“We want to be witnesses to mercy”

First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, North Carolina, partners with Sun Counseling & Wellness to address the mental health crisis.

Brain , concept idea art of thinking, surreal portrait painting, conceptual artwork, 3d illustration

Illustration by Jorm Sangsorn.

“How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” — Psalm 13:2

The need

A 2021 survey by the National Institute of Mental Health found that 57.8 million Americans live with a mental illness, among them depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Of that number, 26.5 million – 47.2 percent – received help in the past year. That means more than half the Americans living with a mental illness did not receive help. This epidemic often ends in heartbreak. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 49,449 people died by suicide in 2022. Those in crisis should call 911 or the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.

49,449 people died by suicide in 2022.

Called to meet the need

“I believe one of the reasons First Presbyterian Church has been a mainstay in uptown Charlotte for more than 200 years is because our faith leads us to care about our city’s needs. Our commitment to help meet the needs of the people of Charlotte isn’t one of many programs we have in the church, it is why our church exists; it is why we believe God planted us in the center of our city. We have a mental health crisis in Charlotte and as a country. Our partnership with Sun Counseling & Wellness allows us to be a vessel for connecting the people God calls us to care for with professional providers who can help.” — Rev. Pendleton Perry, Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C.

A trailblazing initiative is helping First Presbyterian Church live up to its watchword, “For Christ in the heart of Charlotte.”

Amid the crisis that one expert told church leaders was a “tsunami,” First Presbyterian in uptown Charlotte, North Carolina, has launched a mental health ministry. Many houses of worship avoid the issue. A 2019 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) survey found that 54 percent of clergy and lay leaders say their church is interested in learning more about mental health ministry — yet only 30 percent say they are equipped to do something.

First Presbyterian, founded in 1821, its steeple standing tall beside the booming city’s skyscrapers, is doing something.

First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, North Carolina, is nestled amongst skyscrapers. Photo from First Presbyterian’s Facebook.

The church has partnered with Sun Counseling & Wellness in Charlotte to provide two full-time counselors who see clients at the church. Ages 8 and above are welcome regardless of whether they can afford it — church members, those who attend other houses of worship or no house of worship. A crucial part of the mission is to serve the 22,000 people who live in uptown Charlotte and the 100,000 who work there (when they are not working remotely).

Given the need, Juliet Lam Kuehnle of Sun Counseling & Wellness calls the timing of the partnership “divine.”

Pendleton Peery, the 1,900-member congregation’s senior pastor, calls it an opportunity from which the church cannot run: “We have a mental health crisis in Charlotte and as a country.”

Eighty percent of clients have received financial help to pay for their sessions, including a few who are experiencing homelessness.

Since counseling at the church began late last year, therapists Sheba Surratt and Andrea Suarez have seen 100 clients — a range of ages, races and sexualities. Many return for recurring, weekly 50-minute sessions. Eighty percent have received financial help to pay for the sessions, including a few who are experiencing homelessness. Clients have been charged anywhere from nothing to $200 per session, depending on what they can afford.

Especially as it relates to the most fragile among us, God is in the details. To honor clients’ privacy, the counseling center entrance and waiting area are separate from the church’s main entrance. Parking, always a bugaboo in Charlotte’s Center City, is plentiful and free in the church lot.

Associate Pastor for Congregational Care at First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte
Anna Dickson. Photo from FPCC’s website.

While clients are welcome to discuss their faith (or lack of faith), this is not pastoral counseling. The priority isn’t intended to guide the hurting and troubled toward Jesus as the answer to their depression, anxiety, eating disorder or whatever challenge weighs them down.

“It’s not evangelism,” says Anna Dickson, associate pastor of congregational care.

“It’s not evangelism.”

Dickson was part of a committee of church members that established the mental health ministry. It is funded by contributions to the church’s 2020 Opening Doors Capital Campaign which raised $12 million for improvements to the historic church building. In addition to mental health, a portion of those funds are going to global missions and expanding early childhood education.

Part of the initiative is working with Sun Counseling & Wellness to offer classes, programs, retreats and more. For example, a series of evening classes this autumn for parents of children elementary-age and younger will explore such challenges as dealing with tantrums and communicating with their child. This effort and others to come will be open to the community.

First Presbyterian is not alone

While many houses of worship lack the will and/or resources to address mental health, First Presbyterian isn’t alone.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), home to 8,700 congregations, adopted a denomination-wide initiative on mental health that includes grants for churches, councils and seminaries to establish new programs. Since 2019, $317,369 in grants have been given away, including $49,000 for 14 projects in 2023. Most focus on educating congregations and communities about the problem, destigmatizing those struggling with issues, and training church staff and laity to offer support. One example: The Presbytery of Eastern Oregon was awarded $9,949 to focus on mental health in remote, rural communities.

In San Antonio, Texas, First Presbyterian Church helped establish an annual Pathways To Hope conference. The gathering – the most recent one was Aug. 25-26 – brings together leaders from the faith, mental health, social work, judicial and law enforcement communities to explore how to shatter the stigma around the crisis. Among the workshops: “Creating Conversation About Mental Health In Faith Communities.

Warren Kinghorn, a psychiatrist and theologian with Duke Divinity School and Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, has no connection to the initiative at First Presbyterian in Charlotte and thus isn’t in a position to comment on it. But generally, when he speaks at churches, he shares ways that the faith community can address mental health: Preach about it from the pulpit. Organize support groups. (In Charlotte, North Carolina, Christ Episcopal Church formed a suicide support group for loved ones after several parishioners died by suicide.) Offer classes on warning signs. Include information on the congregation’s website. Place pamphlets in the lobby. Invite people to tell their stories. Call people with mental illness into leadership positions.

The good Samaritan

The lobby of First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte’s new counseling center is near the fresco “The Good Samaritan” by artist Ben Long. Photo by Dartinia Hull.

The new counseling center at First Presbyterian Church is in the shadow of “The Good Samaritan.” A fresco depicting the familiar story – impossible to ignore at eight feet tall and 28 feet long – was commissioned by the church and unveiled in 2001 in the then-new fellowship hall. Jesus shares the parable in Luke — how a man beaten and left for dead by robbers is rescued by a Samaritan after a priest and Levite pass him by. Jesus’ command? “Go and do likewise.”

In his interpretation for First Presbyterian, artist Ben Long placed young shepherds on a hill overlooking the Samaritan caring for the beaten man. Dickson, the associate pastor, calls the children “witnesses to mercy.” When the church needed space for the counseling center, the best spot turned out to be in the shadow of shepherds.

There’s a lesson there, and a mission.

As Dickson said, “We want to be witnesses to mercy.”

“We want to be witnesses to mercy.”

Is your church considering a new program addressing mental health? The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted a denomination-wide initiative on mental health that includes grants for churches, councils and seminaries to establish new programs. The deadline to apply for the next round of grants is March 15, 2024. Details: