In the tangle of the mind

Illustrations by Francesco Ciccolella

Rev. Dr. Cedrick Von Jackson is the pastor of the historic West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Memphis Theological Seminary, where his final project was entitled, Rethinking Mental Health in the African-American Church Through Preaching, Teaching and Hospitality. In Trust’s Matt Hufman spoke with him regarding mental health in the church and in theological education. This is an edited version. To listen to the full conversation click here.


In your opinion, how big of an issue would you say mental health is in the church?

If the statistics in the general population follow and flow over into the church, we have between 20 and 25 percent of our population that experiences some kind of mental health crisis or concern every year. So, if you have a congregation of 100 members, then that’s 20 to 25 people who will have some type of mental health concern this year. That’s more than people who will have cancer or diabetes. It’s pretty serious.

A 2008 study at Baylor University asked about the prevalence of mental health and what the church’s response was. The survey talked to people who had had a mental illness diagnosed by a licensed practitioner and asked if anyone in church had ever told them that they don’t have a real mental health concern, even though they’d been diagnosed with one. About 40 percent of the people in the study said they were told they didn’t have a real problem – and it was their pastor or someone on the pastoral staff who said that. So, it’s a huge problem, particularly since churches are usually the first place that people go when they experience mental health crises.


Does mental health become something that I can just pray away, or it is something that is a result of my personal sin?


In your work, did you see a difference between the way non-church society and the church saw mental health?

I think the stigma is the same, but what happens is that when you come to the church, you layer on top of the existing stigma some inaccurate, irresponsible theologies and some inaccurate, maybe problematic, hermeneutics for looking at mental illness. Does mental health become something that I can just pray away or it is something that is a result of my personal sin? Or has anyone told you that your mental illness was the result of demonic oppression? The result is we’re going to pray about it or you’re suffering from this because your faith is weak. Those are compounding issues and thoughts that people in the church bring to the subject that add to the stigma.


In the tangle of the mind

Illustrations by Francesco Ciccolella

Theologically, tell me a little bit about how you approached mental health and what you found in Scripture.

Saul certainly experienced some mental health concerns because of his disobedience and that thought actually flows out of Scripture. In the book of Deuteronomy it is specifically stated that if you do not follow the commandments of the Lord, or if you follow after idols, then God will bring upon you madness. That’s one of the first mentions of mental illness in the Bible. Then Jesus comes along and this is not a mental health concern but an issue of addressing sin, how we see sin, and how we expect sin to manifest itself in our lives. There is this instance of a healing with Jesus where a man was born blind. And all of the Pharisees and teachers are asking Jesus who sinned. Did this man sin or did his parents sin for him to be born this way?

And Jesus kind of debunks that whole theological thought. Neither sinned. It happened so that the glory of God might be revealed in his life. And so yes you have this thought from the Old Testament thinking that some of the things that come up on us are because of our sinful nature, but then Jesus turns that expectation upside down and gives it new meaning. When I look at mental illness, in the Bible or in my pastoral care sessions, or when I’m dealing with myself or friends that have mental health concerns, I’m never of the mindset that you are living with this, or you’ve been caused to live with this because you’ve been so sinful. I just can’t reconcile that.


The people who mention mental health as sin don’t mention their own eyeglasses in the same way.

When I think about myself as a pastor, I think about some of the Old Testament requirements for individuals to be called into the priesthood. And if you had any kind of physical impediment, including blindness or short-sightedness, you could not be a priest.

My farsightedness is not something imposed on me because I sinned; it’s because there is something biologically going on with me, maybe even hereditary. And so we have a lot of rethinking to do when it comes to illnesses in general, mental illnesses in particular. Plus, we live in a fallen world.


In the tangle of the mind

Illustrations by Francesco Ciccolella

What do senior leaders of theological schools need to know about mental health and how their schools are preparing clergy and other ministers?

First, all of our seminary professors, boards, leadership, and presidents need to make sure that they’re taking care of themselves and that they have a self-care plan. Their work can be pretty stressful. Make sure that everybody has access to mental health care and make that a part of compensation plans. Then, look at the curriculum and mental health as part of spiritual formation. Have students gone through some sort of evaluation to make sure that they’re OK? Then, work on developing some self-care plans they can use for themselves.

And then from a curricular standpoint, I’m not saying that everybody needs to go out and get certified as a licensed clinical therapist, but simple things like including some mental health training as part of the pastoral care curriculum would be a start.

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