The debate over mental health in the church was alive this week on Twitter after a pastor posted a thread of comments attacking psychology and calling mental illness “SIN” (his emphasis). After weighing in on the conversation, I tweeted some thoughts. One tweet got a lot of attention: “For every pastor equating mental illness with sin, there are so many more partnering with therapists to bring wellness to those suffering.” It was a message of hope, and it resonated with many who are also seeing the tides turn on this nearly 50-year-old schism.
One of the distinctives of the Church Therapy model is the team approach connecting pastors and therapists. Both roles work seamlessly together to come alongside people who are seeking to grow spiritually and emotionally. Of course I advocate for an increase in the number of churches who bring licensed therapists on staff, but that is not the only way to build a partnership. If you are a counselor and you obtain authorization from the client, you can reach out to their pastor. Pastors, you can reach out to counselors (who will at that point have to have the client sign a release before returning your call).
So what should pastors and counselors talk about? Can they even speak the same language to understand the issues going on for the client? Here are three ways pastors and counselors can get on the same page:
Start With The Client’s Goals
Both pastors and therapists need to remember that the work is not about them. The work is about the client’s process of growth. Start the conversation by talking about what the person has said to each of you about what they want to work on. As an example, let’s imagine a case in which a person is struggling with social anxiety. The therapist could share with the pastor some information about this disorder and ways they are using relaxation or cognitive-behavioral strategies to decrease anxiety symptoms. The pastor could offer insight about ways this anxiety may have manifested at church so that the therapist has a more clear sense of the impact of symptoms. Both could offer thoughts on what the process of healing or change would look like for the person. What would you each notice as emotional and spiritual growth? What do you each see as the problem areas or root causes of issues? Remember, use your perspectives to collaborate instead of debate. You each have something important to offer as you help the person.
Make A Two-Part Plan
Wraparound treatment provides help from multiple angles. What can the pastor do to help the person grow spiritually and connect better at church? What can the therapist do to see the church context as a safe space for the client to practice skills and grow? Sometimes traditional discipleship models have cracks through which those with mental health difficulties fall. Could the therapist and the pastor come up with accommodation ideas that could help the client succeed both emotionally and spiritually? Additionally, the pastor and the therapist can unify their key focus or message so that both are helping the person narrow in on one or two key truths from spiritual and psychological angles.
There is unfortunately a long history of distrust between pastors and counselors. This post assumes that the counselor is a Christian, but pastors can be involved even with non-Christian therapists. However, there are likely to be some pretty major obstacles of distrust to overcome. Pastors, let the therapist know you respect and value their work. Tell them about changes you see in the person’s progress, especially if you have known the person a long time or were the one to recommend treatment. Counselors, don’t treat pastors as though they are not the “expert” or assume they are hostile to psychology. Even if they have some questions, respond non-defensively and do not presume questions mean attack. Develop a genuine relationship with each other so that you can continue to collaborate on other clients. Pastors, you could invite therapists to come do a training with your staff. Counselors, you could invite pastors to your office for lunch and conversation with yourself and perhaps a group of your colleagues.
We all need to work together to fight stigma and support those in the church body who are facing mental health challenges. When we focus on the person, we can set aside old debates and start new conversations about how to be of help. That makes therapy a great addition to the person’s healing and growth process, and it makes church a safe place for them to be emotionally.