Health and Religion

Ministers and Mental Health. In continuing Institutes on Mental Health, pastors are learning to cope with mental dysfunction.

George Harding, Jr., M.D. is a graduate of Loma Linda University School of Medicine and the Medical Director of Harding Hospital in Worthington, Ohio.
Melinda Howes is a free-lance writer and former newspaper and television reporter who works from her home in Great Cacapon, West Virginia.
Joe looks almost lost in his clothing. In two months he has lost 65 pounds. Overcome with guilt and worthlessness, he says he wants to die.

Joe is 62. He has three daughters and a son. He is a newspaper printer. His firm is changing to computerized printing. Joe fears he cannot handle the new demands.

His son, who is mentally ill, has be come homicidal and violent. Joe has quit going to work. He sits in a chair, day after day, staring vacantly into the future.

Susan is in her 40's, attractive, a wife and mother. A former teacher, she is into drugs, a heavy drinker, and has marital problems.

The child of a possessive, demanding mother and a perfectionist father, she married, but has never felt she can really love.

Shortly after she and her husband adopted a son, she learned that she was pregnant. Then came a succession of tragedies. Her daughter, born with a degenerative brain disease, was given only a few months to live. Instead the child survived five agonizing years.

Shortly after the little girl's death, Susan's mother committed suicide. She left a note saying she was taking her life because Susan no longer needed her. Susan and Joe are fictitious names, but their cases are real. They could show up in your church office for help.

But both cases, though more dramatic than the daily fare to be expected in the parish, contain elements common to the pastoral ministry—loss of loved ones, marital problems, difficult children, rigid and demanding parents, illness, guilt, alcoholism, drugs.

What do you do with such cases? Avoid them? Pass them on to "professionals"? Work counsel into your sermons? Assume your own burden of guilt because you feel inadequate to help?

Some ministers, according to Dr. Charles Wittschiebe, retired professor of pastoral care at the SDA Theological Seminary, actually worsen problems and even cause them.

Says Dr. Wittschiebe: "Ministers are sometimes the unwitting cause of mental ill health. For example, every sermon should be checked, not only for its spiritual, theological, and intellectual con tent, but for its emotional impact. Much preaching encourages a sense of guilt. We do not seem to hear the words of Christ to the adultress: 'Neither do I condemn thee; go and sin no more.'

"Of course, the cause/effect impact of our sermons is not designed to discourage. We simply fail to consider the impact of our words on already-troubled members of our congregation. It is good to be constantly reminded of our very real responsibility for the mental health, as well as the spiritual health, of our parishioners.

"Many Adventists," Dr. Wittschiebe says, "feel that conversion somehow protects one from the problem of mental illness. We are reluctant to recognize that a Christian can have psychological problems and may even need psychiatric help. It's too painful a subject. After all, who hasn't been depressed at some time?"

Wittschiebe is one of five men* who decided to do something to help Adventist pastors understand the realities of problems like those of Joe and Susan. In 1955 they began the Institute on Mental Health, now held annually at Harding Hospital, Worthington, Ohio.

Ellen White repeatedly underlined the importance of the mind. "The mind controls the whole man," she wrote. "All our actions, good or bad, have their source in the mind. It is the mind that worships God and allies-us to heavenly things. Yet many spend all their lives without becoming intelligent in regard to the casket that contains this treasure." —Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 426.

And again, "The brain nerves which communicate with the entire system are the only medium through which heaven can communicate to man and affect his inmost life."—Testimonies for the Church, vol. 2, p. 347.

Why is it, then, that mental health—a healthy mind, if you please—sometimes strikes a discordant sound upon our ears? Sincere Christians as well as others can, and do, have psychological problems. Yet, sometimes in our roles as ministers, physicians, and Adventist Christians, we are reluctant to come to grips with this sensitive and troubling concern. We as Adventists, and indeed, as Christians of all faiths, have become perhaps too self-contained when con fronted with problems such as those of Joe and Susan. Trying to help, but feeling helpless to do so, we resort to platitudes.

Adventists have only to look to their own history to find a classic case of emotional illness—and the remedy. There is little doubt that James White, husband of Ellen White and bearer of such burdens as president of the General Conference, Editor of the Review, and fund-raiser for the fledgling movement, was a committed and converted Christian. But at one point in his life, he suffered from a deep depression—an emotional illness so shattering that he was, for many months, unable to carry out his duties or even to participate in the normal activities of home life. His recovery was due in large part to the loving counsel and care of his wife.

As Ellen ministered to her husband, she urged that others give help to those with problems with which they were un able to cope:

"There are souls perplexed with doubt, burdened with infirmities, weak in faith and unable to grasp the Unseen; but a friend whom they can see, coming to them in Christ's stead, can be a connecting link to fasten their trembling faith upon Christ."—The Desire of Ages, p. 297.

