Category: Alumni Spotlight

Mental Health Challenges within Congregations Today

This blog post is written by Central alum Jennifer Baergen Davis as part of the “Thriving in the Unexpected” blog series. This series seeks to understand challenges that alums find working in ministry and how they seek to overcome them.

I am married to a licensed professional counselor and I have a master’s degree in Family Psychology. While my background does provide me a certain sensitivity to mental health issues, it does not take a degree in psychology to notice the rise in mental health needs all around us. In particular, this has become a vital issue within our congregations. The pressures in life such as having enough money to make ends meet, parenting, the negative impacts of social media and technology, the toxic political climate, aging parents or ill children, and strained relationships are among the many stressors leading to anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental health challenges. A huge impact on our mental health has been the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the top impacts of this crisis include economic uncertainty, an interruption of our children’s development, and loneliness and isolation.

As stated previously, these challenges are not surprising. What has been surprising to me is some of the ways in which they have manifested into painful realities for some of our church members. My position as Pastor of Family Ministries provides me with opportunities to minister mainly with a particular segment of our congregation — parents, children, and teens. In our Family Ministry team, we encounter all kinds of issues from everyday stressors to life threatening situations such as a teen contemplating suicide. I have learned many lessons in my years of ministry that include: what signs to look for, how to listen, when to refer, how to best train our volunteers, and to realize there will always be more surprises and lessons to learn.

Some of the painful, yet more common challenges I have encountered are the effects of children and parents when the parents are going through a divorce, the death of a parent or loved one, and parents who are struggling to find an accurate diagnosis for children who may have symptoms of ADHD or autism. One area we see often is with the families in our church who have adopted children. There are many ongoing adjustments parents and the children in these families will face. Many of our teens are struggling with anxiety and depression. Sadly this can sometimes manifest itself in eating disorders, cutting, and even contemplating suicide. A huge challenge for families is finding affordable avenues for counseling and diagnosing.

While ministers are not experts in these areas, we can certainly be helpful and supportive. Some things we have put into place to address these areas are making sure our families know that we are here to listen. When we hear of a stressful life event that is happening, we reach out and try to have lunch with the parent, or visit with the child or teen. We hope to start an adoption support group that will entail training and resources for our families with adopted children. We have training in place for our staff and volunteers to know what to do when it appears something serious is happening with a child or teen and when it is important to refer them to a professional in the counseling field.

In addition to these avenues of support, our church has been blessed to be able to hire a part-time professional who works with any of our children or teens with special needs on Sunday mornings. She also serves as a resource for helping parents find channels for referral and professional support for their children. Something we have worked into our budget is a benevolence fund that is available to members in need within our congregation. We have provided financial help to several families throughout the year who had a vital need for counseling services, but were not able to pay for it. We are also working on building relationships with counselors who can provide services on a sliding scale.

There have been other surprising instances within my ministerial experience as well. Once I started ministering more often with teens, I have had several instances where teens are struggling to understand their sexual orientation. We are an open and affirming congregation, so for these teens, they know they will be affirmed in our church which helps tremendously to avoid some of the guilt and shame that some young people may feel by being part of the LGBTQ+ community. However, this does not take away the stressors involved with this process. In addition, when a parent is not supportive, this makes this situation much more complicated. As a youth group, we often talk about the importance of treating LGBTQ people with inclusion and understanding and we make sure our teens know that our staff and volunteers are safe people with which to discuss these things. We do not promise to keep anything a secret, but we are very careful when a parent is not supportive to make sure this teen is in a safe situation. Transparency with other staff close to the teen is imperative, as is making sure the teen has the resources needed if further help is required.

Another somewhat surprising element has been the effects of isolation on children, teens, and parents from enduring the pandemic. It seems that parents are having a hard time reaching out to their friends and to church staff. Teens are struggling to make sense of all they have been through and the impact on their growth and development. They are trending to not reach out to adults for support and rely more heavily on social media for connection. This has had an impact on the older members of our youth group and their ability to lead in mature ways. Some ideas we are hoping to implement to assist in these areas are monthly dinner groups for parents and mentoring groups for teens and adults. We hope to provide opportunities for building intergenerational connection and also provide space to speak more openly about our loneliness and the effects COVID may have had on all of us.

Finally, an important lesson we have encountered involves volunteers or staff members trying to take a teen’s mental health crisis into their own hands, when instead it would be vital to inform other staff members and get professional help for the teen in question. As a result of this we are in the process of re-writing our safety and protection policies to include a section on what is essential to let a staff person know. For instance, if a child or teen is experiencing ongoing depression or has expressed an intent to harm self or others, a staff person, such as the youth minister, must be notified immediately. We are also discussing mental health issues more in depth with our volunteers to make sure they know what to do when children or teens confide in them regarding their mental health.

As an important side note, you as the minister may at times require mental health assistance. This needs to be normalized and shared with someone on staff whom you trust. If possible, let your direct supervisor know and ask questions regarding whether or not your church has some funds available to help provide for professional counseling. Make sure to attend to “self-care” practices such as taking one day off a week and finding a spiritual director you see at least once a month. In addition, sometimes our spouse or children are experiencing mental health challenges. It is important to tend to these issues with the utmost priority. Sometimes our “ministerial duties” must come second to making sure we are taking care of our own families. We must remember that even though we are called to be ministers and pastors, first we are humans and we, ourselves, nor our families, are supposed to be perfect. A healthy church will affirm this and give assistance if we are willing to reach out to people we trust.

Pastoral care is a phrase we might take for granted when we enter into a congregational staff position in ministry, but it is actually a vital part of what God is calling us to do. We do not have all the answers for the challenges life brings our congregants, but we do have the ability to listen, to support, to come alongside our members, and to make sure they know they are not walking their road alone. We cannot solve their problems, but we can learn ways of assisting them in finding the help they need and begin to erase the stigma that can surround this issue of mental health needs. Hopefully, we can create cultures in our churches where our congregants are able to be vulnerable, reach out for help when they need it, and know that they will be met with loving, compassionate, and hopeful ministers.