Evangelical Leaders Open Up About Family Suicides, Depression, and Other Mental Ills

The Rev. Matt Brogli, a pastor in North Carolina, has sent congregants to a secular psychologist. (Victor J. Blue for The New York Times)
The Rev. Matt Brogli, a pastor in North Carolina, has sent congregants to a secular psychologist. (Victor J. Blue for The New York Times)

The pastor’s phone rang in the midnight darkness. A man’s voice rasped: “My wife left me and I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth. Give me one reason why I shouldn’t pull the trigger.”

The Rev. Matt Brogli, a Southern Baptist pastor scarcely six months into his first job, was unnerved. Gamely, he prayed with the anonymous caller, trying out “every platitude I could possibly think of.”

Eventually the stranger assured Mr. Brogli that he would be all right. But the young pastor was shaken.

“I was in over my head,” he recalled. “I thought being a pastor meant giving sermons, loving my congregation, doing marriages and funerals, and some marital counseling.”

Since that midnight call two years ago, Mr. Brogli, 33, has become the unofficial mental health counselor not just for his church, but throughout Eagle Springs, population 8,500, a fading rural community of mostly poultry and tobacco workers, with five trailer parks and six churches.

It is no easy task, in large part because from pulpit to pew there is a silence and stigma among conservative Christians around psychiatric disorders, a relic of a time when mental illness was seen as demonic possession or a sign that the person had fallen in God’s eyes.

But Mr. Brogli and other evangelical ministers are trying to change all that.

“We need our evangelical leaders to lead by example, to say that not all psychiatric medicine is bad, to have conversations with non-Christian therapists,” Mr. Brogli said. “The older ministers say that mental illness is not an issue, but clearly it is.”

Evangelical leaders are increasingly opening up about family suicides, their own clinical depression and the relief they have received from psychiatric medication.

In 2013, Frank Page, president of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, which provides guidance to 16 million Baptists, published a searing, unvarnished account of his daughter’s struggle with mental illness, “Melissa: A Father’s Lessons From a Daughter’s Suicide.”

Melissa Page Strange, once spunky and fun-loving, ricocheted among addictions and risky relationships, and died at 34 of an overdose. Her parents had sent her to religious counselors, as well as secular psychiatrists and psychologists.

This month, a mental health advisory group appointed by Dr. Page offered a variety of proposals to help Southern Baptist congregants and their families with mental health challenges, the first time the church has addressed the subject in a direct and comprehensive manner. The proposals include providing churches with a database of Christian counselors and mental health providers, and offering more robust education about mental health in seminaries and at Christian colleges.

Dr. Page has been lecturing across the country about faith and mental illness. At each appearance, he said, he has been struck by the hunger for information and consolation.

He is eager to help pastors like Mr. Brogli. Dr. Page urges other clergy members to partner with clinicians in the treatment of mentally disturbed congregants.

In March 2013, the youngest child of Kay and Rick Warren, founders of Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., a megachurch of more than 20,000 congregants, fatally shot himself. Matthew Warren, 27, had had borderline personality disorder and major depression.

The Warrens have campaigned for mental health treatment among evangelicals. This spring Saddleback, along with the local Roman Catholic diocese and a mental health advocacy organization, held its first conference about mental illness and faith. Some 2,000 people attended, including 600 pastors.

The church’s website now points worshipers to resources for addiction and mental health. Officials at Saddleback have met with the leadership of an evangelical Christian university to create a program that educates students about mental health. This month, Saddleback held its first gathering for members whose loved ones committed suicide. In January, it will sponsor a weekend addressing suicide prevention in adolescents.

Nondenominational evangelical churches, such as some congregations in the Vineyard movement, have been embracing worshipers with mental illness and addictions.

Studies show that during episodes of stress, grief and depression, more Americans turn to clergy than mental health professionals.

Yet many new pastors like Mr. Brogli feel overwhelmed and ill equipped to help. Conservative Protestant seminaries offer little education in psychology, instead favoring courses on pastoral counseling with prayer and reading the Bible.

In a study by Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, 71 percent of Baptist pastors said they were unable to recognize mental illness. In another study, he found that while 55 of 70 seminaries offered pastoral counseling electives, directors said that students were often unable to fit them into their schedules.

People have knocked on the parsonage door of Eagle Springs Baptist Church at all hours to speak with Mr. Brogli about depression, domestic violence, self-injury, hoarding, drug and alcohol addiction, and bipolar disorder.

They come to him because he does not charge, thanking him with bags of apples and okra and bottles of homemade peach wine. “I don’t drink,” said Mr. Brogli, “but I appreciate the gesture.” They come because he listens attentively, his brown eyes warm and nonjudgmental.

But they also come to Mr. Brogli precisely because he is a pastor and not a psychologist.

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Jan Hoffman

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