More Pastors Embrace Talk of Mental Ills

Eagle Springs, N.C. — The pastor’s phone rang in the midnight darkness. A man’s voice rasped: “My wife left me and I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth. Give me one reason why I shouldn’t pull the trigger.”

The Rev. Matt Brogli, a Southern Baptist pastor scarcely six months into his first job, was unnerved. Gamely, he prayed with the anonymous caller, trying out “every platitude I could possibly think of.”

Eventually the stranger assured Mr. Brogli that he would be all right. But the young pastor was shaken.

“I was in over my head,” he recalled. “I thought being a pastor meant giving sermons, loving my congregation, doing marriages and funerals, and some marital counseling.”

Since that midnight call two years ago, Mr. Brogli, 33, has become the unofficial mental health counselor not just for his church, but throughout Eagle Springs, population 8,500, a fading rural community of mostly poultry and tobacco workers, with five trailer parks and six churches.

It is no easy task, in large part because from pulpit to pew there is a silence and stigma among conservative Christians around psychiatric disorders, a relic of a time when mental illness was seen as demonic possession or a sign that the person had fallen in God’s eyes.

But Mr. Brogli and other evangelical ministers are trying to change all that.

“We need our evangelical leaders to lead by example, to say that not all psychiatric medicine is bad, to have conversations with non-Christian therapists,” Mr. Brogli said. “The older ministers say that mental illness is not an issue, but clearly it is.”

Evangelical leaders are increasingly opening up about family suicides, their own clinical depression and the relief they have received from psychiatric medication.

In 2013, Frank Page, president of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, which provides guidance to 16 million Baptists, published a searing, unvarnished account of his daughter’s struggle with mental illness, “Melissa: A Father’s Lessons From a Daughter’s Suicide.”

Melissa Page Strange, once spunky and fun-loving, ricocheted among addictions and risky relationships, and died at 34 of an overdose. Her parents had sent her to religious counselors, as well as secular psychiatrists and psychologists.

This month, a mental health advisory group appointed by Dr. Page offered a variety of proposals to help Southern Baptist congregants and their families with mental health challenges, the first time the church has addressed the subject in a direct and comprehensive manner. The proposals include providing churches with a database of Christian counselors and mental health providers, and offering more robust education about mental health in seminaries and at Christian colleges.

Dr. Page has been lecturing across the country about faith and mental illness. At each appearance, he said, he has been struck by the hunger for information and consolation.

He is eager to help pastors like Mr. Brogli. Dr. Page urges other clergy members to partner with clinicians in the treatment of mentally disturbed congregants.

In March 2013, the youngest child of Kay and Rick Warren, founders of Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., a megachurch of more than 20,000 congregants, fatally shot himself. Matthew Warren, 27, had had borderline personality disorder and major depression.

The Warrens have campaigned for mental health treatment among evangelicals. This spring Saddleback, along with the local Roman Catholic diocese and a mental health advocacy organization, held its first conference about mental illness and faith. Some 2,000 people attended, including 600 pastors.

The church’s website now points worshipers to resources for addiction and mental health. Officials at Saddleback have met with the leadership of an evangelical Christian university to create a program that educates students about mental health. This month, Saddleback held its first gathering for members whose loved ones committed suicide. In January, it will sponsor a weekend addressing suicide prevention in adolescents.

Nondenominational evangelical churches, such as some congregations in the Vineyard movement, have been embracing worshipers with mental illness and addictions.

Studies show that during episodes of stress, grief and depression, more Americans turn to clergy than mental health professionals.

Yet many new pastors like Mr. Brogli feel overwhelmed and ill equipped to help. Conservative Protestant seminaries offer little education in psychology, instead favoring courses on pastoral counseling with prayer and reading the Bible.

In a study by Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, 71 percent of Baptist pastors said they were unable to recognize mental illness. In another study, he found that while 55 of 70 seminaries offered pastoral counseling electives, directors said that students were often unable to fit them into their schedules.

People have knocked on the parsonage door of Eagle Springs Baptist Church at all hours to speak with Mr. Brogli about depression, domestic violence, self-injury, hoarding, drug and alcohol addiction, and bipolar disorder.

