Studies show approximately one in four adults experience mental health issues, according to Tim Neufeld, associate marriage and family therapist with Zimmerman Therapy Group in Clovis, Calif.
The church is not exempt, as David Bruce Rose, associate professor of marriage and family therapy at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, suggests: “Mental illness shows up at the church all the time.”
So, what should members of USMB congregations and pastors know in order to normalize “mental health” and promote well-being of self and others? The concepts of self-care or soul care, according to Neufeld, are sometimes overlooked or ignored in Mennonite Brethren congregations.
“We get the ‘love your neighbor’ very, very well, but in collective communities like we are, we don’t do the individual work very easy,” says Neufeld. “I think this is why there’s especially a stigma (regarding self-care) in Mennonite Brethren populations and churches.… We really can’t love our neighbor best until we’ve taken care of ourselves.”
Normalizing mental health
Creating awareness is an important first step in removing the stigma associated with the term “mental health,” says Maricela Chavez, associate marriage and family therapist and member of Iglesia el Buen Pastor in Orange Cove, Calif.
“Mental health can be defined as emotional, psychological and social well-being,” Chavez says. “People need to understand that mental health affects how we think, how we feel and how we act.”
It is important for people to practice recognizing and naming their feelings and emotions in order to understand what is going on inside, Chavez says.
Neufeld echoes the value of an increased awareness of the inner life, saying the unconscious may surface in daydreams, thoughts, actions towards others, dreams or nightmares.
“That unconscious activity, which I think is real spiritual work that God does with us, tries to get our attention,” Neufeld says. “When we’re not attending to it, it shows up in forms that might impair us, like depression or anxiety, which are probably the two most common areas of mental health that people experience.”
A licensed MB pastor in the Pacific District Conference and former biblical and religious studies professor at Fresno Pacific University, Neufeld holds a doctor of ministry in church leadership and a masters in marriage and family therapy.
“There’s really two ways to look at mental health,” Neufeld says. “You can see it with that stigma that’s very common, that something is really wrong with you, or you could reframe that as I like to do and say, ‘What a great opportunity to learn more about yourself and grow.’”
Neufeld, like Chavez, agrees the key to removing the stigma is to normalize mental health work.
“Everybody needs to do mental health work because we all lose touch with our soul,” he says. “Mental health work is spiritual work.”
Mental health in the church
The church is uniquely positioned to help when it comes to mental health issues and the holistic maintenance of body, soul and spirit, Neufeld says.
“(The church) has structure, it has support systems, friendship networks, leadership,” Neufeld says. “It’s got everything that we need, and yet it’s one of the most underused resources in American society.”
Larry Martens, former Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary president and associate professor of practical theology, has done considerable work pertaining to congregational care from an Anabaptist pastoral perspective, although admittedly not pertaining specifically to mental health issues. A retired pastor, Martens is a member of North Fresno (Calif.) Church. He earned his master of divinity degree from FPBS and doctor of philosophy from Southwestern Theological Seminary.
In his article, “Anabaptist Theology and Congregational Care,” Martens promotes the idea of congregation as primary caregiver, with four levels of caregiving ranging from informal to formal, laity to pastoral to professional.
“We are not suggesting that we disregard the important and often essential role of the pastor or professionally trained caregiver in addressing needs within our congregations,” Martens says. “Rather, the congregation as primary caregiver affirms, validates and seeks to utilize the vast network of interpersonal relationships and expertise that exists within the congregation, which includes untrained laity as well as the professionally trained individual.”
The seminary’s Rose references Martens’ work in his course, “Serving Resiliently in Crisis and Trauma,” which all FPBS, master of divinity students are required to take.
“Research is very clear that social support is one of the best predictors of mental health, or recovery from mental illness,” says Rose, who earned his doctorate from the California School of Professional Psychology.
As an ordained Presbyterian pastor of 42 years, Rose’s call for the past 12 years has been to serve students at the seminary, where he is passionate about preparing pastoral students for ministry, informed by his own experience.
For example, while serving as a parish associate, Rose says he once was asked to teach a one-session adult education class on depression. So many people attended, the class had to be moved to the sanctuary and offered for four weeks.
“All we had to do was open the door and people just flocked in,” Rose says.
Rose recommends the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) program as a resource pastors can use to help people experiencing a mental health crisis. Just like an EMT is trained to deal with a physical problem before getting a patient to a doctor or hospital, MHFA trains pastors how to help and connect a person with treatment.
“I would suggest that (pastors), if they’re seeing mental illness, they make the referral to a professional,” Rose says. “But that doesn’t mean that this person doesn’t need pastoral care. They need that, too.”
Neufeld, too, recommends a partnership between pastors and therapists, encouraging pastors to view themselves as short-term care providers and therapists as meeting longer-term needs.
Pastors may also benefit from therapy.
“Pastors themselves are experiencing anxiety and depression and other issues at exactly the same rate as society, maybe even a tad bit higher because of the stress of their job,” Neufeld says. “Every pastor needs a therapist.”
One way the church can help, Chavez says, is by acknowledging that receiving mental health services does not equal a lack of faith or trust in God. Modeling transparency is key.
“Sometimes as Christians we might feel that we need to hide our true feelings and present to the world (and sometimes even to God) ‘a put together’ persona because we are afraid others will question our faith or our commitment to God and the church if things are not ‘picture perfect’ in our lives,” Chavez says.
Stewardship of self
The coronavirus pandemic has only added to the importance of monitoring inner emotions, Neufeld says, with the pandemic heightening people’s emotional responses, particularly anger.
“Anger is a primary emotion that always signals there’s something deeper going on, and I think the deeper issue that we’re all facing right now is fear,” Neufeld says. “A crisis like this is amplifying our fears, our worries, our anxieties—it’s all getting heightened. This is a really, really important time, both individually and collectively, to pay attention to those deep emotions that aren’t at the surface.”
Resolving conflict with others begins by knowing oneself, Neufeld says.
“As you’re gracious with yourself, you can be gracious to other people,” Neufeld says. “But you just can’t be compassionate to other people when you’re not compassionate to yourself.”
In his class at FPBS, Rose teaches a popular unit on “stewardship of self.”
“I like the idea of ‘stewardship of self’ rather than ‘self-care,’” Rose says. “I steward myself so that I can love my neighbor. If I don’t have adequate care for myself, if I don’t have the internal resources, then I’m not very good at loving my neighbor.”