Chapter 1: The Mental Health Mission of the Local Church

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

Chapter 1: The Mental Health Mission of the Local Church

Stir up the gift of God, which is in thee.... For God

hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power,

and of love, and of a sound mind.—II Tim. 1:6-7


The message of this book has three themes: (a) Mental health is a central and inescapable concern of any local church that is a healing-redemptive fellowship. (b) A local church today has an unprecedented opportunity to multiply its contributions to both the preventive and the therapeutic dimensions of mental health. (c) A church can seize this opportunity most effectively by allowing mental health to become a leavening concern, permeating all areas of its life. When this occurs, the spirit of Christian community flourishes in the many facets of a church’s program, causing it to become a center of healing and growth.

Churches have always been major contributors to personality health. As Karl Menninger has observed, "religion has been the world’s psychiatrist throughout the centuries." (Man Against Himself (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1938), p. 449. Without the stabilizing, undergirding, nurturing, value-supporting ministries of the churches, millions of persons in every age would have been diminished in their abilities to handle life situations constructively. Further, they would have been much more vulnerable to mental, emotional, and spiritual illnesses.

The mental health contributions of the past have been significant but they do not compare with the remarkable potentialities of the foreseeable future! A heartening upsurge of concern for mental health is occurring in society at large and in many churches. There are clear indications that the time is ripe for the churches to make a major breakthrough in the area of mental health. This is the hope and challenge of our present situation. The purpose of this book is to wrestle with how a local church can share in this breakthrough by fulfilling its mental health mission.

The local church is in a strategic position on the front lines of mental health, in both its preventive and therapeutic aspects. Year in, year out, most churches are contributing significantly to the growth of persons and the healing of their inner wounds. We know from a recent study that nearly as many troubled people seek counseling from clergymen as from all other helping professions combined.( Gerald Gurin, et al., Americans View Their Mental Health (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1960), p. 307.) The churches have face-to-face relationships with over 120,000,000 adults and youth—more than any other institution in our society. Think of the opportunity for enhancing positive mental health which this gives the churches!

The various aspects of a local church’s program help many people in a wide variety of ways. But the potential contributions of the many-faceted program of a local church are like a vein of rich ore which we have only begun to discover and mine. This book aims at applying some insights from pastoral psychology to the major dimensions of a church’s program—worship, preaching, the prophetic ministry, the church school, the group life, the family-life program, administration and evangelism—as a way of mining this ore. My intention is to develop a practical guidebook for maximizing a local church’s mental health ministry.

To the superficial observer, the typical church has the appearance of a three-ring circus. Some churches are just that! But an effective, person-centered church, when known from the inside, is recognized as being much more like a large, busy family than a circus. During any given week, a remarkable variety of meaningful activities occurs within its program, involving persons of all ages. These many activities offer frequent opportunities for personal growth.

The widespread concern, shared by dedicated laymen and ministers alike, is that their church’s buzzing schedule not be, like Ezekiel’s vision, merely wheels within wheels. Each activity should make itself count by contributing significantly to the growth of persons in their ability to live creatively and to love themselves, others, and God more fully. It is to this concern that the chapters ahead seek to speak a clear word. To do so, they will examine each of the areas of a local church’s life from the perspective of a single, guiding question: How can this area of the life of a church make the maximum contribution to the spiritual health and growth of persons? This question will be used as a searchlight in exploring the untapped resources for wholeness which exist so abundantly in that living, interpersonal organism which is the local church.

The hope of any church is inherent in those laymen and ministers who love it and know that its timeless gospel is still "good news." Such persons are keenly aware of the meaning and challenge which the Christian religion has brought to their lives and to millions of their fellows. They know that the churches, with all their weaknesses, are often remarkably effective channels for helping persons develop their fullest personhood. They believe that the message and the fellowship of the church are crucially important resources for helping all of us to be more alive in this "age of nerves."

These churchmen are also aware that the stresses of life distort many people into "inferior caricatures of what they might have been," (Harry Stack Sullivan, Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1953), p. 27.) as one of the pioneers of modern psychiatry has put it. They feel the immense tragedy of this fact. They long for the fullest flowering of God-given potentialities in themselves and in others. They want no part of the Miltown approach to religion. Naturally they want peace of mind, but they also want both strength of mind (Joint Commission on Mental Illness and Health, Action for Mental Health (NCI York: Basic Books, Inc., 1961), p. xxvii.) and vivid awareness of the needs of others. They suspect that the churches have only begun to apply the fresh insights of the sciences of man to their life and work. They are eager to help enhance the person-centeredness of the churches in which they provide leadership. It is of such people that the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Robert H. Felix, speaks when he declares: "Religious leaders are in the forefront of professional people who recognize the need to apply scientific findings about human personality to their work with people "("The Hard Core of Counseling." Pastoral Psychology, April, 1950, p. 37.)

It is to these ministers and lay leaders that this book is addressed.

To find the hidden veins of precious mental health ore in your church will not be an easy task, but this is precisely the challenge. My hope is that this book will help you respond to this challenge in ways that will allow your church to grow in the greatness of its service to persons.

What is Positive Mental Health?

Mental health is desired and cherished by most people, for themselves and their loved ones. Ordinarily we do not call it "mental health," but when we long for happiness, inner serenity, and effectiveness in living, we are actually searching for mental health. The simple description of mental health—happiness experienced at a deep level—is useful in communicating its positive quality. This description is, of course, an oversimplification, since mental health includes the capacity to experience a wide variety of deep feelings including sorrow, disappointment, anger, and empathy, as well as what is usually meant by happiness.( Happiness, by itself, is not an adequate criterion for measuring mental health because some people defend themselves against unconscious feeling of despair by a facade of "happiness." They are the so-called "smiling depressives." Further, many other people are happy to the degree that life brings them close to what they desire. Thus, external circumstances rather than mental health could be the decisive factor in determining such a person’s happiness.)

Social psychologist Marie Jahoda made an exhaustive study of positive mental health concepts.( Current Concepts of Positive Mental Health (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1958) . She found that the term is extremely elusive and ambiguous in current psychological thought, but she was able to identify six major approaches by various schools of thought. Combining and paraphrasing these as criteria, we could say that a person is mentally healthy to the degree that: (a) His attitudes toward himself are characterized by self-acceptance, self-esteem, and accuracy of self-perception. (b) He actualizes his potentialities through personal growth. (c) His inner drives are focused and his personality integrated (the opposite of being fragmented by inner conflicts.) (d) He has a dependable sense of inner identity and values so that he is not overly dependent on the influence of others. (e) He is able to see reality—the world and other people—with accuracy because his subjective needs do not distort his perceptions. (f) He is able to take what life gives him; master his environment; and enjoy love, work, and play.( For other paraphrases of these six approaches see Jahoda, p. xi and Richard V. McCann, Theca Churches and Mental Health (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1962), p. 5.)

As these criteria indicate, mental health is a positive condition and not merely the absence of mental illness. The absence of incapacitating psychological problems is a necessary but not a sufficient sign of mental health. The term "mental health" should give us the feeling of warmth and sunlight, not merely the absence of cold and shadow. Erich Fromm’s description in The Sane Society carries this positive emphasis:

The mentally healthy person is the productive and unalienated person; the person who relates himself to the world lovingly, and who uses his reason to grasp reality objectively; who experiences himself as a unique individual entity, and at the same time feels one with his fellowman; who is not subject to irrational authority, and who accepts willingly the rational authority of conscience and reason; who is in the process of being born as long as he is alive, and considers the gift of life the most precious chance he has.( Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1955), p. 275.)

Elsewhere in the same volume, Fromm points out that mental health is characterized "by the ability to love and to create." (Ibid., p.69.)

Mental health is more of a road than a goal. It is movement in a certain direction, not the achievement of a psychological halo. Lawrence K. Frank emphasizes the growth aspect: "Healthy personalities are to be viewed as individuals who continue to grow, develop, and mature, accepting the requirements and opportunities of each successive stage of life . . . and finding the fulfillment they offer." ("The Promotion of Mental Health " Annals of American Academy of Political and Social Science, 286 (1953), 169.)

Many descriptions of mental health make it sound like a very big order. (Mental Health Education: A Critique (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Mental Health, Inc., 1960), is a candid and realistic evaluation of the use of the concept of mental health in educational efforts. Unless one remembers that even the most fortunate person achieves these qualities only to a limited degree, mental health becomes a burdensome rather than a releasing idea. That paragon of perfect mental health sometimes encountered in Sunday supplement articles does not exist in flesh and blood. The research studies of so-called normal people—that is, people who have families, hold jobs and are involved in no major conflicts with the laws of society— disclose "rich pathological material" in the average man’s personality. Most people have temporary psychological upsets from time to time.

From the perspective of a religious orientation, most definitions of mental health are deficient in that they omit an emphasis on the vertical dimension of life—the dimension of values, meanings, and the spiritual reality which we call God. Spiritual health—the adequacy of one’s philosophy of life and the maturity of one’s relationship with God—is an indispensable aspect of mental health. Inadequacies in this area are often causative factors in producing mental disturbance. In the light of this, "mental health," as the term is employed in this book, includes a satisfying and growing relationship with God, as the person understands him. The term mental health, then, has four major aspects—the ability to relate constructively with oneself (inner unity), with other people, and with God, and the ability to cope with the demands of life.

To offset the perfectionism which tends to make a burden of the idea of mental health, it is helpful to point out what mental health is not (as stated by a group of experts in the mental health disciplines, meeting at Cornell University in 1958). Mental health is not:

1. Adjustment under all circumstances. There are many circumstances to which man should not adjust, otherwise there would be no progress. 2. Freedom from anxiety and tensions. Anxiety and tension are often prerequisites and accompaniments of creativity and self-preservation.... 3. Freedom from dissatisfaction.... 4. Conformity. One criterion of maturity is the ability to stand apart from the crowd when conditions indicate. . . 5. Constant happiness. In this imperfect world, a sensitive, mature person often experiences unhappiness. 6. A lessening of accomplishment and creativity. Mental health is characterized by the ability of the individual to use his powers ever more fully. 7. The absence of personal idiosyncrasies. Many such idiosyncrasies which do not interfere with function enrich the life of the individual and those who come in contact with him. 8. The undermining of authority. Mental health is characterized by the increased ability of the individual to use and respect realistic authority while deprecating the use of authority as an oppressive force.... 9. Opposition to religious values. Mental health facilitates and complements the aims of religion inasmuch as it fosters the highest spiritual and social values.( Ibid., pp. 13-14.)

Why a Central Concern of the Church?

A church’s concern for mental health is at the very center of its mission, at the heart of its God-given task. It is not a frill nor a fad, but a logical, inescapable expression of a church’s central mission on earth. Here are four reasons why mental health is an essential part of the church’s mission:

(1) Mental health is directly linked to the fundamental purpose of the church. In their classic study, reported in The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, H. Richard Niebuhr and his collaborators concluded that "no substitute can be found for the definition of the goal of the Church as the increase among men of the love of God and neighbor." (The Purpose of the Church and It’s Ministry (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956), p. 31.) One basic function that is impaired in the mentally ill person is his ability to give and receive love. A teacher of psychiatry has observed that the two great commandments of Jesus provide a test of mental health. To the extent that a person is able to love God and neighbor, he is mentally healthy. When one sees the basic purpose of the church and the nature of mental health in juxtaposition, their interrelationship becomes clear. To say to a person who is crippled in his ability to love, "What you need is to love God and your neighbor," is like saying to a man clinging to a log in mid-ocean, "What you need is dry land." Nothing could be truer or less helpful. In working for positive mental health or for the improved treatment of personality problems the church is implementing its basic purpose by enhancing the ability of persons to love God and neighbor.

In other words, mental health deals with the well-being of that which in Christian ethics is regarded as the most precious part of God’s creation—personality. George Albert Coe’s familiar definition of religion as "the discovery of persons" points in the same direction. Mental health is enhanced when persons are discovered—discovered on the level where they hope and hurt, on the level of their hunger and despair. A parent who discovers his child—that is, discovers how to satisfy the child’s deep personality hungers—will enhance the child’s mental health.

(2) Spiritual health and mental health are inseparably related. As indicated above, spiritual health is an indispensable aspect of mental health. The two can be separated only on a theoretical basis. In live human beings, spiritual and mental health are inextricably interwoven. Whatever hurts or heals one’s relationship with oneself and others will tend to hurt or heal one’s relationship with God, and vice versa. Robert H. Pelix has pointed out that the more human personality is studied from the medical viewpoint the more we become aware of the important role of religious faith in maintaining mental and emotional health. On the other hand, psychiatrist Richard G. Johnson has stated that "a healthy mind is necessary for a person to get the most out of his religion." (Former psychiatric director of the Mental Health Clinic at the Westwood, California, Methodist Church in a lecture at the Veterans Administration Seminar, 1958.) (It is significant that the words "health," "hale," "whole," and "holy" come from the same Anglo-Saxon root.) (Paul B. Maves (ed.), The Church and Mental Health (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), p. 1.)) Morris L. West writes: "The sick mind is a defective instrument in the great symphony which is God’s dialogue with man." (The Shoes of the Fisherman (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1963), p. 79.)

