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Insights paint a picture of how mental health should be

by Sara Correnti, Manager, Health & Welfare Member Wellness Products
Painting of the cross

All month long is Mental Health Awareness, and we’ll be looking at it from different vantage points within the LCMS. This week, you will be hearing from Pastor Andy Jones. He brings great insight into the challenges that pastors face, what God says about our emotions and his hopes for mental health within the LCMS. He shares great advice for Lutherans regarding mental health for uncertain times like these… or always.

You’ll also hearing from a counselor, Geri Weis, who brings great perspective from outside of the LCMS on mental health. Together, their insights paint a picture on mental health that I’m eager to share. But let me start by explaining how these two roles line up.

Pastors and Counselors: Faceoff or Partnership?

LCMS church members have gone to their pastors for guidance on life challenges for years. Pastors serve their flock through support, spiritual guidance and counsel. Some church members seek support from mental health professionals – whether it be a psychiatrist, psychologist or licensed counselor. Both provide great benefit, so which is best for mental health, especially for us as Lutherans?

First, let’s understand how pastors are prepared for handling the emotional needs of God’s people. Pastor Jones went through seminary in recent years where he completed a course called “Pastor as Counselor.” This course was taught by LCMS pastors who are also licensed counselors who helped distinguish for him situations where he could help and when it was appropriate to refer someone to a mental health professional. His “counseling scope is limited to spiritual things.” Pastors can speak to spiritual concerns when someone is depressed or experiencing anxiety, but as Pastor Jones stated, in the care of people with mental health concerns “it can’t be just me; I’m supplemental.”

Who can a Lutheran go to supplement their pastor’s care and why should they? I spoke to Weis who said that with any client she works with, her first aim is to get them to connect to something higher than themselves. “It’s important to put hope and possibilities in something.” Doing so, she said, helps to release burdens, feel connected and loved, which promote positive mental health. As Lutherans, we certainly have hope in our higher power, God. From there, counselors like Weis bring evidence-based techniques that help identify barriers in one’s mental health and then guide them in developing skills to overcome or cope with them, something that may be beyond a pastor’s professional scope.

Is one really better than another? No. Pastor Jones and Weis agreed that pastors and mental health professionals both work to help individuals in similar ways. Their separate skill sets can complement each other rather than contradict, so whether your spiritual well-being is impacting your mental well-being or vice versa, seek out whichever you’re most comfortable with to start and know the other is there to help in the unique way their skills set allows as well.

Emotions of an LCMS pastor

Our pastors often are the first stop for Lutherans who are struggling. The constant exposure to emotions while handling their own can drain them if they aren’t able to process their emotions. Then, the expectations sometimes placed on pastors (or felt is placed on them) add more weight. Some pastors feel shamed when they take time off to recharge and rejuvenate. They feel they are expected to just keep going – to keep seeing, checking in, serving and counseling their flock. Whether this is the case or not, their perception is their reality and it affects their mental health (as well as other parts of their health).

Added struggles come for newly placed pastors. Pastor Jones and his wife moved to California in 2018 after receiving a call. Moving to a new city, where your only immediate community is the one you also lead makes it difficult to find outlets to maintain emotional health. Pastor Jones is learning about his congregation and finding his comfort zone in sharing his emotions outside of his family. “It’s not that I feel like I can’t be transparent. It’s like with most things, you have to earn trust.” To do so, he notes trust is needed, which takes time and transparency to develop. Pastors, like everyone, want and need to be vulnerable so they can connect and build trust with others. The trust creates a safe space to be open about thoughts and feelings.

Pastor Jones said he wants his people to be led out of the mental health stigma we see in our country. He wants them led toward transparency and an ability to trust one another with private issues. As their leader, this requires Pastor Jones to do it himself. “It’s not easy, especially around personal, vulnerable stuff,” he said. A time he tried to lead by example was when he and his wife announced their fertility struggles to the church. “It was challenging to do that because it’s very personal. We didn’t know how it would be taken.”

The Challenges with COVID

Pastor Jones described a normal week of seeing and greeting people, shaking their hands, hugging them or just being able to read the body cues for nearly 200 people. In the last month, he said he’s seen maybe seven through random encounters like at the grocery store. “Lack of physical touch and connection is likely plaguing people more than they realize.”

