(Originally published in Ethos Engage.mail)
Nearly half of all Australians will experience a mental health condition at some point in their lives. In a twelve month period, an estimated one in five people will be experiencing mental health challenges (Australian Bureau of Statistics, National survey of mental health and wellbeing, 2007). How many members of your congregation does that equate to? In my Sunday service of around eighty, that is roughly sixteen of the people I see every week.
Research indicates that religion and spirituality can promote hope and resilience and offer adherents a range of other resources to strengthen and protect their mental health (Harold G. Koenig, ‘Religion, spirituality and health: The research and clinical implications’, ISRN Psychiatry, 2012). However, for many Christians, the expectations that come with involvement in a church community can contribute to their mental health challenges.
As a Christian who has both experienced a mental health condition and cared for someone who has, I have found one of the key challenges facing Christians with a propensity to, or lived experience of, a mental health condition is the pressure to perform. By this I mean the external and internal pressure to live up to a particular Christian community’s expectations of what it means to be ‘a good Christian’.
The church as a stressor
I have been a member of three churches from three very different denominations, and have friends from a wide range of churches, many of which I have visited. From my observation, being a ‘good Christian’ in any evangelical, Protestant setting includes three main components: attendance (at church on Sundays and a weekly cell group); service (in one or more formal ministry roles); and personal devotion (involving daily prayer and Bible reading).
There is nothing wrong with these disciplines in themselves; they are practical applications of the Scriptural principles of gathering together, serving one another in love, living prayerfully and being guided by His Word. However, it is important to note that the Bible does notmandate how, or indeed specifically how frequently, we should do these things. We should therefore be careful not to judge a person’s spiritual worth by these standards. And yet we do.
If you think your church is immune, consider this. How do you, or others in your church community, react when someone begins to skip more Sundays than they attend? Or declines every invitation to join a ministry team? Or confesses that they are struggling to spend time with God? More to the point, what do you think(because, if we’re honest, what we say and do in the context of church sometimes fails to truly capture this!)?
I would be willing to bet that most of us have, to at least some extent, judged ourselves and others as ‘bad Christians’ for failing to perform the expected ‘duties’ mentioned above. We have probably questioned at least one person’s level of commitment, level of passion, order of priorities, even their salvation, on this basis. And we might have been correct in these assumptions. However, have we ever considered that something else could have been going on?
If you have ever experienced a mental health condition, or supported someone who has, you would probably understand that rest, self-care and saying ‘no’ are very important. The church’s specific expectations regarding attendance, service and personal devotion can appear impossibly overwhelming to someone just struggling to get by with the basics of life. Attempting to meet these standards could result in panic, exhaustion or embarrassment. On the other hand, refraining from participation can produce feelings of guilt, shame and worthlessness.
How much of this anguish is perpetuated by well-meaning Christians promoting church involvement without sensitivity to individual circumstances? Let’s just say, the many people in our midst experiencing mental health challenges could avoid a lot of heartache if we focused less on spiritual performance in our sermons, studies, schedules and conversations. If we not only taught and believed grace, but also practiced it with one another.
Performance culture in the church
Pastor and author Peter McHugh explains that the world sends us strong messages about performance from an early age. From childhood, we are rewarded when we do well, and punished when we do not. As we grow up, the need to compete for recognition and reward can place performance at the centre of our identity and self-worth (A Voyage of Mercy, 2015).
In adulthood, KPIs and competitive recruitment processes combine with a consumeristic drive for more money, more fame, more health, more pleasure, resulting in a constant pressure to be, and do, what is expected by our society. When these patterns inevitably overflow into our spiritual lives, we view ourselves and others according to spiritual performance (Peter McHugh, Above the Line, 2010). It is, according to Chuck Swindoll (The Grace Awakening, 2010), classic legalism:
Legalism says, “I do this, or I don’t do that, and therefore I am pleasing to God”. Or, “If only I could do this or not do that, I would be pleasing to God”. Or perhaps, “These things that I’m doing or not doing are the things I perform to win God’s favour”. They aren’t spelled out in Scripture, you understand. They’ve been passed down…
‘But we preach the gospel!’, I hear you cry. ‘Grace not works!’ I should hope so. However, I would argue that acceptance regardless of performance is something we’re very good at spouting intellectually, but often don’t really believe deep down. We still hold ourselves and others bondage to unnecessary religious rules, forever feeling spiritually inferior. As Kevin DeYoung muses, ‘I think most Christians hear these urgent calls to do more (or feel them internally already) and learn to live with a low-level of guilt that comes from not doing enough’ (Crazy Busy, 2013).