The relationship between mental health and religious awareness is often complex. Many brilliant religious insights have been produced by persons whose mental health was anything but robust. A chronic depressive such as Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, is a superb illustration of this. Is it that emotional disturbances force people like the "gloomy Dane" to look below the surface of the so-called "normal" world? It may be, as Rollo May has suggested, that some people experience mental difficulties because they are more sensitive than others to the injustices, cruelties, and irrationalities of life. In any case, the church should reject any easy identification of optimum spiritual development with culture-bound definitions of mental health.( A line from William James’s Gifford lectures is relevant at this point: "At any rate you must all be ready now to judge the religious life by its results exclusively. and I shall assume that the bugaboo of morbid origin will scandalize your piety no more." From Theca Varieties of Religious Experience (Modern library ed., New York: Random House, 1936), p. 2). Having said this, it is important to reemphasize the many continuities and correlations which arc found between a person’s experiences with people and his relationship with God.

(3) Mental health has been a central concern of the Christian community throughout the centuries. Mental health is a modern label for an ancient concern. In the Christian church it is as ancient as the life of a young carpenter who is said to have declared, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10: 10) . It is as ancient as the Christian concern for wholeness in persons. A sense of the deep roots in our tradition of passion for personality wholeness can help the mental health concern catch fire in a local congregation. Halford Luccock once declared, "There are a lot of people chattering about the ‘new psychology’ who never heard of the old psychology." (Halford Luccock, Marching off the Map, and Other Sermons (New York: Harper & Row, 1952), p. 162.) A study such as Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective gives convincing evidence that the church at its best has always had a vital interest in what we now call mental health.( (W. A. Clebsch and C. J. Jaekle (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964); see also John T. McNeill, A History of the Cure of Souls (New York: Harper &: Brothers, 1951) and Charles F. Kemp, Physicians of theca Soul (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1947).

The contemporary mental health thrust in the churches has the advantage of new insights from the sciences of man and new helping techniques from the psychotherapeutic disciplines. But essentially, it is the same concern for the healing and growth of persons as was found in the ministry of Jesus, in the apostolic church, in the work of John Chrysostom (the church father who thought of himself as a "physician of souls"), in the ministry of Martin Luther with his "Letters of Spiritual Counsel," and of great pastors such as Richard Baxter of the Puritan period and Horace Bushnell of the nineteenth century.

(4) Mental health is a central concern of the church because of the tragic toll of human agony caused by its absence. Anything that hurts a single child of God is of immediate concern to a Christian. The weight of raw human suffering caused by the absence of mental health defies comprehension.

Let us say that an hypothetical minister serves a congregation which includes five hundred adults representing a cross-section of the American population. (This would, of course, be an atypical Protestant congregation since the middle class tends to be overrepresented in such groups.) Based on various research studies, it could be estimated that approximately twenty-five of his members have been hospitalized for major mental illness in the past, twenty-four are alcoholics, another fifty are severely handicapped by neurotic conflicts, and another one hundred by moderate neurotic symptoms.( W. L Holt, Jr., "The Mental Disease Problem as Seen by the Practicing Physician," Health Week [November, 1955], pp. 17-18.)

One hundred fifteen members of his congregation would answer "yes" to the question, "Have you ever felt you were going to have a nervous breakdown?" Seventy would have sought professional help with a personal or marital problem in the past.( W. L Holt, Jr., "The Mental Disease Problem as Seen by the Practicing Physician," Health Week [November, 1955], pp. 17-18.) Over six of his parishioners will be hospitalized for mental illness in any given year. An average of one member of his congregation will attempt suicide every other year. Eight members of his congregation will be involved in serious crimes in a given year. If the married persons in his congregation were asked to rate the relative happiness of their nuptial relationship, fewer than half would rate them as "very happy"(Ibid. p.92)

When projected on a national scale the statistics are as follows (Unless otherwise Noted, these figures are from "Facts About Mental Illness."):

