support to fight isolation. But the point is — we don’t blame the medically ill for their condition. Nor should we accuse the mentally ill of causing their own problems.

Unfortunately, over the years I have heard and read countless messages from clergy and Christian leaders that cause me great discouragement, self-blame, and a host of negative conclusions about myself.

How does this happen? Often Bible verses are cited as the definitive solution for problems with our behavior, emotions, or thinking. Either a lack of faith or personal sin are often cited as reasons we are not experiencing victory.

For example the admonition to “Count it all Joy” has been used as a prescription for mental health. If we fail to experience Joy, we must be failing to follow God’s will. Similarly, it is implied that the devout Christian will experience countless benefits such as happiness and peace. For example, the fruit of the spirit is often held out as the result of Christian maturity. It’s easy to conclude that if we are experiencing sadness, despair, and hopelessness then we must be missing God somewhere.

Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety make it difficult to experience the positive benefits of following Christ. We wonder if we are just not living the Christian life “right.” When we hear messages that imply we must be doing something “wrong” we feel like the speaker is shooting bullets at our wounded souls. Mental illness predisposes us to think and feel more negatively than would otherwise be experienced by the healthy person.

We already feel tremendous shame and stigma from a society that shuns mental illness. When we hear messages that reek of blame, we feel ostracized. We already criticize ourselves too much for not being able to receive healing. The last thing we need to hear or read from Church leaders is the implication that we are responsible for not enjoying the fruit of the spirit, experiencing healing, or feeling the emotional benefits of heeding biblical promises.

When we hear or read accusatory comments it adds tremendous guilt to the guilt we already feel for not being able to pull ourselves out of a dark pit. The messages we typically hear feel like condemnation for falling short of the will of God. This compounds our suffering. Most of us with mental illness are already trying diligently to find solutions for the pain we feel.

What we desperately need are messages and examples of God’s compassion, understanding, and empathy. We need to embrace the fact that Jesus came to earth to rescue the brokenhearted and offers strength in our weakness. We long to hear more about the forgiveness, grace, unconditional love, and mercy God offers. He invites us to draw near to Him to experience His approval and empathy.

In the church, we need to feel included and accepted as viable members just the way we are. This is the place where we can find enduring hope, warm fellowship, and unconditional love as embodied by its congregants.

The church is ideally positioned to minister to the depressed and anxious. The mentally ill are an ideal mission field. One out of every four church members will experience mental illness, either personally or in the life of a loved one. Once leaders understand and embrace those with psychological problems, they will realize that this population is ripe for the Good News. We need to hear the message that God accepts us just the way we are. Our relationship with Him does not depend on our acting “normal” or feeling a certain way. He wants to walk with us every step we take in our journey of faith.

This isn’t to accuse clergy of missing the boat. It has already been stated that blame causes tremendous harm. There isn’t much training available to prepare church leaders to respond to the concerns of the mentally ill. So let’s invite them to listen to the plight of this special population and seek to meet their unique needs in a variety of ways. Each one of us can play a part in helping our congregations become all God wants them to be.


I Trust When Dark My Road

Blog by the Rev. Todd Peperkorn (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod), author of the book by the same name. A short article about the book appeared in the July 2009 issue of EMIN News.

Interview with Barbara Crafton

An interview with the Rev. Barbara C. Crafton on her 2009 book Jesus Wept: When Faith and Depression Meet. (Published by Jossey-Bass, ISBN 97-0-470-37195-4)