What this means for our mental health
As DeYoung indicates, some people are able to withstand or deflect the pressures of a performance culture. However, many of us have a personal or family history of mental health issues and may be more susceptible to experiencing chronic stress. If we push too hard, past our individual limits, with church commitments, on top of other competing responsibilities such as work, study or family, we are likely to burn ourselves out.
In preparing this article, I asked a set of questions to five friends and relatives, of diverse ages and denominational backgrounds, who expressed an interest in this topic. All are living with a diagnosed mental health condition, and all except one cited that pressures from their church involvement had been unhelpful. They have learned the hard way to pay strict attention to how much is ‘on their plate’. And this has not always been received well by other Christians. Here is what some of them had to say, in their own words:
The underlying culture amongst many Protestant communities that ‘doing’ is good and lots of activities are a sign of faithfulness has in some contexts caused problems for me. In some churches or Christian groups I have desperately struggled to maintain the fine balance I need of participation, rest and reflection to maintain a more healthy life, regardless of whether I am in an episode of major depression. (Female, 30s)
When I was doing formal ministry, leading youth group, I was constantly battling with the thought of failing…I often felt extremely guilty if my anxiety/depression made me not very enthusiastic, not prepared enough, not godly enough etc etc etc…I think the weekly late nights and the intense exhaustion of going on camps a few times a year also took a toll. (Female, 20s)
[For three years] I was engaged almost not at all in ministry activities. Since then…I have guarded my health and mental health and thereby preserved it; but this is partly by not engaging in activities as much as colleagues/church members would like and I sense there is some frustration with that. (Male, 40s)
I’ve managed to resist pressure to become involved in setup/packup and other activities while needing to take things gently with myself. (Female, 50s)
It is also important to note, however, that all five people I spoke to mentioned the importance of being pushed to participate once in a while as a positive thing for their mental health, especially as participating was a doorway to the aspects of church life that made them feel better – worship, prayer and community. So the line between encouragement and pressure can, it seems, be very fine.
Where to from here?
I hope my analysis of performance culture in the church does not come across as a scathing critique. In this article, I have focused on the challenges my contemporaries and I have faced living with a mental health condition in a church context. However, being part of a church community has, for all of us, been absolutely central to our ongoing wellbeing. And everyone I spoke to referred to Christians in their lives who had been understanding and supportive.
But how can we reduce the pressure on people living with a mental health condition in our churches? How can we support them to participate in the activities that strengthen and comfort them, while being sensitive to their potential need to pull back? Here are some suggestions:
1. Critically evaluate your church culture
Consider what is taught (and caught) in your church about participation and performance. What are members expected to ‘do’, and how are people who don’t live up to these expectations viewed? Are people in your church living balanced lives, incorporating rest and leisure as well as church activities and work, study or family?
2. Talk about mental health
The more people know about mental health, the more understanding they generally are about its impacts. Addressing mental health in sermons, cell group discussions and general conversation can create a safe, non-judgemental environment where people living with a mental health condition may feel more accepted and better able to share their experiences and needs.
3. Ask, don’t tell
When someone confides in you about mental health issues they are experiencing, try not to jump to conclusions that ‘if only they prayed, trusted, read their Bible etc. more’ they would feel better. The last thing a person feeling like a spiritual failure needs is another call to perform. Listen to understand, not to provide unsolicited advice. Ask them what helps them to manage, and encourage them to persevere.
Lastly, if you are, or someone you know is, experiencing serious and ongoing distress, please seek professional help. For information about treatment options, talk to your doctor. If you’re in Australia, call beyondblue on 1300 224 636 or visit http://www.beyondblue.org.au.
If you are thinking about suicide or experiencing a personal crisis, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.
This article will also appear in the forthcoming Zadok issue on ‘Precarious and Predatory World’. You can subscribe to Zadok here.