Shepherds of the Mind

The minister, backed by the gospel's power and warmth, is a part of the healing process for emotional and mental problems.

Gordon G. Creighton is a chaplain at Harding Hospital, Worthington, Ohio.


In our unprecedentedly complex and hectic world today, the minister has to have more than his feet on the ground and his mind on his work to be able to help people through the maze that con fronts them. Knowledge mushrooms on all sides until even the experts in any given field are unable to comprehend all the burgeoning material in their specialty. Many people today are confused because standards that past generations have taken for granted are being re placed by a multiplicity of mores they neither accept nor even understand. Therefore, the pastor needs not only to be familiar with the run-of-the-mill troubles people have but also to recognize and deal with the characteristic mentalhealth problems of today.

What problems is he likely to encounter? In almost any random group of people, in or out of a church congregation, will be found the antireligious, the pseudoreligious, the angry, the guilt-ridden, the frustrated, the depressed, the judgmental, and the unloved.

The antireligious are usually responding to the introduction they have had to religion. They may have received too intense or too severe a picture of God's expectations, or they may have been re pulsed by the insincere or the overzealous.

The pseudoreligious are not hypocritical. They are people with a distorted picture of religion and how it can work for them. Individuals may, for instance, expect miracles from prayer while ignoring the part they or professionals might play in dealing with their own problems.

Some in your church may consider anger to be inherently evil. They repress it only to find it manifesting itself in such disguises as an ulcerated stomach, feelings of anxiety acted out in harmful ways, or depression. The person who goes about with a perpetual smile on his face in spite of the way he is being treated is not necessarily a happy, emotionally well-balanced person. He may be dedicated and religious, but he isn't necessarily happy or satisfied with life. This person needs to know that anger is a symptom of things out of line and that it needs to be dealt with openly in ways that are not violent or destructive.

Guilt is a necessary experience in the religious life, yet it can destroy happiness if it is allowed to become neurotic. Karl Menninger, noted psychiatrist, said, "We need to differentiate between sin and symptoms. "The goal, according to Menninger, is not just to remove guilt and its effects from a person, but rather to help him understand a misplaced sense of guilt.

The frustrated, the depressed, the judgmental, and the unloved are all too frequently encountered in every congregation. The National Association of Mental Health reported in its pamphlet "The Clergy and Mental Health" what one pastor found in his congregation of less than 100 people: "A boy on parole from a state penitentiary who was striving to remain within the law; another on probation with the local police; a third who was flirting with a way of life that could only lead to unhappiness and ruin; a young woman confused by grave doubts; a girl despondent over a broken love affair; a young couple who had just buried their small child; a family but recently bereft of its mother; a woman struggling with morbid fears; a man desperately battling the temptations of alcohol ; a middle-aged couple whose home was on the verge of break-up; another couple worried over their child's misconduct; a young man confronted by a critical operation within the month."

The pamphlet continues: "Tension, strain, anxiety and fear are products of our time and culture. Our divorce rate is one indication. The growth of juvenile delinquency is another. Depression is another. Each tells its stark story of frustration, sorrow, disappointment and tragedy." Speaking of those who struggle to cope with the pressures of their lives, this booklet says: "Sick, angry, prejudiced, sorrowful, incompetent or dissatisfied, they lead lives of boredom, devoid of ambition or interest. They carry heavy burdens of failure or guilt, a grinding weight of futility and inadequacy. Some are not yet mentally ill, but they need the help the pastor, among others, can give to save them from more serious trouble."

What can the pastor do? As an initial step, he must learn to recognize such situations and something of why they occur. He can gain much training by attending seminars or short university courses, reading extensively, and com paring ideas with colleagues. Of course, in all these he will rely on divine enlightenment to be able to deal effectively with people's problems.

Christ accepted people where they were and helped them with their current problems. This is where the pastor too needs to start. Not until people's immediate needs are met will they be ready to grow in a positive way.