EMIN: What prompted you to write Jesus Wept? Did an event or something specific prompt you?
Barbara: I have been a lifelong sufferer [of depression.] In thirty years of doing retreats, there has always been someone with depression who was seeking help. I have knowledge from a religious aspect and personal information about the illness.
Sharing both aspects has worked well, and I thought others would think so too. I was in a place with the Geranium Farm to ask readers to share their experiences of coping with depression. A large number of eloquent stories came in. I was delighted with the response.
EMIN: Please say something about facing the hard reality that having a mental illness is a long-term situation?
Barbara: It is difficult for us to come to understand that it [a mental illness] is chronic. We can control and manage it. Having a mental illness is part of life, an unfortunate part of life. We want a cure. Ordinarily, you don’t get a cure, but you do get help. We are blessed today to have something with which to manage it.
EMIN: What do you have to say to people who have depression, but want to get off their medication?
Barbara: I would say that the time is long past when any Christian needs to hesitate to seek professional help. It is no sin to have this disorder. It is not helpful to not do what you can do. It is your disease talking when you think you can’t do anything about it. It’s been a long time since thinking like that made any sense at all.
People think having a mental illness is shameful – nonsense! It is a source of major suffering. I’m on a bit of a crusade. I want people to serve God with everything they have. If they are bleeding inside, they can’t do that.
EMIN: Why do you think we feel shame when we have a mental illness?
Barbara: The Bible has a lot of ancient belief that illness is a result of sin. Fundamentalist see it as one’s own fault or we have no right to do something about it. We have chosen what we decide to believe from scripture. It is time to be discerning and careful about what we want scripture to do. It is not a recipe book. The ancient teaching about suffering being from sin has been thoroughly discredited, but it is easy for us to fall back into that.
EMIN: What are some tools our faith offers us when we face mental illness?
Barbara: We do have healing resources in scripture. We have reliance on God, We have hope in hopeless situations. We have our communities, a powerful sense of community for wholeness.
In prayer we have a resource and honesty; truth in prayer is powerful.
We have the teaching of resurrection from the jaws of death.
We have tools sufficient without leaning on those which are not.
EMIN: Do you have any suggestions for family members and friends of persons facing mental illness? What helps? What hurts?
Barbara: Recognize that the sufferer has a God too, and it’s not you. We can’t take responsibility for someone else’s journey, for their walk with God.
We have no duty to help them stay sick, but we can’t do it for them.
Part of depression is thinking that we don’t have any lines in our own play. Our power is limited, but we do have lines. We have to find courage to find and speak them. That will go a long way toward our own healing. We can get out of God’s way.
Call 911 if someone threatens suicide. If he does resist, it is not your fault. His death is his own. Depression is a Disease that kills.
EMIN: Since writing Jesus Wept, have you had any strange or negative reactions from people who weren’t aware of your illness?
Barbara: People have been surprised, maybe naïve, a little shocked. This plays into my hands. If they are shocked, I’ve got their attention. I can point out that they have never known me not on antidepressants. Then they can know that the drugs don’t make me a zombie. If a religious leader can be candid, it is very helpful. This is a Call within a call that I didn’t know I had.

Barbara Cawthorne Crafton is an Episcopal priest, spiritual director, and author. She is the founder and head of the Geranium Farm, www.geraniumfarm.org, an online institute for the promotion of spiritual growth, which publishes The Almost-Daily eMo from the Geranium Farm, read by thousands of people worldwide.

Well Known Priest and Writer Shares Her Own Experience With Depression

Jesus Wept: When Faith and Depression Meet

The Rev. Barbara C. Crafton

Published by Jossey-Bass 2009

ISBN 978-0-470-37195-4

The Rev. Barbara C. Crafton has written an important book for EMIN News readers and all who have or love someone with debilitating depression.

The following synopsis comes from the dust jacket:

“Depression is the sapping of spiritual strength and joy, the graying of everything.” —From the Prologue

Drawing from her personal experiences and those of hundreds of others, Episcopal priest Barbara Cawthorne Crafton explores what it means for a person of faith to suffer from depression. Just as no two people are the same, the experience of depression is unique to every individual.

Depression’s mark on each soul can perplex or even annoy loved ones, friends, and family, while at the same time they want very much to help.

All too often religious people face unique challenges when depression sets in. Jesus Wept explains that faith can be enormously helpful and comforting or can seriously hinder the healing process.

Communities of faith and ill-advised teachings can leave sufferers feeling abandoned. They wonder, “Where are the joys and comforts of faith and the power of prayer? How can I trust God? My depression is a sign that I have disappointed God!”

Offering hope to those who suffer, Crafton shows how a life of faith can bring together unique resources for dealing with the dark night of the soul. The ancient practice of prayer, which has taken sorrow seriously for thousands of years, can be a powerful elixir for the spirit, Supportive religious teachings can offer a powerful hope for resurrection and healing. Faith can build a community that, at its best, enshrines love and welcome to the poor in spirit.

