Mental Health and the Church

Mental Health and the Church


Mikel Kelly, M.A.

Someone once said that “necessity is the mother of invention.” What this proverb tells us is that when something is not working ― it needs to be changed. Such is the impetus of all movements both spiritual and political. Early in our nation’s history, our founding fathers concluded the same thing about remaining a colony of England. Out of the need to rectify the problem of unfair governance, the movement toward independence and the American Revolution was born. Because of the need for change, our forefathers developed some radical and revolutionary constitutional ideas the world had not yet seen. Despite the governmental and political upheavals that took center stage of that day, radical changes were beginning to happen in the Church as well.

At the forefront of changes in the American Church was a skirmish between Archbishop Francis Asbury with a circuit riding preacher named James O’Kelly. It seems that O’Kelly had issue with the way Asbury made assignment of routes to traveling preachers. His cry was not related to taxation without representation, as was true for colonists under the rule of King George III, but rather sola scriptura! In resisting the Archbishop, O’Kelly claimed the Bible as his rule, decried episcopacy, and pressed for the equality of all people of faith whether lay or ministerial (Allen, 2015).

As is always the case when movements get started, people take positions at opposing poles of every issue. During America’s revolution, people pushing for autonomy from the British Crown were called Patriots, while those resisting it were known as Tories or Loyalists. In analogizing the revolution to O’Kelly’s position with the Archbishop, do you think he was acting as a Patriot or as a Loyalist? While he certainly wanted to be loyal to the congregations of his itinerancy, he held no such allegiance to church polity thus showing himself to be a Patriot of sorts. Asking again, was he Patriot or Loyalist? The truth is that he was actually both ― depending on how you want to view his actions.

Since no compromise was reached with Asbury, O’Kelly and his followers later established the Christian Church in the Southern colonies at approximately the same time that Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone and Abner Jones began establishing similar Christian Churches in other parts of the country (Allen, 2015). Not to be confused with Martin Luther’s movement where he attempted Reformation of the Catholic Church of 1517, we now refer to the efforts of O’Kelly, Campbell, Stone and Jones as America’s Christian Restoration Movement.

Reportedly friends of the infamous Patrick Henry who once said “Give me liberty or give me death,” and of chief architect of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson (O’Kelley, 2011), James O’Kelly is now regarded by many historians as one of America’s foremost proponents of religious liberty (Allen, 2015). He may have accomplished for the Church what Henry, Jefferson and other men did politically for America. While the Restoration Movement began shortly after America gained political independence, there is yet a new movement facing the Church of today. Will this new movement also find victory and freedom or will it be judged by history as just another craze?

During the week of May 18th to 20th of 2016; pastors, counselors, mental health advocates, crisis responders and many more came together at the AACC, The Struggle is Real 2016 Summit concerning “Mental Health and the Mission of the Church” which was hosted by Seacoast Church in Charleston, South Carolina (Surat & Clinton, 2016). They came for the purpose of discussing what the Church’s role should be in alleviating the daily struggles of life that so many people face today. Founding Pastor Greg Surat of Seacoast Church and Dr. Tim Clinton, President of the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC) write that one thing is certain ― the struggle of dealing with the pain, pace and pressure of everyday life is real. Everyone has something they need to deal with and find victory over, whether it is stress, anxiety, depression, relationships, suicide, addiction, sexual disorders, anger or abuse. They go on to say that the Church needs to be at the center of bringing hope and healing to those seeking help and direction with life’s most difficult issues and challenges (Surat & Clinton, 2016).

The impetus for such a summit falls on the heels of a similar summit held by Saddleback Church in both 2014 and 2015 entitled “The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church” following the suicidal death of Pastor Rick and Kay Warren’s 27 year old son Matthew in 2013 (Scheller, 2014). Pastor Warren and attendees of that summit undoubtedly hoped to shore-up cracks between the Church and the professional mental health community that Matthew was somehow able to fall through.

While the untimely death of any child is horrific, Matthew’s death however, was not in vain. It has brought to light a poignant awareness of the confusing relationship between the Church and an increasingly secular psychological community. Presently, about 75% of people who suffer disparaging life issues seek out a pastor first. Dr. Matthew Stanford, adjunct professor of psychiatry at Baylor University, has observed that most mental health professionals view the Church as the gatekeeper and entrance into the mental healthcare system. Stanford calls this a “divine opportunity” and sees it as the church’s great mission field of the twenty-first century (Stanford, 2015). In navigating this relationship, there are many challenging issues to consider, the first of which is history.