Hospitalized during a year for psychiatric treatment


Hospitalized at any one time for mental illness


Children and youth treated for mental disturbances


Total children and youth needing psychiatric help




Drug addicts


Suicides per year


Serious crimes per year


Juveniles arrested per year


Children living in homes broken by divorce or death


Divorces per year


Persons incapacitated by major neurotic conflicts


Spent on tranquilizers per year




Even if one chooses to make sizable deductions from these figures to allow for possible overestimates, the picture is still one of overpowering darkness and despair. The cold statistics represent an immense load of pain. To those who are seriously enough disturbed to become statistics must be added the anonymous millions whose God-given creativity is crippled by self-doubt, guilt, and anxiety. In every church and every community a considerable percentage of "normal" people exist as emotional cripples, living half-lives at only a small fraction of their potentialities. The possibilities for good which a positive program of mental health can have for such persons defies the imagination.

Nearly everyone has read statistics like these time and again in the popular press. They are what the volume Action for Mental Health describes as "shocking figures that no longer shock." A seminary professor of ethics has described Christian love as "the ability to read statistics with compassion." (Waldo Beach, Duke Divinity School.) Somehow we must get behind the statistics on mental illness to the suffering human beings they represent—persons with the same basic feelings that you and I have.

For the sake of its spiritual integrity, the church must take an interest in the problems of mental illness. A local church can so easily become a polite, middle-class club—comfortable and irrelevant to human agony. Firsthand contact with the grimly discouraging work of helping the hurt and the troubled can keep a church close to the infected wounds of our society. Based on McCann’s research concerning what the churches are doing in the field of mental illness and mental health, the authors of Action for Mental Health wrote this indictment of our lethargy and unconcern: "The prevalence of religion in modern American society, as measured by church membership . . . does not seem to have had any measurable positive or negative effect on mental health.... Moreover, the churches, as nearly as this study was able to determine, are not devoting much more attention to mental health than is society at large." (Action for Mental Health, pp. 139-40) The familiar words of Dean Inge are relevant here: "In religion, nothing fails like success"

Consider this modern paraphrase of a familiar story:

A certain man went down the rocky twisted road on his inner journey. The thieves of unhappy experiences, disappointments, and anxieties robbed him of his mental and spiritual well-being, leaving him broken and bleeding beside the road of life. A minister came along, and later, a leading layman. Both saw the man broken in spirit beside the road. But they were very busy with other important matters. So they walked by on the other side. After a while, a social worker (or a member of AA Gambler’s Anonymous, or Recovery) came by that way. He saw the man broken in spirit and had compassion on him, binding up his mental and spiritual wounds. Then he took him to a halfway house where he could regain his health. Who, then, was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves of mental health?

This modern parable is obviously unjust to the ministers and laymen I described earlier in this chapter. Many of them are actively engaged in mental health activities. But if McCann’s findings are accurate the parable speaks the truth about many local churches.

The Things That Make for Mental Health

Positive mental health, like a plant, grows best in a certain environment. The interpersonal environment within which mental health flourishes is one in which basic personality needs are satisfied (see chap. 6) . When human relationships in a family, a church, or a community are of such a quality as to satisfy the heart-hungers of persons, they grow toward the fulfillment of their potentialities. When relationships block the satisfaction of these needs, persons stop growing and become vulnerable to personality illnesses. When the personality needs of parents and children are relatively well-satisfied in a home, the marriage is sturdy and parent-child relationships flower. Temporary personality malnutrition produces garden-variety unhappiness and conflict. Severe and continuing deprivation produces personality warping and illnesses.

A local church is part of the extended family a part of that web of meaningful relationships which encircle and undergird the inner circle of the family. As in the case of the family, the health and effectiveness of a church are directly related to its success in satisfying the needs of people. A "good church," like a "good marriage," is one within which persons find a quality of relatedness which satisfies their heart-hungers. The inspiration, fellowship, and sense of belonging which come from involvement in the life of a church where people are "members one of another" (Rom. 12:5) is an important source of psychological nourishment. This satisfaction of inner needs helps nurture mental health and prepares one to meet the needs of others.



Clebsch, W. A. and Jaekle, C, R. Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964.

Gurin, Gerald, et. al. Americans View Their Mental Health. New York Basic Books, Inc., 1960.

Jahoda, Marie. Current Concepts of Positive Mental Health. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1958.

Maves, Paul B. (ed.) The Church and Mental Health. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953.

McCann, Richard V. The Churches and Mental Health. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1962.