Mothering the Multitudes

Mothering the Multitudes (Part III)

The Role of the Minister's Wife in Safeguarding the Mental Health of the Church

By a minister's wife. 

By Counsel

To the pastor, and frequently to his home, come men and women who fear the break­up of their homes and do not know what to do about it. Sometimes they can be helped to see things in a new way, to try to compromise and love, to accept the mate for what he is instead of what he ought to be. Here the min­ister's wife can do her part as she may be re­quested.

In the city there is frequently the problem of a husband who is cruel to his wife, even threat­ening her and endangering her life. The wife seeks help from the pastor. If the husband finds out about it, he is angered still more. My hus­band and I always work together on such cases, so that jealousy may not be aroused and so that reputations may be preserved.

One party in such cases may be psychoneurotic or even psychotic. Not all the mentally ill are committed to mental institutions, because some are able to make a marginal adjustment to society and to their families. Some do not lose contact with their environment and do not be­come hostile and aggressive. Moreover, the hospitals are already overcrowded and have long waiting lists. And so the church and the com­munity must help many of these persons adjust as best they can. If they are directed to the proper agencies, many times much can be ac­complished.

But a strange thing about people is that few recognize an abnormal mind. Probably no one has ever suggested that many troublemakers in the church are mentally ill, and frequently sympathy is given to them and the innocent person is blamed.

It is this gullibility in humanity which many times allows a paranoiac to create a problem within the church. The very real visions and delusions and inner voices of such a person are looked upon by the majority of the members with awe and possibly veneration. Anyone who treats his vision or impressions with skepticism is regarded more askance than the person suf­fering from the psychosis. I am not now refer­ring to the real and authenticated visions of the Bible prophets and of Mrs. E. G. White. Those who believe in a supreme God know that He will use a means of communication with those He loves. But their personality and experience do not fit the pattern of the psychotic.

There is a type of illness called paranoid schizophrenia, which usually develops between the ages of twenty-five and forty after a failure of the individual to adjust to society and to real life. Most often he feels greatly persecuted by his family, his church, his business companions, or his neighbors. He becomes highly suspicious of everyone and imagines he is being watched, followed, talked about, poisoned, or about to be electrocuted by his enemies.

Subsequently he develops delusions of gran­deur in which he may believe that he is the world's greatest philosopher, or poet, or musi­cian, or some great historical character. This may be accompanied by vivid auditory, visual, and other hallucinations, such as seeing angels or halos of light. Those in the church who have perhaps not received the attention and the ac­claim they have sought sometimes suffer from this illness, or from another type called true paranoia. In either case the person is impervious to reason, and if his claims or actions are ques­tioned he usually becomes uncommunicative, staying away from the skeptical person for some time. We have even observed that such a person will remove himself from the church group for a length of time and attempt to become accepted by another group. Because his delusions are so well organized and often convincing, even logical and coherent, people are often fooled by them.

The field of religion is invaded by this type of thinking because it is so easy for an individual to assume that he knows God's will for some­one else or for the whole group, without risk of being pinned down to definite proof of his knowledge. There always remains in the field of the spiritual freedom of individual conviction. One hesitates to doubt this. And so delusions are sometimes not too hard to spread, especially if accompanied by a spirit of piety.

In our endeavors to prevent such a person from deceiving the people, we must remember that the deceiver may be thoroughly sincere in his belief of the occurrence of his hallucina­tions or of his delusional scheme. He may hon­estly think that he is called to establish old people's homes or orphanages, or to be a prophet or a purifier of the church.

In this connection I recall some experiences of many years ago in several churches. A smooth-talking man with a family of seven children felt a great burden for establishing an orphanage and old people's home. He would rent a large old house and invite those elderly people in the churches or outside to give him their life's sav­ings in return for his promise to care for them the rest of their days. The work that they could do would help defray their expenses also. All ate in a common dining room from a menu of his dictation, which many times consisted of a very weak broth. His wife was forced to work hard in connection with the institution, in addition to caring for the needs of her own large family.

One night one of the orphan babies began to cry loudly. But when the wife started to get up to care for it, her husband forbade her, stating that she was spoiling the child. Morning revealed the cause of the outcry. Large rats had found their way into the bed and chewed the baby's toes. This prompted someone to report the man to the authorities of the city, who took the babies and asked that he either provide better living conditions or close down. He did the latter by leaving town, and the old folks were left with no home—and no money.

It was then that he arrived in our community to begin the pattern all over again and to delude the people. Although the church members were warned concerning the character of the man, many loved his suavity and accepted his great plans. They begged for a chance for him to preach in the church or at prayer meeting (he was very devout and pious and well versed in the Bible). The widows of the church mothered and encouraged him. But in the end his wife left him and took the children, because she had no confidence in either his religious zeal or his ability to support a family.

Such an individual may convince his family, his friends, even public officials, of the truth of his claims and of the plausibility of his well-systematized plans. But the inability of the person to see things worked out in any other way, the complete lack of evidence of any success in his venture, and his sudden uncom­municativeness when his ideas are questioned will indicate a mind that is ill.

The restoration of such an individual cannot be brought about any sooner by acceding to his pleasure and his plans. He may not be dangerous, and therefore may not be hospital­ized. Prognosis for this type of mental disorder is poor. It should be kept in mind that if op­position to his plans is too successful, he might develop a persecution complex and, in turn, delusions of enemies whom he might suddenly decide to attempt to destroy.

When men or women with great schemes of social endeavor come into a church and receive donations and funds by approaching the mem­bers privately, deceiving them with their sin­cere intentions, a minister's wife may feel utterly helpless and sick at heart. She must never cease to pray for the people that they may not be led into temptation, and she can only give counsel as her judgment sees fit, with tact and love.

But in spite of warnings and proofs of the delusional history of the individual, a minister and his wife must sometimes stand back and see some of the members woven into the delusional schemes, socially, mentally, financially, and sometimes physically, while upon those who warn and caution is poured the blame for not accepting the doctrine or the project into the arms of the entire church.

(Concluded next month)


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By a minister's wife. 

June 1956

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