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Ministry and Mental Illness: 8 Thoughts to Help Hurting People

In retrospect, God had led me to that place of . Even though the church didn’t know exactly how to help at first with respect to ministry and mental illness, with their loving support my husband and I researched physicians and treatment plans that would work for me. Over a long period of time and by His grace, my worst spiritual crisis became a victory in the Name of a Father who is “mighty to save, takes great delight in you, quiets you with His love and rejoices over you with singing.”

As I continued in the long process of healing, I began to explore others’ experiences of ministry and mental illness while suffering depression in their faith communities. To my horror, many of these experiences resulted not in spiritual victory but in rejection and confusion. Delving deeper, I discovered that church leadership often sympathizes with the suffering person but when it came to ministry and mental illness they weren’t aware that the illness may not heal the way other spiritual struggles commonly do.

Clinically depressed people often struggle spiritually because they cannot perceive God’s goodness or see past the depth of the painful, unrelenting sadness. They often approach their pastors as I did, desperate to alleviate the dark feelings that overwhelm them and steal their joy for the things they once loved. But church leaders are often at a loss to deal with illnesses like depression that defy the typical methods of spiritual growth and healing. As a result, leaders may give their best advice of “repent,” “pray more,” “read more Scripture” or “grow in the disciplines.” After all, increased discipline brings people closer to God, and a Fruit of the Spirit is joy, right? Some have been even known to say, with the best intentions, “Christians don’t get depressed. How could they if they fully understood the redemptive value of the Cross?”

Unfortunately, spiritual discipline alone cannot heal a person with a major depressive disorder. Now don’t get me wrong: Naturally the value of increased prayer, Bible-study, meditation, etc. in a person’s life cannot be overestimated. And certainly issues of impurity, unacknowledged sin, lack of spiritual discipline, etc. can cause feelings of sadness and separation from God in a healthy person. But in a depressed person, these feelings can also stem from a biological source and therefore may not respond easily to discipline. In short, focused spiritual discipline requires a level of concentration that just isn’t possible when you’re clinically depressed. As such, telling a depressed person to “read more Scripture” or “pray more” is much like trying to turn on a lamp in your house as usual, but the bulb is burned out and will not light no matter how many times you bang on the switch.

In ministry and mental illness, the improper handling of the clinically depressed has direct spiritual implications. Depressed people often hide their struggle from the faith community because they cannot explain it any better than their well-meaning leaders can identify it. A depressed person may work feverishly at spiritual discipline in an attempt to become “holy” enough or “spiritual” enough to alleviate their own suffering, often to no avail. Some faith communities even dismiss the person from their congregation, saying they can no longer help them if they will not “help themselves” or wholeheartedly work the methods offered. In the worst cases (and this is the true spiritual danger), sufferers leave the faith altogether, either because they feel guilty for failing to “work through” their pain, or they blame the spiritual organization (or even God) for a lack of mercy, understanding or interest in them. Some never return to Christ again, assuming that even He cannot (or doesn’t want to) help them.

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Toni Ridgaway is a content editor for the Outreach Web Network, including churchleaders.com and SermonCentral.com.