No Place for Them in the Therapy Room

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Imagine with me for a moment being Mary and Joseph’s rabbi. How on earth would you counsel this young couple, expecting a child, on the move due to the powers and principalities of their day?

The reality is that Mary and Joseph probably needed a therapist more than a rabbi. Think about it. A young virgin, having experienced a vision from God, told she would bear the savior of the world. What would that do to even the most mature teenage psyche? Then add on the reactions of peers and elders to a girl pregnant out of wedlock, still claiming to be a virgin. Certainly, there was shame, microaggressions, and maybe even trauma.

Joseph had it a little easier. He was not the one carrying the child, but he faced his own challenges by sticking with his fiancé. All the norms and peer pressure would have suggested he leave her. Even more, the powers that be forced them to travel back to Bethlehem to be registered. It’s hard to imagine many friends and family supporting his decision to wed Mary, who may even be carrying someone else’s child.

For both Mary and Joseph, that was all above and beyond their anticipation of marriage and having a first child. Is he/she really the one? Will our marriage endure? Will the baby be healthy? Do we have what need and know what we need to know to ensure this new family can do more than survive but flourish?

Imagine being their rabbi. Or counselor. How would you help this couple, with struggles like the rest of us, but also uniquely tasked by God to raise the long-awaited Messiah?

Pastoral Need

Of course, I know the rabbis of the New Testament period were different than today’s clergy; they were not responsible for a congregation. Their primary focus was interpreting and teaching the Hebrew scriptures.

I also realize there were no professional shrinks in the days when this decree went out from Emperor Augustus. Mental health care was provided by the family and the community, not specialists trained in the psychological sciences.

Today, things are much different. Clergy are expected to interpret, teach and preach the truths of scripture. They are expected to lead, cast vision, and develop and implement programming. If that is not enough, modern clergy must also provide pastoral care.

It has long been known that clergy are often on the front lines providing mental health care, especially in congregations of color. People are generally more comfortable sharing their struggles with their pastor than they are with a counselor or a medical professional.

It has also long been known that clergy are ill-equipped to meet the mental health needs they face in ministry.  A few pastoral care courses in seminary help, but they do not make one a mental health professional.

Even worse, many clergy struggle to acknowledge their own mental health needs and to find ways to address them.

These realities, that clergy are on the frontlines providing mental health care, that they are unequipped to do so, and that many need care themselves, have only been exacerbated by the pandemic and turmoil of the last several years. Even as stigma around mental health declines and awareness increases, clergy are struggling. Psychologist Stephen Sandage reports that trauma symptoms are higher for clergy right now than with post-deployment military personnel.

This is a place where scientists can help. Counselors and therapists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts are trained in the ways our minds work —when they are working well and when something is a bit off.

The overall problem is massive and complex, but, in addition to the links below, here is a relatively simple first step to addressing it. The church can partner with scientists, something like our Standard Model. Church leaders and mental health experts can work side by side as they determine how best to meet the needs around them.

  • Our current mental health crisis is evident to 90% of American adults.
  • Researchers at Rice University show that pastors increasingly remain on the frontlines in caring for the mental health of congregants, especially in communities of color.
  • Christian Century describes the challenges facing our clergy and how some of them are addressing them.
  • Back in May, I considered on how the church can address this crisis of mental health.
  • Here is an excellent resource from the American Psychiatric Association Foundation for church leaders.
  • Mark Labberton and Thema Bryant model how valuable conversations between church leaders and psychologists can be.
  • Use your networks, or even Google, to find mental health professionals near you. Some are explicitly Christian, and many others are friendly to communities of faith. Contact us if you need help.
  • Future newsletters will notify you of programs being developed on mental health for the church.

Hope for Support

In a sense, Mary and Joseph are outliers. God chose them alone to bear and raise God’s only son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. In another way, they are just like us. Life can hand anyone trials and tribulations that will bring the strongest of us to our knees. We all have mental health needs; it is only the details of our need that differ.

Greg addressed theological hope last week. It is a hope that so often eludes us. Our current mental health crisis is one of the reasons that hope is so elusive. We are beset by anxieties and traumas and disorders, some of them our own and some belonging to our neighbor. Some are the diagnosed mental illnesses that impact one in five Americans, and some remain undiagnosed.

We await the birth of Jesus Christ with expectations and anxieties, not that different from those of Mary and Joseph. Advent’s arrival does not dissolve our difficulties. For each person rejuvenated by the joy of a Christmas pageant, another is stuck in the lamentations of a Longest Night or Blue Christmas service. These are the liturgies that meet us where we are this season—created and led by ministers, lay and ordained, who want nothing more than to bring us tidings of comfort and joy.

What our churches may not realize is that there are also mental health experts who can walk with us through Advent. We are no longer in the days of Mary and Joseph absent clergy and counselors to help us as we await the birth of Jesus. In our highest holiday heights and our flattest festive feelings, we need not journey alone because, today, we have professional clergy and scientists available to help.

For me, this Advent, that makes the hope Greg spoke of a little less elusive.



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