The stigma churches sometimes have to bear

John M. Crowe, M.Div., D.Min.

 The stigma about the mentally ill and their families in so many churches has created another stigma in reverse. It is a stigma which ignorant and misguided Christian clergy and laity have created. We must bear responsibility for this stigma and take responsibility for overcoming it by reaching out to the mentally ill and their families in truly Christian, healthy, and helpful means. The Christian faith is the largest one in the USA and primarily protestant. Do clergy and members of these protestant churches know that the great Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther was mentally ill? Do we know that this author of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” suffered greatly from depression, shared openly about it in sermons and in articles. He gave careful instructions to the Lutheran clergy about good pastoral care of Christians with illness like his own.

Luther and Depression  

This article is about someone who has been there, done that, and has the t-shirt. The Protestant Reformation Leader and writer of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”, Martin Luther felt free to share his own struggles with mental illness, i.e. depression. Research of Luther's sermons, teaching material for young pastors displays a very compassionate person of pastoral care with insightful and detailed observations, and a proclamation of real grace for real life. Both his compassion for Christians with mental illnesses and his keen observation of them were way ahead of his time

The following materials contain sad stories about how the church has so often created a damaging stigma which must be repented of and overcome. The memory of how the church treated them as laity or clergy in concerning mental illness in their own life or a member of their family, has created a negative stigma in their minds of the church.

A. Carlson, Dwight L. Why Christians Shoot Their Wounded? Helping (Not Hurting) Those with Emotional Difficulties. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1994.

This book is worthy of its many good reviews. Carlson, a physician and psychiatrist, cites scientific evidence to restore peace and dignity to those who have been told by well-meaning individuals that their mental illness is due to sin, spiritual weakness, or lack of faith. Pointing to substantial research findings, Carlson takes issue with prominent Christian writers and speakers who over-simplify emotional distress

As a pastor, I want to highlight two important points missed by some. First, he is one of the few current Christian writers who points out that the healing dynamic in the word translated Equip in Ephesians 4:7-13. The healing aspect of this word implies that churches need equipping in healthy ministries to hurting people. Second, he points out that the business model approach of church involves number crunching leads to neglecting or crushing the wounded in our congregations.

B. Church, Inc. Crushes People

C. Hammond, Mary Tuomi. The Churched and the Dechurched: Mending A Damaged Faith. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001.

Mary does an excellent job of writing about how those haunted with mental illness join the ranks of the dechurched and offers good ideas on how to reach them once again.

D. After "The Face of Depression". by Rev. Susan. Gregg Schroeder was published, she received many heartbreaking e-mails came from clergy.

For example, a candidate for ordination as a Deacon who is bi-polar asking if there is any support over the Internet  

A pastor whose annual conference has just cut in half the mental health coverage for the conference health plan. He is afraid his wife will not go to the hospital when it is needed because they can't pay the 50%  

An elder who shared a story of "abuse" by the church when they found out about his depression even telling him not to speak about depression or suicide from the pulpit because parents would have to explain it to the "fragile" children.  He goes on. . ."I feel violated by my church. There has been NO support for my family and wife. I have questioned my allegiance to my denomination many times. The truth is there is so little support from the church.