Again she wrote: "There is a need of shepherds who, under the direction of the Chief Shepherd, will seek for the lost and straying. ... It means an ear that can listen with sympathy to heartbreaking recitals of wrong, of degradation, of despair and misery." —Gospel Workers, p. 184.

Says Psychiatrist Harrison S. Evans, a founder of the Institute and a vice-president of Loma Linda University:

"We must understand that a real experience with Christ begins with an experience with a Christlike person. The minister must develop a personal relationship with his church members. He cannot stand aloof. Our church members must be able to relate to pastors who are warm, caring beings, involved in the whole of church life."

Evans sees as the Institute's goal "to help the minister become more effective in his ministry by understanding himself, his congregation, and the human condition, so that his ministry will have the maximum positive effect."

To achieve these objectives, the Institute helps the minister gain a knowledge of how the mind functions, what hap pens when it is dysfunctional, and how to detect the dysfunctional mind in others and in oneself. The Institute further offers opportunity to get in touch with one's own feelings, a requisite to developing sensitivity to the needs of others; and to learn the basic principles of human relationships.

A typical three-and-one-half-day Institute may include small discussion groups; lectures, role-playing; including practicing counseling techniques; and case studies. Psychiatrists and ministers alike offer their perspectives. A recent Institute concentrated on the working of the mind and its unconscious components, the importance of relationships, signs of mental breakdown, different types of emotional disorders and their symptoms, and a discussion of psycho therapy—what it is and what it is not.

Participants also learned about the re sources available in their own communities and how to refer parishioners to them for further help. They examined reasons why pastors are reluctant to recommend therapy, and why parishioners may resist counseling or treatment.

Study was given to problems of parenthood and to development of sexual identity and an understanding of sexual problems. "Perhaps 50 percent of our counseling is directed toward marital problems, many of which include sexual problems," says Dr. Wittschiebe.

Psychiatrist Harold Caviness, one of the founders, assured the ministers that the Institute was "no new gospel, no Lorelei song to lure you off your charted course. ... It is to add to your own insights a deeper understanding of the human beings for whom and with whom you work."

To date, more than 600 ministers and others have completed the Institute. Has the program been helpful to the mission of the church?

A research study submitted to the Theological Seminary by Richard D. Fearing, now president of the Upper Columbia Conference, concluded that the time, effort, and money spent on the Institute represent a worthwhile investment ("Nine Years of the 'Institute on Mental Health,'" SDA Theological Seminary research paper, August, 1964, p. 7).

Fearing surveyed participants of nine seminars. Nearly 60 percent of the graduates responding felt that the Institute had aided them in their soul-winning mission, and another 30 percent said they had been somewhat benefited.

Says G. L. Goodwin, a 27-year veteran of the ministry, and pastor of the East Liverpool-Steubenville, Ohio, churches: "From the Institute I have gained a greater understanding of my own mental health, my emotional needs, and a deeper understanding of the needs of others. The Institute has given me more confidence in my ministry—it has brought it all together."

Said another pastor: "I used to think that emotional illness was something shameful, that it was the result of a sin or the lack of faith, or some other failing.

"I know now that emotional illness can happen to any of us, under certain conditions, and that our faith alone does not always protect us. We all have a breaking point. Our faith can make us less vulnerable—the converted Christian will be more resistant to mental illness and may recover faster, but it still can happen.

"This understanding is perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned. It has made me more sensitive to the pains and hurts of others, and, I hope, less judgmental."

Has the Institute lured ministers from the preaching ministry to counseling, as some church administrators feared? Fearing's study found that of 122 Institute participants responding, only five had entered full-time counseling. (Fearing, op. cit., p. 12.)

The Institute is only one of many avenues available to the minister seeking to obtain a greater understanding of himself and his relationship to his parishioners. Such an understanding is needed, indeed demanded, if he is to be able to help those who are troubled, and to whom the minister is often the first avenue of help. By careful study of these emotional needs and problems, the minister can develop attitudes that will help him communicate more effectively with those in his congregation.

It is a very large responsibility to be able to help the Joes and Susans in your congregation while at the same time not neglecting other important aspects of your ministry. You may never face a problem quite like Joe's, or one as severe as Susan's, but others in your congregation are reaching out for your help—help that they may initially accept from no one else.

Are you willing and able to help?


* The others: Harold Caviness, psychiatrist, Battle Creek Health Center; Harrison S. Evans, psychiatrist, vice-president, Loma Linda University; George T. Harding, Sr., medical director emeritus, Harding Hospital; and Charles Anderson, psychiatrist, Hinsdale Hospital.

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George Harding, Jr., M.D. is a graduate of Loma Linda University School of Medicine and the Medical Director of Harding Hospital in Worthington, Ohio.
Melinda Howes is a free-lance writer and former newspaper and television reporter who works from her home in Great Cacapon, West Virginia.

June 1979

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