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Mental health ministry gets larger emphasis

NASHVILLE (BP) — SBC entities are highlighting the importance of mental health ministry in response to a motion at the 2013 annual meeting. The motion also prompted Frank S. Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, to name an advisory group to gather suggestions for him about ways Southern Baptists can more effectively minister to people with mental health challenges.

Ronnie Floyd, pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas and current SBC president, made a motion to request “that the Executive Committee and the Bylaw 14 entities of the Southern Baptist Convention work in cooperation to assist our churches in the challenge of ministry to those suffering from mental health issues, and that each entity in their written annual ministry report inform the messengers what they have done, are doing, and will do annually to assist our churches in equipping and ministering to the people in our churches and communities who suffer with mental health challenges.”

Messengers also passed a resolution in 2013 on “Mental Health Concerns and the Heart of God” which affirmed the dignity of those suffering with mental illness, supported “the wise use of medical intervention for mental health concerns when appropriate” and called on the church to provide compassion and support to individuals and their families. To read the text of the resolution, click here.

In response to Floyd’s motion, SBC entities noted in their annual ministry reports their current and future initiatives related to mental health ministry. The reports were made available to messengers at the 2014 annual meeting in the Book of Reports.

Some highlights include:

— GuideStone Financial Resources currently offers mental health-related benefits to medical plan participants, and it plans to offer various educational opportunities about the subject.

— LifeWay Christian Resources produces Bible studies about such topics as overcoming depression, anxiety and grief and it produces resources for counselors, pastors and lay leaders. LifeWay also offers additional resources through LifeWay Christian Stores.

— International Mission Board, along with partner churches, continues to be involved in ministry to the mentally ill in countries around the world.

— North American Mission Board currently collaborates with other SBC entities and WMU to provide resources. The mission board also has created a new category within its LoveLoud outreach specifically to address mental illness.

— SBC seminaries currently offer graduate and post-graduate degrees in biblical counseling in addition to offering pastoral counseling courses for ministry degrees. The seminaries provide support to students, faculty and staff with mental health concerns through counseling and medical benefits.

— Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission offers educational resources through its website, erlc.com, and it plans to create an issues awareness section online specifically devoted to mental health challenges.

In addition, NAMB hosted a breakfast panel discussion at the 2014 annual meeting about mental health issues and the church. The panel was moderated by Ryan West, NAMB’s LoveLoud national coordinator, and included panelists Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research; Brad Hambrick, pastor of counseling at The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and Frank Page. The panel discussed the importance of churches creating a welcoming and supportive community for people with mental illness.

The Executive Committee responded to the 2013 motion by informing messengers at this year’s annual meeting that it will include questions in its annual ministry report forms to the entities about what they are doing to assist Southern Baptists in ministering to those with mental health challenges.

The EC also reported that Page had established “a volunteer advisory body of Christian professionals in the mental health field which will report and advise the president on possible ways of better informing Southern Baptists about available mental health service providers and resources.” The group is not an official entity or committee of the convention and will not be launching or executing official SBC ministries but will serve Page in an advisory capacity.

Members of the Mental Health Advisory Group include pastors, licensed counselors, healthcare providers, educators, social workers and a military chaplain. They represent churches, private practices, para-church ministries, state conventions and national SBC entities. Many members of the group have dealt with mental health challenges within their own families in addition to their professional experience.

In its initial meeting May 30, the group explored strategies and resources already in use by churches, ministries, associations, state conventions and national entities. Group members shared mental health ministry models they use in their churches and communities and they spoke to current challenges that churches and mental health professionals face.

Members of the group emphasized the need for education and training at every level within the local church, from the pastor to the congregation. They agreed that the entire church should be involved in building a supportive community by raising awareness, removing the stigma of mental illness and learning basic “first aid” skills to recognize when someone needs help.

Matthew S. Stanford, professor of psychology, neuroscience, and biomedical studies at Baylor University, said many people who go to a church for help with their mental health concerns are presented with “messed-up theology,” in that ministers or church members may over-spiritualize the issue and deny the reality of mental illness. A LifeWay Research survey in 2013 showed that 48 percent of born-again Christians who responded thought that people could overcome serious mental illness through Bible study and prayer alone. “That LifeWay survey was a national survey. It had some pretty disturbing things in it,” Stanford said. “Fifty-five percent of the non-Christians [who responded] said that they did not feel like they would be welcomed at a church if they had a mental health problem,” Stanford recounted, noting that educating congregations would help to change these views.

Lennox Zamore, counselor and pastor of Ebenezer Memorial Baptist Church in Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands, presented a continuum model for different levels of care in which different services and resources can be grouped under each level: awareness, using various types of media; education, through testimonials and learning systems; support, through family counseling and support groups; and intervention, including hotlines and psychiatric referrals.

Doug Carver, NAMB’s executive director of chaplain services and a retired U.S. Army major general, spoke about the unique issues that military chaplains face. Chaplains are trained in trauma, suicide prevention and other issues of particular importance to soldiers, Carver said, and they work with mental health professionals on the field. There are not enough professionals to go around, he said, so they train at the “first line of defense” — the soldiers. Carver described the Army’s “ACE of Hearts” training model: ask the right questions of fellow soldiers, care enough to listen and escort them to a professional if needed. This model could be applicable to churches as well, he said.

Moving forward, the group will research resources and services currently available to Southern Baptists, evaluate those resources and make recommendations about potential ministry models and best practices. To facilitate their work, chairman Tony Rose, pastor of LaGrange Baptist Church in LaGrange, Ky., assigned members into teams to focus on specific areas such as resource development, church strategies, academic training and denominational support. They will collect their findings in a report to be presented to Page by next spring. The group will meet again in November.
Rebecca Wolford is communications specialist with the SBC Executive Committee. This article first appeared in the fall edition of [URL=http://www.sbclife.net], journal of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee.

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  • Rebecca Wolford