It used to always baffle me when flying overseas, watching the safety video and hearing them say ‘please help yourself before helping others’. The thought of me putting my oxygen mask on first while I watch another struggle seems bizarre.
But more and more over the years, I’ve come to realise the importance of this statement, especially within Christian ministry.
Mental health within the church
The rise in mental health awareness has been prominent especially in New Zealand. Whilst the issue is a big one tackling our society, it is one where the church has a mixed approach too.
Recently, there has been an influx of pastors globally, taking to social media to discuss, candidly their experiences with mental illness. Don’t get me wrong, the church bringing awareness to issues that are debilitating society is important, and needed in order to bring the lost and hurting into the walls of the church.
However, it is also important to note that simply following Jesus or knowing Jesus loves you (no matter how long you have been in the church) does not prevent you from the chances of struggling with mental health. More so, it does not necessarily prevent the chances of church leaders struggling with mental health.
Mental health comes in the form of disease, illness etc- it is not necessarily a product of someone’s faith. You could be filled with faith, yet suffer from it.
Most recently, Jarrid Wilson pastor of Riverside Megachurch in American, lost his struggle with mental illness and passed away through suicide. This has shone light on the church and its leaders, many taking to social media to show their support by being transparent about their own struggles.
Is transparency enough?
However, transparency is no longer enough within leadership in the church. It’s like saying to people ‘I’m struggling to get my oxygen mask on but you should make sure you put yours on’, without being able to tell them how, or even worse, trying to tell them how while not really knowing how to get it on yourself.
Too often we use ‘transparency’ within leadership as an answer to an issue as opposed to merely an identification of that issue. Using one’s platform to bring awareness to a societal issue is proving to be valuable for outreach, yet can be detrimental for the health of the church if not dealt with properly. Why is this?
Biblically, the bible speaks of ensuring leadership of sober mind (2 Timothy chapter 4, verse 5). Being ‘sober-minded’ is not just in reference to steering away from drunkenness or being high on drugs, it is in reference to anything that removes us from being able to make sound judgement.
Whilst it is great having church leaders admitting that being a leader does not mean things are perfect; it is not healthy to keep struggling leaders in a place of authority over a congregation.
Leaving leaders as they are, leading yet struggling, results in the blind leading the blind. ‘I don’t know how to put my oxygen mask on, but you should put yours on.’ Instead of offering them discipleship we are offering them promotion and responsibility of leading Gods people.
The biggest part of leadership is being willing to be a servant not raised on a pedestal. However, in saying how can we expect Gods people to trust the ‘wise counsel’ of their church leaders who are currently in the same boat as them with mental health?
Transparency within the church comes from a place of humility not from a place of promotion. We cannot expect struggling leaders to shepherd God’s people when they themselves are lost and trapped by the voices in their head.
Look at the leaders in the bible. They were prime examples of this. Moses went up the mountain and stayed in the presence of God before talking to the people of Israel. Jesus believed in taking time with his father, going to place that is quite, being sourced by that before talking to his disciples.
Why? Because they knew that they needed to address their own thoughts and emotions before they could lead God’s people to do the same.
The humility of leaders is not shown simply by admitting defeat. It's by showing that they are willing to look after themselves, get the help they need, and be guided by others who can help them.
Discipleship over advocacy
The more we move towards ‘relevancy’ in the church; the more we see church leaders subconsciously promoting society by their actions as opposed to getting alongside and discipline God’s people to stray from the norms of it.
So how should church leaders deal with mental illness- they should reach out, to their elders or their wise counsel. They should step down from leadership and look after their health, before trying to look after the mental health of others. It’s about humbling yourself and admitting that you don’t have it all together, not promoting the fact you don’t have it all together.
Normalising mental health is not the job of the church. The church is commissioned to get alongside the lost, hurting and broken to disciple them (Matthew chapter 28, verse 16-20). The church, in essence is in prime position to de -normalise it by giving hope to those who are suffering, by getting alongside them.
God never wanted to see His people who were fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm chapter 139, verse 14), in His likeness and image (Genesis chapter 1, verse 27) to go through such challenges. It's not what is ‘normal’ in God’s eyes.
Instead, it breaks God’s heart to see his people suffer. Yet so many of us are faced with such struggles and challenges.
The answer is to treat it. It’s to equip our church leaders with the tools they need to help aid those they walk alongside who are suffering, but also to give them the chance to get the help they need if they struggle themselves.
Its making sure that the church is being led by leaders with sound judgement, who can guide those suffering at a time that they themselves do not need guidance from the same issue.
Whilst it is evident that following Jesus doesn’t mean you will never deal with mental illness, or that even pastors can feel the impacts of it, the answer for the church is not just advocacy of mental health.
The answer for the church is discipleship, pray and focusing on the growth of individual’s suffering, led by leaders of sound judgement. Helped by those who have already been helped and healed.
Araina Kazia Pereira from Wellington, New Zealand is a published writer having written for various outlets and most recently joining as a Press Service International young writer. She enjoys asking the big questions and writing about the challenging questions that she has wrestled with in her own journey, as well as her learnings along the way. You can contact her at email@example.com.