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  • Writer's pictureEdmund Ng

B13: My Personal Journey to Promote the Incorporation of Mental Health in Churches

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

In 2005, I was serving as a pastor in a local church in Malaysia and God turned me around 180 degrees from preaching to congregants from the stage to counseling individuals on a one-to-one basis. My calling to the mental health (MH) ministry is beyond my wildest dreams or anything I had planned for my life.

 

That year, my first wife died suddenly of a brain aneurysm and I was deeply devastated. A week following her death, my church pastors visited me, and in my time of grief when I could not distinguish between day and night, all they talked to me was about our domestic church problems. Through my personal struggles, I discovered first-hand the glaring incompetency in many of our churches in caring for and supporting others with their MH difficulties.

 

To help myself, I took up a counseling course that eventually led me to study both psychology and theology till the doctoral level. Since then, I have been promoting MH to the churches to encourage them to embrace the knowledge and application of it as an additional ministry skill for church growth and discipleship.




Early initiative to restore grief support

 

As a result of my loss experience, my first initiative was to run a grief support group in the new church that I attended. In those days, Malaysian society as a whole was generally still unfamiliar with the psychological construct of grief and how to cope with it.

 

Deeply convinced that our churches have neglected to comfort those who mourn, my passion then was also to restore this ministry of compassion back to the body of Christ. Indeed, it was this neglect that MH researchers noted some 75 years ago that there was a rising public demand for professional grief counseling services, and so they began to learn more about grief.

 

I also went around from church to church to conduct seminars on grief and encourage them to set up grief support groups to minister to the grieving among both Christians and people from the community. However, out of the 50 churches that I taught in, only four did eventually set up grief support groups. The key factor was that the senior pastors of those four churches took a keen interest in grief support because they had gone through certain loss experiences themselves.

 

Importance of being MH-minded

 

Back in my own church, although each cycle of the grief support group was well-attended through word-of-mouth after congregants heard good reports of how much hurting people benefitted from our services, running the ministry was tempestuous. To begin with, the pastoral staff designated to oversee our ministry was always the most junior pastor who hardly got to know about our ministry before getting transferred to some other duties that had more pressing needs.

 

Without anyone influential backing us up to secure air space in the limited slots of the church media, our promotional advertisements received the least priority. On one occasion, we were asked to hold our grief support meeting in the church corridor because the wife of the Senior Pastor wanted to talk to her zone’s cell leaders, even though we had booked the room months ahead. It was totally awkward when the cries of several widows who were sharing about their struggles, were interjected by bouts of laughter from the adjoining room as that pastor kept on telling her audience funny jokes.

 

In addition, I vividly recalled one weekend when the senior pastor was scheduled to preach on a  Sermon-on-the-Mount passage concerning comforting those who mourn. I eagerly looked forward to hearing him say something positive about our ministry, but I was deeply disappointed because all he covered was the spiritual aspects of mourning over the sins of the nation, completely without any reference to the body of Christ on caring and supporting those who mourn following the loss of their loved ones.

 

This incident underscores the reality that it is not enough merely to get the approval of the church to start a MH ministry. More importantly, the top leadership, especially the senior pastor, must be educated to the extent that they themselves buy into the benefits of attending to MH needs as part and parcel of the pastoral care of the congregants. Evidence of this conviction has to be reflected in the preaching, teaching, and ministry of the church where leaders intentionally use a language that is MH-informed and not one that directly or indirectly undermines MH as irrelevant or counter-spiritual.

 

Promoting MH nationally and regionally

 

To further promote the incorporation of MH among our churches, I founded the National Association of Christian Counselors, Malaysia, in 2011 under the guidance of the then Senior Vice President of the American Association of Christian Counselors. In 2017, I was elected the Founding President of the Asian Christian Counselors Association with the vision of incorporating Christian counseling as an integral part of Christian practice, ministry, and service throughout Asia.

 

As both organizations grew in strength and recognition, we made significant inroads into the Christian community with a growing number of professional and lay counselors participating in our activities. Among the more notable events organized by us, the Third Asian Christian Counseling Conference held in Bali, Indonesia, was attended by 400 delegates from 20 Asian countries.

