Click here for General Assembly coverage

Being a balm in Gilead: Creating a Presbyterian mental illness ministry network

The "Comfort My People" consultation began with worship.

LOUISVILLE – How can Presbyterians respond to the needs of people living with mental illness in their congregations, their communities and their families?

A “Comfort My People” consultation – stemming from the 2018 General Assembly’s approval of an overture on mental illness initiated by Mission Presbytery in Texas  – is meeting in Louisville Feb. 11-13. The work of this summit includes, in part, creating a national mental illness ministry network in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as well as a strategy for allocating $250,000 in grant money available for congregations, seminaries and mid councils to do work related to mental illness.

The “Comfort My People” consultation began with worship. (All photos by Leslie Scanlon).

Some possible examples of grant applications: a congregation hosts a community concert, with time for people to give testimonies about their experience with mental illness and the need for support and care. It offers a weekend training retreat on mental illness for congregational leaders – including those working with teenagers. Or a church follows the lead of Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Boston, which has created the Cory Johnson Program for Post-Traumatic Healing, which helps address the effects of ongoing trauma and violence in an urban setting.

Why is this an issue for the church?

According to statistics presented at the consultation, mental illness affects about one in four adults.

More than 500,000 people are homeless in the United States – about half of them veterans, many of whom suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome or other forms of mental illness.

And too many congregations and families feel the pain.

Dan Milford, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, said his congregation has been involved intensively in mental health ministry for about three years. That decision emerged from loss. One year, shortly before Christmas, a 15-year-old from the congregation died by suicide, and “it totally rocked our world,” Milford said. Two years later, that boy’s father also died by suicide.

Dan Milford is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in San Antonio.

The job of the church is “to run to chaos, not run away from it,” Milford said. So Covenant formed a Beautiful Minds coalition, got involved with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “learning along the way what can we do, how can we help, how can we break stigmas,” Milford said.

Presbyterian Research Services is planning a series of surveys this year that will include questions about mental illness.

As a Matthew 25 denomination – a church called in that gospel to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick – “we are called to act compassionately and boldly,” Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, told the consultation. “It is who we are as Presbyterians … We are people who get it done, because what we do matters to God, and we do it out of our faith.”

One of the starting assumptions in this conversation: the ideas, energy and priorities must emerge from the local level.

“If we are going to be committed as a church to this effort to being a balm in Gilead for people who are struggling with mental health issues, it really does have to come from the grass roots,” said Sara Lisherness, director of Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries at the Presbyterian Mission Agency. “It can’t be a nationally facilitated program.”

Those who are involved in this consultation are participating as volunteers – some motivated by their own professional or personal experience. They include pastors, mental health professionals, lawyers, people who have experienced mental illness themselves or in their families.

Josh Robinson, senior pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, led the consultation on mental health.

Although the 2008 General Assembly approved a “Comfort My People” policy statement on serious mental illness, approving in that a study paper presented by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, mental illness has not consistently been a top PC(USA) concern, said Josh Robinson, senior pastor at Hope Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas and chair of the consultation. Robinson said he reviewed the minutes of the assemblies in the decade since “Comfort My People” was approved, and “mental health and mental illness wasn’t spoken about at all.”

Here’s some of what surfaced in conversations at the consultation Feb. 12.

The need for education.   Although they often lack training involving mental illness, pastors are often on the front lines of response: sometimes the first person a parishioner calls when depression grabs hold, when there’s been a suicide in the family, when their child is diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

Robinson said the words “mental health” or “mental illness” never came up in his seminary training, so he wasn’t prepared when a young man from his congregation came to him in crisis, hearing voices. “All I could think about is ‘Wow, this is not good,’ ” Robinson said. Uncertain about what to say, he advised the young man to practice breathing exercises. The young man later was hospitalized. Robinson learned through that experience “there was a whole branch of things I wasn’t prepared for.”

When it comes to suicide, “churches don’t want to talk about it because we don’t want to think about it,” said Kathy McNair, a pastor from the Presbytery of Chicago who ministry focuses on mental health. But the impact of suicide ripples out through families and a community.

Kathy McNair, a pastor from Chicago, specializes in her ministry on mental health issues.

“Suicide usually occurs when someone can think of no other way out of their pain,” McNair said. “It actually becomes the answer.”

Anxiety and depression are the most prevalent mental illnesses in the U.S., she said. Anxiety “is a sneaky thing – it doesn’t make itself obvious. … We need to pay attention,” to ask people, “How’s it going – no, really,” to really listen.

Most PC(USA) churches are small, and the congregations skew older.

“Loneliness is now a public health crisis,” and “the older population is particularly vulnerable,” especially if they no longer drive, McNair said. “Loneliness is the primary factor that feeds depression.”

