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The Mental Health Ministry of the Local Church by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.


Howard J. Clinebell, Jr. Is Professor of Pastoral Counseling at the School of Theology at Claremont, California (1977). He is a member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, and the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. He is a licensed marriage, child and family counselor in the State of California. His personal website is http://members.aol.com/clinebellh/index.htm, and his email address is clinebellH@aol.com. Originally published as Mental Health Through Christian Community Copyright © 1965,1972 by Abingdon Press Apex Edition published 1972. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Introduction by James A. Knight, M.D.


There is a growing commitment throughout our country to the development of comprehensive community-based programs for the treatment and prevention of mental illness. Such programs have acquired the name of "community psychiatry" or "community mental health." The church's capacity to involve itself in every aspect of community life has served as a model for the development of certain aspects of the community mental health centers. At the same time, these centers bring a new set of challenges and possibilities to the church. The discovery of new healing powers and methods for dealing with human ills has provided resources which the church must recognize and use in its ministry to human beings.

A distinctive feature of Christianity from its beginning has been its deep concern with the fate of the individual. Since the problem of health is a problem of the state of the individual, it is understandable how Christianity has been permeated with concern with health. Formerly, religious healing became one of its central bases of validation.

The church at times has equated salvation with "being saved," while neglecting the dimension of being healed or making, whole which the root salvus denotes. This has resulted in theology and medicine losing some of the intimate connection they originally had and always should have. The message conveyed by the healing stories in the New Testament is that the kingdom of God would come as the healing power on earth.

The church in its beginning and in its greatest periods has seen no basic conflict between the role of the healer and the role of the bishop. It has held the conviction that the totality of human need cannot be met where people try to compartmentalize man into body, soul, or psyche, but that man's needs are best met when he is seen as a whole person and when all of the resources of man and God are appropriated to meet that need. It has continually stressed that God works through the knowledge of science and the sources of healing that he has placed in nature.

Healing power is latent in man because it is latent in the nature of things. We live in a universe where positive values are actualized through an interplay of natural, human, and divine creativity. Every therapist counts on the drive for recovery, deep within his patient, that goes beyond the conscious devising of himself and his patients. The therapist's task is to participate in the releasing of healing processes rather than to invent them.

Dr. Clinebell has written a challenging guidebook for making the church's ministry more effective in the field of mental health. Several years ago, an eminent theologian mentioned that one of the difficulties in the effective correlation of "religious and scientific psychotherapy" was the lack of the-institutional means of cooperation; Clinical pastoral training and community psychiatry are two recent developments that represent major steps toward furnishing the institutional means.

The central message in The Mental Health Ministry of the Local Church is that the church as a healing-redemptive fellowship is inescapably concerned with mental health in both the preventive and therapeutic dimensions. Dr. Clinebell carefully shows that the contemporary mental health thrust in the churches, while having the advantage of new insights from the sciences of man and new helping techniques from the psychotherapeutic disciplines, is essentially the same concern for the healing and growth of persons as was found in the ministry of Jesus and throughout the church's history.

It is to Dr. Clinebell's credit that he is not advocating the "use" of the clergy and the resources of the church in the service of the nation's mental health. Rather, he establishes the place of the local church as a mental health resource without distorting the ultimate goals of the church or the prevailing forms of her functioning. He contends that each activity in the church should make itself count by contributing significantly to the growth of persons in their ability to live creatively and to love fully themselves, others, and God. His examination of each of the areas of a local church's life is done in the perspective of how each area may make the maximum contribution to the spiritual health and growth of persons.

Of all the phases of church life that Dr. Clinebell discusses, his comments on the group life of the church are of particular interest. Applicants to medical school often identify this group life as the major integrating factor in their lives during the stormy period of adolescent development. This is only one example; many can be given.

In studying the biblical healing stories, one notes that healing seems to have taken place almost invariably in some corporate context. The group atmosphere in the New Testament healing episodes was a most significant factor in the preparation and support of the healing process. In the life of the early church, where healing became more and more associated with the corporate worship and the sacramental life of the believing community, the element of group atmosphere became a factor of prime importance.

Today, a neglected area of church life is the use of the congregation as an instrument of therapy. The church as a therapeutic and redemptive community can have profound influence upon the health of the individual and the group. The patient with an emotional problem is often lonely and isolated, desperately needing to feel a sense of community with others. The congregation has within its very structure the ability to heal his isolation, to rescue the alcoholic, to answer the cry for help of the suicide candidate, to give direction and structure to the adolescent. The church also has a great opportunity with the "marginal" person who is living on the edge of life and who is in danger of dropping out of his family and of society. Also, the church can function as one of the finest stabilizing forces for senior citizens, providing a sense of purpose and significance to their lives and incorporating them meaningfully and creatively into the religious group life of the church and the community. And above all, the individual in psychotherapy at some point in his search for healing runs head on into the religious question. He often turns to the church, especially if encouraged to do so, to explore fundamental questions related to the nature and destiny of man- and his ever-present existential anxiety and guilt.

But the group life of the church is only one among many of the prevailing forms of church functioning which Dr. Clinebell evaluates. He examines in the perspective of community mental health the major functions of the church, such as worship, preaching, the prophetic ministry, the church school, family-life programs, administration, evangelism, and other areas. He offers valuable and constructive approaches for renewal.

Dr. Clinebell has lucidly translated his concerns and knowledge regarding mental health into a blueprint for action in the local church. He brings to his subject extensive clinical experience and theoretical sophistication. He covets for every aspect of the church's ministry a central position in the community's search for wholeness. The author has the rare gift of stating theological presuppositions in such a way that the religious dimension in all of life is illuminated and accepted. He has worked for years with refreshing originality and great effectiveness in bringing the new developments of the behavioral sciences to the church and, at the same time, has been a good interpreter of the theological to the professionals in the behavioral sciences.

Hopefully, both laymen and professionals in the religious and behavioral science fields will use this book, and use it collaboratively, in seeking to attain "mental health through Christian community."

James A. Knight, M.D.

Professor of Psychiatry

Associate Dean

Tulane University School of Medicine

New Orleans, Louisiana

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