A friend recently sent me an article addressing mental health in churches and whether Christians should trust counseling professionals from their surrounding communities. It is essential to sift psychology and counseling methodologies through Truth; whatever holds up (that which does not contradict or dishonor God) should be acceptable for helping the hurting.

To be candid, I struggle with church leaders who are critical of the counseling profession when those same leaders fail to consider an alternative solution to helping their members through a crisis or hardship. Some good-willed Christians may not see a need for concern, believing churches are serving well in this area. Others may admit a need to improve. Christians should hold dear the example of Jesus, and put his wisdom into action. (In all things love.)

Serving the hurting. This is a priority, right? 

I have yet to come across a minister who doesn’t acknowledge the need to better serve the broken and hurting, and I’ve spoken to dozens of pastors on this topic in recent years. But getting leaders (pastors, elders/board members) to take action and implement a plan for guidance is another story – a tragedy, in my opinion. To say this is a blemish on churches is an understatement. Inadequate guidance and care for the most fragile in our community and church family is an epidemic of oversight to the core of why churches exist.   

Most believers agree churches need to exist to serve the hurting. But what do we actually DO about it when we aren’t equipped to fill that need? 

An individual approaches a minister or leader in the church and shares a very personal, heartbreaking page from a chapter of his life. When it becomes clear the individual is in need of ongoing counseling (or sometimes coaching) sessions, where does the leader turn? What is the plan of action?

We may not have a “plan” but we would never drop the ball on someone in such pain!

Unfortunately, too often, this is exactly what happens. In defense of ministers of all backgrounds, they are inundated with cries of help from parishioners or members. I get it. They cannot possibly address every need, and as every single minister I’ve encountered has said to me, “I am not equipped” to handle these issues. Nor should they be expected to. My beef, if you will, comes with a lack of action.

Where are church leaders sending the broken and hurting who need counseling, or to a lesser extent coaching or mentoring? 

The debate of whether these hurting individuals should be referred out to counselors not connected with the church is ongoing. Yet there are many wonderful, equipped, Christian counselors in our midst. It is the humane and right thing to do – send the hurting for help. If there are no reliable individuals equipped in your church, I suggest to locate a reputable counselor and build a trusting relationship so that you have a professional at hand equipped to serve. And please, don’t take years to put that key person in place. People are hurting now

I am a professional counselor and life coach (some might call me a consultant, solutions strategist, or similar). My passion is to serve the hurting. I work in the mission fields every day, and I will continue to serve in this way till I take my last breath. I have connected with churches and built relationships, and many ministers refer their members to me for counseling or coaching needs. But some ministers and leaders are resistant. In my case, my office is located in a local church. Some church leaders have actually voiced concern that their member might not return to their home church after building a relationship with me. This is where it gets dangerous.

Not directing a hurting individual to receive help when you know help is available is a selfish or prideful act; and an unhealthy focus on church numbers instead of church wellness.

(For the record, since I began professionally serving churches and their referred clients over the last five years, I have never “stolen” or even encouraged another to attend my church or any other. Ministers who have spent time getting to know me trust my ethics. Unless my clients have no church home, I encourage them to remain in their church, even when they voice an interest in attending another. Such change during hardship is typically not recommended; and if an individual continues to feel nudged to change church homes, they could consider doing so after their conflict or crisis is over, often after I am out of the picture.) 

In response to my friend’s article, I agree it’s important to use wisdom and seek the Truth (even when it’s found in psychology). However, too many churches have become complacent, at least. I have great respect for Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life and extraordinary leader. I applaud Rick Warren’s movement for church leaders to understand the importance of attending to the needs of suffering individuals by referring them to a reliable counselor, or hiring one to place on staff. Recently, Pastor Warren received an overwhelming response from ministers claiming they are “all in.” When I heard this, I contacted Saddleback Church (where Rick Warren is a pastor) in California and spoke to one of the pastoral counselors on staff. We had a wonderful conversation. I challenged her to follow-up that response and ask every minister who said they were all in,

“What does that mean?  What will you DO?” 

Sadly, it is my experience that too many church leaders “say” they’re all in, but ask them to commit and prioritize serving the grieving and broken in their church and community, and the excuses fly. General examples (paraphrasing):

“We are in the middle of a state-of-the-art lighting system right now and don’t have the funds to invest in another program.”

When asked if they would consider investing and placing on a short list of priorities to either add a counselor or life coach to their staff, or choose at least one outside professional to whom they can refer, leaders typically disengage or admit that idea is not in their vision at this time.

Another response from ministers who genuinely want to shift their church focus have stated they are often met with resistance from concerned leaders or members.

“If we cut this other ineffective or dying program to prioritize and make room in our budget for a program that will support or serve the broken and hurting, it will hurt that other leader’s feelings.” 

Seriously?!  Do we understand pruning

My experience in advocating for those in need to church leaders has been disappointing, specifically in the Midwest (Northern Indiana, mostly) over the past five years. Frankly, it’s exhausting. Mental health sufferers, including individuals and families suffering with crises and trauma, are too often left alone despite the “we care” pledges. Is there any wonder why people are leaving our churches? I pose this question to promote dialogue, not shame. Can we just have an honest discussion about our priorities? 

It’s a new day; will we choose to seize it? We need to take off our blinders, or at least awaken to the fact that we may have gotten distracted. People expect more; and we should be more than a feel-good place on a Sunday morning. Most individuals don’t want (or need) to be entertained in church; the “wow” of the 1990’s church has worn off. Individuals are hungry for Truth (Jesus), and they need a trustworthy place to go when they’re hurting. It’s understandable that not all churches can afford to have a counselor on staff. So I encourage leaders to consider alternatives. Begin building a relationship with a local counselor and refer those in need of help. As my own minister told me recently, “I can do triage. But then I need to send them to someone who is equipped to help.” I agree. And I think pastors triage like few others, as they understand the concern for spiritual wellness in serving the whole person. It’s not the pastor alone, but the leaders and the members – every breathing believer – who need to take responsibility for those who are not capable of helping themselves or who carry a heavy burden. We need change. We need to have healthy boundaries and priorities. We should be ready to act swiftly when someone comes to us in pain.

Spoiler Alert:  

People in pain want to stop hurting, and those struggling in life want to stop struggling.

Now, please!

 

Does your church have an action plan?

(Comment below)

 

If you are a leader of a church and would like to connect with me to inquire about serving your members, please contact me. I would love to connect with you. 

Email:  geri@gericarlson.com
Call:  (574) 941-2300 (private voicemail)