On Pastoring with a Mental Illness

Brittany Jones

How did you first realize that you had a mental health issue?

I’ve struggled with depression most of my teenage years, but I never had a name to what I was experiencing. I didn’t know what to call it, I just knew that I battled with sadness. When I was 26 years old, an event happened that triggered extreme bouts of depression — highs and lows and anxiety that would last for weeks, even months at a time. After a season of walking through this alone, I saw a therapist who over time referred me to a psychiatrist. My psychiatrist walked with me over a period of time before my official diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Have you experienced stigma from other Christians due to your bipolar diagnosis?

Yes! Initially Christians don’t know what to do or say when it comes to mental illness. Christians tend to be very limited in their understanding. I would get the cliché and blanket statements like: “Just pray and things will change” or “You have a choice to be happy or sad.” For these reasons, I kept quiet about it for a while.

How can church leaders reduce stigma around mental illness in their churches?

Speak about it more, and when you do, try not to narrow it down to three points and a prayer. Mental illness is complex and deserves time and energy to be explained. Educate people how to love those who suffer. Give resources and be on board with recovery from the pulpit.

What are the main messages about mental health that should be shared from the pulpit?

  • It’s ok to not be ok.
  • It’s ok to seek help.
  • God is not upset with you, nor are you being punished for your suffering.
  • You are not alone.
  • Take care of yourself. Self-care is important and often forgotten.

What are some good biblical texts for preaching on mental illness?

I think it’s important to offer hope to those who may be struggling with mental illness. A good starting place is found in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” This is a reminder that mental illness is not a death sentence to your calling but an invitation to his grace.

You have been transparent about your past trauma, as well as your mental health issues. How has this transparency impacted the ministry of Motivation Church?

From the beginning of Motivation Church, we wanted our church to be a safe house for people, a healing place. I had never heard a pastor share current struggles from the stage, and I didn’t want to feel like I needed to hide my story for the sake of leadership or hierarchy. Through our openness we have found that more people at our church are willing to get help and seek health, because they have been given permission through our story to share their experiences. Transparency and vulnerability have made Travis (my husband) and I incredibly relatable to those who walk into Motivation Church and in our lives.

How do you respond to Christians who believe that mental illness, including depression and anxiety, can be cured through positive thinking, reading the Bible and praying more?

I totally believe that God can heal me, and I believe that Scripture and prayer is necessary fuel to walk this journey out. I am often encouraged to find joy in the midst of the struggle. But I don’t think that is where we stop. People who make statements like “It must be a sin issue or lack of faith” speak from a place of ignorance and lack of understanding. I speak out now about mental illness to give voice to those who don’t know what to say and to offer awareness to those who lack understanding.

What is the role of medication and therapy in healing from mental illness?

I was initially apprehensive about medication, because I wasn’t sure if it was a necessary next step in my recovery. It had to be explained to me plainly, and I spent some time praying about whether or not this was the right move for me. One doctor explained it through an analogy: “Someone with cancer goes to an oncologist to get treatment and start chemo or some regiment of medication to beat the cancer. In the same way, it is necessary for some struggling with mental illness to see a doctor who can help them with the chemical imbalance.” This helped shape my decision moving forward and has been the best decision for me.

What do you want Christians who struggle with mental illness to know?

God has not forgotten about you! Be kind to yourself. This journey can sometimes feel very lonely and isolating. I want to encourage those who struggle with mental illness to continue to do hard things. Those feelings and rough moments won’t last forever.

This article originally appeared in Evangelicals magazine.