Jesus Wept is a valuable resource for those who are finding their way through the darkness of soul and spirit—or for those who care for them.

Barbara C. Crafton is an Episcopal priest, spiritual director and author. She is the founder and head of the Geranium Farm, www.geraniumfarm.org, an online institute for the promotion of spiritual growth which publishes The Almost-Daily-eMo from the Geranium Farm, read by thousands of people worldwide.

In a chapter titled “A Learning Experience,” Crafton writes:

“The pain is a memory now, but that thought can still produce a shudder. I don’t ever want to feel like that again.

“Or perhaps that frightful era just past wasn’t a demon at all. Perhaps it was a teaching tool, a means by which I was strengthened in wisdom about the very nature of the human self. Was it purposed to teach me about my many blessings by allowing me to experience their privation, in case I ever started taking them all for granted? In truth, I have been educated by having survived depression, by the memory of its dreadful emptiness. I do feel glad just to breathe the air without feeling its dead weight on my chest. I do have a more nuanced view of God than a simple equation of God’s presence with my own well-being, not that I had ever put much stock in that equation anyway. And it certainly has taught me what a blessing ‘normal’ is. I don’t ever want to feel like that again.” (pp. 16–17)

Note: The Rev. Barbara Crafton has consented to be interviewed by EMIN News about this new book. The article will be published in the Winter 2009 issue.

New Book—I Trust When Dark My Road: A Lutheran View of Depression

From long-time EMIN supporter, Fr. Chet Watson of California, comes news of a book recounting the struggles and triumphs of a Lutheran pastor dealing with clinical depression.

Pastor Tom Peperkorn tells of “wearing the mask” of appearing fine while facing the internal difficulties of this serious illness.

As Fr. Chet points out, it is rare to have a male perspective from an ordained minister. Many will find Pastor Peperkorn’s honest story helpful in understanding depression from the inside out.

Each chapter concludes with a prayer and relevant discussion questions.

For more information on the free 100-page book and to see the blog that Pastor Peperkorn started before he made his depression public and still keeps current today, visit www.darkmirrored.org www.darkmyroad.org.

The Reverend Chet Watson: Warrior and Saint

By Barbara Justus

To describe the impact the Reverend Chet Watson has had on mental health ministry in this country is a daunting task.

Since his son was diagnosed with a serious mental illness 17 years ago, Fr. Chet has been both warrior and saint on behalf of those with mental illnesses and their families.

Whether he is soothing the battered hearts of those with mental illnesses or challenging policymakers or fellow clergy to open their eyes to how critical mental health issues are, Fr. Chet leaves a big wake wherever he goes.

Perhaps author, colleague and friend, the Reverend Jim Stout, has summed up the impact of Fr. Chet’s ministry most eloquently. Reverend Stout, a Presbyterian pastor who has served churches from 300–4,700 members around the nation, was diagnosed with a mental illness many years ago.

Rev. Stout says:

I’ve known Chet Watson for over 15 years. He has been a strong and sensitive mentor to me. His influence has extended to his community, county, the state of California and the nation… via his leadership and service on various boards such as NAMI CA (National Alliance on Mental Illness), NAMIFaithnet, antistigma and various other community activities, including the establishment of a 80-bed facility in a residential neighborhood. While he is unapologetically Episcopalian, he has worked extremely effectively with believers of all faiths, across denominational lines… and with nonbelievers as well.

I don’t know how this truly humble man has done so much for those affected by mental illness in his church community, state and nation… He is, above all, a man of great faith and a man who deeply cares for the people with mental disabilities and their families!

If we could clone Fr. Chet and plant him in every diocese across the country, the state of mental illness ministries in the Episcopal Church would be much healthier. However, since we must bring the mountain to Mohammed, Fr. Chet was kind enough to share his experiences and advice with EMIN readers.

So enjoy the interview and show it to your fellow parishioners if you want to start or enhance a mental health ministry in your congregation.