 

On the national front, we also ran annual conferences and basic counseling modules in partnership with strategic churches to give both pastors and congregants a better understanding of Christian counseling. This is usually eye-opening to the handful of pastors who attended them because they do not know the difference between counseling and telling or advising counselees what to do. As it is, many pastors erroneously think that they already know and practice Christian counseling as they preach over their counselees and call it pastoral counseling. Likewise, many pastors merely pray over their counselees and call it prayer counseling. Hence, in terms of terminology, it is better to say that we are promoting for churches to incorporate MH rather than Christian counseling.

 

The key role of Senior Pastors

 

Knowing that pastors have a strong influence over what their congregants believe and participate in, we held a paid retreat for pastors to educate them about work stress, burnout, and self-care to further create awareness of MH. Many pastors joined us but very few of them were Senior Pastors. The latter could be very busy or there might be a “face” factor involved.

 

Nevertheless, for any radical change to take place in a church, it must start with a change of mindset of the top leadership, especially those of the Senior Pastor/Chairman Elder/Chief Priest. To begin with, the top leadership must accept the truth that theology and the psychology of MH are not opposing fields. The Bible has much to say about our human nature, and psychology is merely the scientific study of human nature. When firmly anchored in biblical truth, the insights and application of psychology can help to enhance growth and discipleship in our churches.

 

When this mindset barrier is crossed, the awareness and attendance to MH needs must then be aligned to the overall vision, policies, systems, and ministries of the church, not as the main focus but as a necessary added part of the church’s DNA for growth and discipleship. This is likely to be the most efficacious way to help churches embrace a MH-informed culture and lifestyle that effectively motivates and empowers the body of Christ to care for and support one another intentionally and at the individual level.

 

Conclusion

 

“Soul-care” was long advocated by our Christian fathers who drew on the folk psychology of the Bible. In the last 150 years, this folk psychology developed into the modern psychology of MH through a process of scientific study and verification. Hence, incorporating MH-mindedness into our church culture and lifestyle is bringing back “soul-care” so that we minister to the whole person in the fullness of the concept of shalom, not just spiritually and relationally, but also psychologically in MH with respect to the soul (psyche).

 

Recognizing how strategic it is for our churches to incorporate MH-mindedness into our Christian culture and lifestyle in our digital era where MH needs will increase significantly while the professional services available to meet such needs are limited and costly, I have started in 2022 this online ministry called Safe Space Community for Asians to equip the Body of Christ with basic MH literacy. We have monthly teaching videos and related case-study blogs that any lay Christian can freely access at any time to learn about a specific MH topic.

 

When the pastors and church members are better MH-informed, the body of Christ will get more involved in the lives of one another, especially in their daily struggles and MH difficulties. They will be able to minister better to their needs because they now understand the human nature more. This is how we Christians will build up authentic relational communities to reflect God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Then the Church of Jesus Christ will thrive and flourish in our present era.

 

Dr. Edmund Ng

SSC Facilitator

24 Nov 2023

 

Corresponding SSC monthly teaching video: V13 – Strategies to Incorporate Mental Health into our Church Culture at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d64CQaeiaLY 

 

Safe Space Community for Asians (SSC) seeks to equip the body of Christ with mental health literacy from the medical, psychological, spiritual, and relational perspectives, by integrating theology and psychology from an Asian mindset. 

 

We offer free monthly teaching videos, case-study blogs, email correspondences, pro- bono counseling sessions, and Zoom conversations for sharing and consultations. 

 

By following and communing with us, you will acquire the spiritual and mental health skills for better self-care and minister to others more effectively.

 

To continue receiving our monthly video teachings, blogs, emails, pro-bono counseling sessions, and links to our Zoom conversations for sharing and consultations, kindly SUBSCRIBE to our SSC YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZSLUhKoQzcRbKQ0O10-IMw) and our website (https://www.safespacecom.org). Subscribing is free and joining the weekly conversations is optional.

 

Please do not re-subscribe if you have already subscribed earlier. And always remember to forward this email to your loved ones and friends.

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