A major challenge has to do with the estranged relationship that the church and scientific community have developed since the Age of Enlightenment. For example, it was Copernicus who was among the first scientists to suggest that the earth revolved around the sun. Martin Luther denounced his theory assertively (Luther, n.d.). Galileo was twice hauled before church leaders to explain his heliocentric view of the universe and was ordered to stop promoting his ideas (Lepley, 2013). Of course we now know that Copernicus and Galileo were correct and that the sun is indeed the center of our universe ― not the earth as was once theologized. These historical facts highlight two concerns. One is the inherent danger of relying on human logic to formulate doctrine and the second has to do with the Church protecting itself from heresy. These two concepts seem to be at odds with each other.

While the church must be on guard against apostasy and heretical teaching, how can it determine what is false from what is true using only Scripture? And without having all truth at its disposal, how could it corroborate inaccurate doctrines in order to align with reality (as it had to with Copernicus and Galileo)? The truth of the matter is that the Church has been unable to make all of those determinations accurately. And because of that, it is becoming increasingly silenced in the public realm.

Conversely, secular empiricism generally makes no qualms about establishing the conclusions of its research and quite readily broadcasts those as fact. This has largely shaped public opinion in its favor while diminishing the relevance of Church teachings, which has led to much dissonance in the minds of the general public.

While America is still somewhat less secularized than Scotland, with only about 51% of Scots calling themselves Christian, a study cited by The Barna Group reveals that the distance between the Church and science continues to widen. A 2015 poll cited that 42% of Scots agreed with a statement that said Christianity was not “relevant to my life”. Twenty-three percent thought Christianity was “not compatible with science” and another 20% thought it was “out of touch with reality”. Beliefs such as these imply that people are losing confidence in the Church for answers to life problems and are leaning more toward science (The Barna Group, 2016). The fact that over the past 30 years pastors now earn only half as much as what other educated professionals do may be another indication of the public’s failing confidence in the Church (Foster, 2013). This leads us to a third concern which has to do with competency.

Given the truth of the U.S. Supreme Court Obergefell decision that ruled in favor of a homosexual movement (The Barna Group, 2016) that many American Christians thought they would never see legalized, is it not conceivable that empirically derived “best practice therapies” promoted by insurance groups might ultimately sway courts to decide in favor of counseling plaintiffs who sue their pastors for incompetency?

Pastoral competency was the crux of a lawsuit in 1988 when parents of 24 year old Kenneth Nally sued Grace Community Church in California for clergy malpractice for failing to refer their suicidal son to medical professionals. In this case, the court upheld pastoral immunity (UPI, 1985), but what if it didn’t? Richard R. Hammar, J.D., LL.M., CPA, who serves as legal counsel to The General Council of the Assemblies of God and graduate of Harvard Law School believes that there is no continued assurance that clergy will continue to enjoy virtual immunity from liability as they act as counselors (Hammar, 2014). All that needs to happen for that to change is for a court to find a pastor incompetent in the wrongful death of a counselee and establish precedent. Consider that even physicians are not immune to prosecution as Dr. Conrad Murray was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in attempting to alleviate the pain of singer Michael Jackson (Medina, 2011). Incompetence is a real thing even in the presence of a sincere desire to help thus offering lessons to learn.

The suicidal deaths of Mathew Warren and Kenneth Nally have something else to teach us. They teach us that something really is broken about how mental health is practiced and that something desperately needs to be changed. In other words they teach us that a movement is needed. The question is in which place? Does the brokenness stem from something about the professional mental health system or is it something about the Church? Or, both?

What do you think are the factors that should be considered in solving this problem so that young men like Matthew and Kenneth no longer fall through the cracks? It is not trite to say that resolving this problem is literally “a matter of life and death.” Christian psychologist Mark A. Yarhouse and his colleagues believe that the answer is in education. They write “There is great need for counselors to be better trained theologically and for pastors to be better trained in psychology (Yarhouse, Butman, & McRay, 2005).” Yarhouse is correct only if pastors are open to finding truth in psychology and psychologists are willing to be influenced by the truth of Scripture. Without both, there is most certainly incompetency’s to be found on both sides of the aisle. One thing that Copernicus and Galileo have taught us is that truth is truth ― wherever it is found, and that genuine science cannot be ignored. Martin Luther’s admonishment of Galileo teaches us that erroneous conclusions about data cannot be made without embarrassment.