EMIN: Did you ever dream that your life’s ministry would ultimately focus on advocacy for those with mental illness?
Fr. Chet: No. However, I do remember when I was 12 years old and my younger brother was deathly ill, I made a promise to God that I would give my life to Him if He would save my brother.
My life has been a good lesson about making (and keeping) one’s promises, particularly to God!
I was ordained to the Diaconate in 1980. Nine years later, I entered seminary and was ordained a priest in 1991 by the recently retired Bishop William Swing. Bishop Swing has been a great supporter of EMIN and other mental illness ministries. The Rev. Richard York, my predecessor, encouraged Bishop Swing to create one of the few Commissions on Mental Illness (COMI) in the Episcopal church. This was to fulfill the General Convention Resolution in 1991 on mental illness.
After the Rev. York died in 1994, all eyes turned on me when the question of leadership was raised at the next COMI meeting and that’s how I became chair of it.
EMIN: What are the most important things you think a congregation can do to make their church a welcoming place for those with mental illness?
Fr. Chet: From my answers to your questions, you will be able to tell that I consider the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) a critical resource for any mental illness ministry, secular or religious.
So here are my candid recommendations.

  • If you wait for the vicar or rector to bring the subject up, think again.
  • Know that you are not alone. Save your energy and use all the resources your local NAMI chapter can provide—mental illness is their business 24/7. Have someone from the congregation attend a NAMI meeting to get a feel for the ministry you are about to embark on.
  • Rate your church. You can find a checklist at the EMIN website: www.eminnews.org. (Click the tab on the left hand side of the homepage that says “Take Action.”)
  • Plan events in May, and which is Mental Health Month, and during Mental Illness Awareness Week in October.
  • Write an article about mental illness in your church publication. EMIN has a section on its website, www.eminnews.org. Click on “Take Action” and follow the links to “The Printed Word.”
  • Add this phrase to the Prayers of the People, “We pray for those who live with mental illness, their caregivers and their families.”
  • Call the local NAMI and offer space for a support group. This is known as “walking your talk.”
  • Prepare yourself for stigma. You will be shocked. Be gentle in your education efforts; remember, at one time you were not very aware until someone shared with you.
EMIN: How can one person jumpstart a mental illness ministry at their church?
Fr. Chet: First, I would get as many people involved as you can. Put together a written plan, get the support of your clergy, and then present it to your congregation’s governing board. Again, I suggest turning to NAMI for ideas. The Family to Family class is a good start, a turnkey program you can put on at your church.
Publicize mental health issues in bulletins, minutes for mission. NAMI has a powerful program called “In Our Own Voice,” a speaker’s bureau of persons with mental illnesses who are able to articulate their experiences eloquently.
Learn about stigma and how to combat it. Join NAMI StigmaBusters. And, perhaps most important, be patient. People only know what someone has taught them and mental illness is a scary topic for lots of people.
EMIN: What do you feel families need most when a loved one is diagnosed with a mental illness?
Fr. Chet: Friendship. Empathy, not sympathy. Understanding, not judgment or advice. Mental illness is not a “casserole disease.” And please watch your language. You may mean well, but stigmatizing language surrounding mental illness is rampant and it is very hurtful. A touch on the arm or shoulder speaks for you.
Those of us who have family members with mental illness have had enough advice from family and friends. True friends know it is okay not to speak.
EMIN: What would you like to see the National Church do differently concerning mental illness?
Fr. Chet: Many things come to mind but the foremost is to remove the page in The Book of Occasional Services, concerning exorcism. The Diocese of California submitted a resolution to General Convention 2003, Resolution C038, concerning stigma and abuse by clergy towards persons with mental illnesses, but it got referred to a committee where it will never be seen again.
The Church has been silent much too long. A good example is the lack of funding for the EMIN, the only publication and voice in the entire church advocating for the mentally disabled. We have a long ways to go to catch up with other faith communities.

About Fr. Chet

Fr. Chet is known as “The Walking Padre” because of his incredible success in raising money for mental illness through walkathons. For the past two years, he coordinated the NAMI Walks of San Francisco Bay. In 2005, the Walk raised $267,727. In 2006, the Walk raised $259,313. Save the date for the 3rd Annual NAMI Walk to be held on May 12, 2007, in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Check out www.namiwalksfbay.org.