He expressed how difficult it is to feel that he’s serving well in this time. “I can’t serve my congregation the way I’d like to which is visiting in person, listening to them and celebrating the Lord’s Supper with them.” And feeling he’s not serving well adds emotional weight to him. “I feel a constant source of internal and external criticism that says I’m not doing enough; every pastor I’ve talked to is feeling this way. They are worrying what they’re doing is not enough, it’s not good and they’re missing people. It’s so hard to be a pastor in this time. I don’t know how all my people are doing. And there is so much uncertainty and anxiety. It’s just heavy.”

“Grief is the main thing that people are experiencing right now; they’ve lost life and the way it was. This is where the church has a lot to offer. We know how to talk about suffering and grief. God is a major part, prayer is a major part, but we don’t just leave it there.” The synod has equipped pastors with resources to help them support the spiritual wellbeing of their members during this time. But Pastor Jones points out that more can be done. The whole person needs to be supported; the emotional parts as much as the spiritual parts.

Counsel for the Counselor: A Pastor’s Coping

Pastors counsel us on big emotions, which is such a blessing. However, they are just like us and have their own emotions too. Does it make you wonder who counsels the counselor?

Pastors, like anyone, need to have trusted outlets to express their emotions. They need to feel supported in their feelings and have guilt lifted from them. Pastor Jones shared that he is has very good support with his circuit pastors. “They get what it’s like and all the stress and anguish that goes along with it.” He is also thankful for the good relationship he has with his district president. It’s important to note that these outlets are only effective in preserving mental well-being because of Pastor Jones’ ability and willingness to express his emotions. But to feel comfortable in doing that, trust has to be present. “It’s all about who is in leadership above you and the trust you’ve developed with them.”

In regard to COVID, Pastor Jones and his wife have found great support for transitioning (quickly) to livestreaming the worship services from their home through online social media groups. An added benefit is these are places for them to share their emotions during the challenges of the times and feel heard and validated.

Unfortunately, not all coping mechanisms are positive. Just like us, pastors struggle with sin. They may even fall into coping patterns that are both unhealthy and sinful. Aggregate information from our mental health providers reveal a higher than normal temptation for LCMS pastors to use alcohol, food, pornography or gambling as a way to deal with stressors from their vocation. Of the church workers that completed the 2017 LCMS Church Worker Wellness Survey, 33% admitted that they struggle with one or more of these compulsive behaviors.

This may not be how all pastors cope, but it exists within the synod. We need to better support our pastors, evaluate the expectations we have of them and allow them space to take care of their mental health more in order to avoid falling into unhealthy ways of coping, ways that could be impacting other parts of their wellness like their physical, financial, relational or vocational health.

Advice for You, Support for Them

First and foremost, Pastor Jones reminds us of stewardship. “God gave us these good gifts of emotions; we’re called to use them appropriately in God’s Kingdom” which requires us to understand our emotions and our reactions to them, knowing that we can cope with them or ignore or stuff these feelings. So, how would you say you’re stewarding the emotions that God has given you? Mental health reviews (like the one in Vitality this month) can help to point out areas of strength and areas where some skill can be developed. For some, this is where counseling may help. Weis encourages one to ask a counselor they’re considering working with “Where is your faith?”

Now the good gift of emotions should not be confused for only good emotions. “We have a cultural problem where we’ve been trained to idolize happiness” and all of the positive emotions, but what about the not-so-positive ones. This brings to mind John 11:35. Do you know it?

Jesus wept.

That’s it. That’s the whole verse. And as simple and succinct as it is, it’s profound. This verse tells us that Jesus, this sinless man who was truly God, experienced what we today perceive as negative emotions (sadness, grief, emotional pain). It is not a sin to experience these or any emotion. Sadness is as much of a gift as happiness. God gives us these emotions and calls us to manage these in a healthy way.

Remember how last week we talked about the positive impact of appreciation for both the giver and the receiver? You’re encouraged to take some time this week to show appreciation for the pastors in your life, such as sending them a note of appreciation (Option 1 & Option 2). It may be that they stand in the pulpit each Sunday (or now during COVID they’re standing on screen) or they’re serving the church in some other way. Whoever they are and wherever they serve, pray for them, encourage them in their servanthood and show appreciation to them for all they are doing to further God’s kingdom.