Going forward will the Church remain a strict loyalist to the doctrines of early church fathers and utterly reject psychological data? Or, will the Church be a patriot by forging ahead of science with its own revolutionary ideas about treatment? Both are radical ideas. The truth is that some will enlist into both camps. For the patriot Church however, its declaration to remain independent from heresy and apostasy, will be found in developing a sound Church doctrine that dovetails with the realities that science uncovers. It will reclaim public confidence by offering competent answers to life questions that science cannot discern and will marry itself to the correct interpretations of truth. These will be some of the benchmarks by which a satisfactory solution will be judged thereby establishing the underpinnings upon which a successful church mental health movement will move forward that will hopefully restore the church to its intended purposes of ministry to the hurting and back to a place of prominence in society.

Additional Questions to Consider:

  1. Given the dangers of heresy and apostasy, should the church view secular therapies as it does all other medical treatments and embrace them carte blanche?
  1. Regarding public opinion of the helpfulness of the church versus a secular mental health community, is there any advantage to professionals seeking to promote a relationship with the church? Who must take the lead in ensuring that no one falls through the cracks?
  1. If pastors lost their immunity to counsel, how would that affect the church as well as its relationship with the mental health community?
  1. What role do pharmaceutical companies play in shaping public opinion by promoting a reductionist view that mental health issues are biologically driven being a result of chemical imbalances? What do marketing campaigns do to erode public confidence in counseling interventions?
  1. If the church were to embrace secular methodologies and release all congregants for outside treatment, what message does that send to the public about the effectiveness of the church? If that happened, what role would the pastor/minister take on then?
  1. Should the church try to find something uniquely its own by developing an alternate treatment paradigm distinguishing itself from secular therapies? Or, can it simply rebrand secular therapies and perform them in Christian-like ways?



Mikel Kelly, M.A., is a licensed mental health counselor in Indiana. He received his MA in counseling from Cincinnati Christian University. While the national average for marital therapy success stands at only 3%, Mikel’s couple rate consistently exceeds 33%.

Works Cited

Allen, J. T. (2015). James O’Kelly (1736?-1826). (J. L. Foundation, Producer) Retrieved 09 29, 2015, from North Carolina History Project:
Foster, G. (2013). For The Record: The Foster Report. Christian Counseling Connection, 19(2), 15.

Hammar, R. R. (2014). Counseling Ministries: A Legal Checkup. Retrieved 08 28, 2014, from Assemblies of God:

Lepley, D. J. (2013). On Our Origins. Bloomington, Indiana: WestBow Press.

Luther, M. (n.d.). Luther’s works. Volume 54, In (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehman, Eds.) Table Talk, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, In Daniel J. Lepley (Ed.) On Our Origins, Bloomington: WestBow Press, 2013.

Medina, J. (2011, 11 7). Doctor Is Guilty in Michael Jackson’s Death. Retrieved 06 24, 2016, from The New York Times:

O’Kelley, R. (2011). My Irish Ancestor his two wives, and his first American born sons: James O’Kelly and Anna and Elizabeth Dean. Retrieved 09 02, 2011, from O’Kelley of Bregia:

Scheller, C. A. (2014, 03 31). Can Churches Separate Mental Illness and Shame?: Rick Warren confronts one more “last taboo.”. Retrieved 06 27, 2016, from Christianity Today:

Stanford, M. S. (2015). Rethinking Mental Healthcare: How the Church Can Transform a Broken System. Christian Counseling Today, 21(2), 23-24.

Surat, G., & Clinton, T. (2016). About. Retrieved 06 03, 2016, from Seacoast Church:

The Barna Group. (2016). Year in Review: Barna’s Top 10 Findings in 2015. Ventura, California: www.barna Retrieved 02 15, 2016, from

UPI. (1985, 05 20). Church Sued Over a Suicide Says It Will Change Training. Retrieved 08 28, 2014, from The New York Times:

Yarhouse, M. A., Butman, R. E., & McRay, B. W. (2005). Modern Psychopathologies : A Contemporary Christian Appraisal. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press.