They come to him because he does not charge, thanking him with bags of apples and okra and bottles of homemade peach wine. “I don’t drink,” said Mr. Brogli, “but I appreciate the gesture.” They come because he listens attentively, his brown eyes warm and nonjudgmental.

But they also come to Mr. Brogli precisely because he is a pastor and not a psychologist.

According to a telephone survey last year by LifeWay Research, a Nashville organization affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, nearly half of evangelical Christians said they believed that mental illness could be healed with prayer alone.

Some 66 percent of 1,000 Protestant ministers surveyed this year mention mental illness in sermons once a year or less, the organization has found. Yet nearly a quarter have experienced some kind of mental illness themselves. Nearly 60 percent have counseled people who were later found to be mentally ill.

LifeWay also interviewed hundreds of Protestants who have received a psychiatric diagnosis or were related to someone who did. Almost two-thirds said they wished mental illness were discussed openly in church, to help erase the taboo.

But in the culture of conservative Christianity, “mental illness became defined as mental weakness,” said Anthony Rose, a Southern Baptist pastor in LaGrange, Ky., who leads the convention’s mental health advisory group. “And mental weakness was seen as spiritual weakness."

The Warrens’ Saddleback Church has a counseling center and support groups. But after Matthew Warren committed suicide, strangers sent poisonous emails. “They said, ‘If we had been better Christians, he’d be alive,’ ” said Mrs. Warren. “Or it was Matthew’s fault, that he wasn’t right with God."

Dr. Stanford, at Baylor, sees clients who have experienced austere religious interventions — for example, a woman with bipolar disorder whose pastor threw Bibles at her to drive away her demons. Now he trains counselors to give mental health seminars at churches and equip pastors to make appropriate referrals.

Dr. Rose, who has been candid about his own bouts of depression, said that “a key role for a pastor would be to change the mind-set of his church toward mental illness,” helping members to recognize it as “a normal struggle for many people.”

“We can’t offer clinical care, but we can offer compassionate care,” he added.

By some accounts, the rift between conservative Christianity and secular psychotherapy began in the late 19th century. There was rancor on both sides.

Secular psychologists and psychiatrists grew in influence, and they were not friendly to spirituality. Sigmund Freud called belief in God a collective, neurotic “longing for a father.”

Even today, psychotherapists receive scant training about the importance of religious belief in the clinical setting, said Kenneth I. Pargament, a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University and author of “Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy.”

“When a patient or client raises a question of faith, the mental health professional may be left unsure, and at best change the subject, or at worst treat it with skepticism and disdain,” he said.

These days, clergy members of diverse faiths often have degrees in psychology, and send troubled congregants to secular therapists. Practitioners specializing in “Christian counseling” are widespread, although certification requirements vary, as does the balance of religious and secular psychological training.

But many conservative Protestant denominations remain wary of what they see as a priesthood of secular psychologists usurping “soul care.” Instead, many have embraced an alternative called “biblical counseling.”

“The Bible is a sufficient resource to understand and help all counseling-related problems,” said Heath Lambert, executive director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. (He nonetheless sends those he sees with “extreme or bizarre” behavior to physicians for evaluation.)

At the six Southern Baptist seminaries, which collectively graduate several thousand pastors annually, the semester-long counseling course is typically taught with the biblical counseling philosophy.

Young pastors like Matt Brogli, trained in biblical counseling, worry that a psychologist might undermine a patient’s spiritual well-being. But in a Bible study class, even as Mr. Brogli draws out congregants in a discussion about King David and depression, he knows some need more help than he can provide.

This fall, he interviewed two psychologists and picked one to whom he will begin sending referrals.

Recently, he recalled, a congregant sought him for counseling. She had trouble getting out of bed for work, she said. She ordered delivery pizza six nights in a row. She used vacations to stay at home. These assaults of darkness had come upon her for the last three years.

“I love the Lord,” she told him. “I pray, but I can’t shake this.”

So Mr. Brogli did what just two years earlier would have been unthinkable. He suggested she see her company’s psychologist.

The woman resisted. She did not want friends, family and co-workers to find out.

Gently, Mr. Brogli encouraged her.

“It will give you other tools,” he said. “You don’t have to walk through this alone. I’m your friend, I’m your pastor, and I’m not going anywhere.”