Teenagers and young adults are vulnerable too. McNair described a community listening project called Sidewalk Talk, in which volunteers are trained to offer five-minute listening sessions – offering to just sit with someone and listen. In one case, a young adult sat across from the volunteer and didn’t speak for two minutes. Then he began talking nonstop – saying he never imagined he’d work all day in an office, in a cubicle with no windows and no one to talk with. He began to cry. And then he left.

Congregations need education too.

Debra Johnson works with the Cory Johnson Program for Post-Traumatic Healing at Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Boston.


Debra Johnson, from the Roxbury church, described a Sunday when a woman walked into the church during the sermon and started wandering around, walking up and down the aisles. “No one knew what to do, we all froze,” Johnson said. “Some of us were scared, because there’s a lot of craziness in the world.  I think it’s education” that’s needed, about what to do when interacting with someone who’s mentally ill. “We just sat there watching this woman,” Johnson said. “The pastor’s preaching. Discomfort everywhere.”

What might have happened, asked Doug Beach, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness San Antonio, if someone had approached her and said, “Would you like to sit with me?”

Beach told of how he spoke at a church event about his involvement with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “You could have heard a pin drop” after he spoke, Beach said. But as he drove home, his phone buzzed with messages, “with people wanting to talk and needing help.”

Often church people want to help, but they hold back, because “they don’t have the education, and they’re scared,” McNair said.

Kathleen Henrion knit during some of the presentations. Kathy McNair described the consultation’s work as the “first stitches” in knitting a mental health ministry network.

As they knit together a new mental health ministry network, “we are the first stitches,” she said.

Testimony. It can help when people who have experienced mental illness or dealt with it in their families share their stories. It makes others feel less alone, helps to lessen the sigma.

“My wife and I have been in this journey for a while,” said one man at the consultation. “At times, it’s felt really lonely.”

A man who’s now involved in the emerging network left the church for more than a decade after his son developed mental illness, and “they told me I wasn’t praying enough. They told my son not to go to youth group,” he told Robinson (who shared the story with the man’s permission).

The church attaches its own stigma to mental illness, Beach said. “When a denomination kicks ministers out because of their own mental illness … that’s part of the problem.” Until that culture changes, “you’re not going to make a lot of headway.”

Language. Some participants said they are uncomfortable with the term “mental illness” – with some preferring “neuro-diversity” or “mental health challenges.”  In part, that recognizes that people with conditions that sometimes carry a stigma, such as schizophrenia, also have gifts, experiences and skills to offer, and it’s important to “put ourselves in a position to learn from them and be shaped by them,” as one participant put it.

Colleen Sharka, who works with the Cory Johnson program in Boston, said she prefers to speak of neurodiversity, not disorders. “I think they are more symptoms of unaddressed wounds” – sometimes the wounds of ancestors, carried in the bodies through the generations, she said.

In the church, “if we’re going to talk about wounds, we can talk about the wounds on the cross,” Sharka said. “We can train people to accompany. It’s what we are called to do.”

Too often, “we see the symptoms, and that’s all we see,” Beach said. “We don’t see the person.”

Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, said Presbyterians are “called to act compassionately and boldly.”

Hospitality and advocacy.  Participants spent some time discussing what it would look like for congregations to show true hospitality to people with mental illness – and the importance of advocacy.

At coffee hour, “if no one will talk with them, it doesn’t matter that they got in the front door,” said Amy Petre Hill, a lawyer and United Church of Christ pastor from Aurora, Colorado.

Jason Whitehead, a clinical social worker and PC(USA) pastor who serves as director of Consultation and Formation at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, spoke of the reality that some with mental illness won’t come back to church because they’ve been unwelcome and alienated – so the church may need to go to them.

He also called for PC(USA) advocacy on mental health issues.  “It’s time to do some systemic work and to really speak with a voice that’s localized and contextualized, and a voice that’s powerful,” Whitehead said – to be “a theological conscience for what it means to be diverse and different and together.”

 Liturgy needs to represent reality – for example, at Advent, to acknowledge that some approach Christmas with sadness rather than joy, said Bruce Reyes-Chow, a former General Assembly moderator from California who served as the consultation’s preacher and pastor.

Church leaders need training, to recognize that people carry heavy burdens – that in  congregations, “child abuse is there, rape is there,” trauma of many types, said Julio Peña, a minister from Chicago.

Church leaders need training to recognize the trauma present in congregations, said Julio Peña, a minister from Chicago.

And with that understanding, “the church can recognize that we are uniquely positioned and absolutely called” to accompany those with mental illness – people whose symptoms may keep them from accessing the services they need, Sharka said. If they miss a deadline in applying for help, “let me tell you, they are thrown to the curb as fast as you can say ‘I spy.’ ”

The church can be “the glue, the bridge,” Sharka said. “We are called to be bridges between the systems and to absolutely accompany people,” recognizing that they are wounded people on a spiritual journey, and “it’s through the wounds that transformation is going to happen.”

In accompanying, “you are the eyes, the hands, the ears of God in the process. Both are transformed in that. … We as the companions are transformed too. That’s why we have to be in this together.”