The pastor is often the first resource that people turn to when they need counsel. If he is someone who is known as a warm, concerned person, able to keep a confidence, they will feel free to seek him out when confronted with a problem. A counselor should know that he must listen more than give advice. Many a person needs no more than a sounding board to solve his problem. He needs someone to hear him out and see the whole picture. Sometimes the pastor needs to hear the other side of the story, as well, but he should avoid showing prejudice or rejection. No matter how black the sin, the pastor should be perceived as a representative of the Saviour, who accepted the sinner without reservation while at the same time condemning sin without equivocation.

A counselor-pastor should not become involved emotionally with his client, nor be flattered by the overly dependent. A counselor, like a parent, should make himself needed less and less.

In addition to personal work, the pas tor can give his people sermons that build and encourage. There is a balance to be maintained between Mount Sinai and the Mount of Blessing. Both should be emphasized to give balance. Too much rigidity can push a compulsive person off the deep end; its neglect can encourage a hedonistic person into trouble. Preaching needs to be therapeutic. It needs to emphasize the ever-present God of Psalm 139, the aware Father of Matthew 6:32, the personal Shepherd of Psalm 23, the accepting, loving God, who is bigger than man can ever know. Those who are under great mental stress need to have their spiritual batteries charged when they hear the Word.

As a counselor, the pastor is in the unique position of knowing his parishioners and their families through his visiting program and is often the one best able to note changes in their thinking or behavior. This is not to suggest that the clergyman has the right to determine whether a person is mentally ill, but he can detect symptoms of serious mental illness and help the person get qualified psychiatric care.

The National Association of Mental Health gives these signs of psychosis: major changes in behavior; strange periods of confusion or loss of memory; grandiose thoughts about oneself; experiencing visions, strange odors, or peculiar tastes; the idea that people are plotting, talking about, or watching one self; complaints of impossible bodily changes; the need to perform repetitive acts; talking to oneself or hearing voices; marked depression.

Rarely does the pastor need either to agree with or dispute the distortions of reality presented by one who is disturbed. When a person loses contact with reality, skilled psychiatric help beyond the abilities of most pastors is needed, and referral to professional treatment should be made. How long should the pastor continue if a person's problem seems to be stagnant? Five to ten visits should usually be enough to assess the situation. When a person is overly dependent or obviously very sick, referrals are in order.

To whom should you refer one who needs additional care? Dr. J. A. Wielden, in a booklet prepared for the Harding Hospital Institute on Mental Health, recommends a psychiatrist who is well trained and who has the confidence of several of his fellow physicians, or a practicing clinical psychologist with ad equate training and clinical experience who is recognized as professionally competent. You should make referrals in collaboration with the person's family physician, to provide medical responsibility as well as continuing attention to parallel medical problems.

The timing of referrals is also important, says Dr. Wielden. The referral must not be seen as a rejection, and therefore both patient and relatives should be prepared. Always let the patient and close relatives ventilate feelings about the referral. When the decision has been reached, call the psychiatrist or psychologist and make the referral in the client's presence. Indicate to the patient your willingness to maintain follow-up with him.

If hospitalization for mental problems is needed, the church should be especially alert to the person's return to the community. At that time the warmth and love of the congregation is most needed to reestablish his feelings of being needed and wanted.

The pastor can be thankful that in this complicated world he has the resources of the healing arts and trained professionals. But he must never forget that the ministry, with the power of the gospel and the warmth of the Christian, is definitely a part of the healing team.

Roy L. Smith, in his book The Lord Is My Shepherd, points out that Professor Jung, the world-famous psychologist, who did not profess to be a Christian or even to be religious, considered a stable religious conviction and a definite faith to have more bearing on mental efficiency than any other single factor. Ac cording to Jung, most of those who came to him for professional advice were those whose mental distress and derangements were a direct result of a loss of religious faith.

We live in a world in which help from the professions is needed; pastors must understand how to deal with unresolved conflicts. But the individual struggling to maintain emotional balance in our time still must hear, "He restoreth my soul."

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Gordon G. Creighton is a chaplain at Harding Hospital, Worthington, Ohio.

September 1980

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