If there's one lesson I've learned about God more frequently than any others, it's that He calls us to obey first, understand later. This past spring, with many confirming messages and a special nudge from my husband, I felt specifically led to attend an Association of Certified Biblical Counselors regional training in Sioux Falls. I had no idea how God might be planning to use that in my life, but He'd been awfully particular about putting the opportunity in my path. And, through those three training weekends, the Spirit spoke loud and clear. I saw what I’d sensed missing from my past experiences in seeking counseling, and I saw a clear picture of healing in biblical community.
Let me be very clear here: this is not an either/or conversation. It’s an and issue. Since the day God called me to go stumbling down a path toward ordained ministry, back in early 2012, I've been wrestling to get a firm grasp on a personal either/or conflict. For a long time, I was nagged by a question over Christian counseling. I couldn't tell yet whether God meant me to pursue that vocation, too, or if He just planned for me to see this ordination track through to the end. Was I supposed to be a pastor, or was I supposed to be a counselor?
Through the ACBC training and a memoir by Eugene Peterson, the Lord gave me a definitive answer: "Yes." I realized, for me, it’s not one or the other. It’s an and.
Only very recently, in my wrestling over the counseling question, has it finally clearly dawned on me how the Lord put me on the pastor path distinctly. Before I came to Christ, I looked for help all over the place. I saw a lot of counselors. I learned a lot of practical strategies for managing symptoms, taking care of myself, and dealing with life. But they didn’t treat the hole in my soul.
The Church carries a critical charge in mental health ministry, whether or not we recognize it as such. Universally, churches are front-line crisis response centers. On one level, this is because to the world, church is synonymous with charity. On another level, it’s because in our times of trouble, we instinctively look for spiritual help. Studies show people are likely to reach out to a church before seeking professional services. People are also likely to reach out to a church because they can’t afford professional services, or because professional services are too complicated or inaccessible. People might start with a church in hopes of being directed to appropriate community resources. People might go to a church without any intention at all of seeking other sources of counsel. For some people, a church is the last resort—their only hope left on this earth.
People turn to churches for guidance, support, and care. And, regardless of clinical diagnoses or ongoing treatment options, the soul care ministered through biblical community is vital to mind-body-spirit wellbeing, no matter what other kind of care people are receiving.
So, God put me in a position on staff with a church because He has a place for me on staff with the church. I’ve noticed God does funny things like that on purpose.
A couple of weeks ago, I woke up early on a Sunday morning. While I waited for the coffee to brew, I started mindlessly scrolling through my email. I came across another one of those Christian media headlines in an email newsletter: “The Truth about Suicide.” I clicked the link and skimmed through, looking for any new pointers for faith leaders. I was just about to click away to another headline when I spotted a link to a book called Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission by Amy Simpson. The description resonated with me. I followed the lead and ordered the book. (It turned out to be an amazing book.)
That grabbed me by the guts. With a few more clicks, I wandered my way to Saddleback’s Hope for Mental Health resources. I read about the starter kit provided for churches to begin their own mental health ministries. Suddenly, I felt like I was on fire. My eyes were bugging out of my head. The Lord had brought me here for a reason.
I clicked from link to link, learning about how Saddleback Church has developed a signature ministry to reach those affected by mental illness. I landed on the Journey Toward Hope page and knew the Lord was up to something.
All of a sudden, I felt like I was on fire again. With fear and trembling, I brought up the Journey Toward Hope book with my colleagues during a team meeting. I explained I’d just stumbled across the Saddleback Church model while looking at faith-based mental health resources, and maybe it was time for us to begin another care group—one to break the ice around the conversation of depression, anxiety, addiction, and trauma in our faith community. I mentioned how I’ve already been leading an off-site group on Thursday evenings that surfaces many related issues, and I’d be willing to shift into meeting at the church to see how these Journey Toward Hope materials might be received. The idea was met with immediate enthusiasm and support.
That evening, I had a long conversation with my husband about all of the moving pieces in this long process of discernment. He knows better than anyone besides God how many zigzags my confidence has taken over the years. He was the one this past spring, when I was wishwashing over whether or not to attend the ACBC training, to tell me, “If that’s what you feel led to do, then do that.” I told him about Saddleback Church’s resources for mental health ministry. I told him about the door God seemed to be opening for us to start a care group. I told him about how all of the promptings toward biblical counseling seem to be refining and reinforcing my calling to minister to these needs specifically within our church. I explained how I’ve been feeling more and more intensely that this imperative to engage in mental health ministry is a direct component of God’s call toward ordained ministry, and how I’m sensing resolution to the pastor-or-counselor conflict in the Spirit’s answer of and.
My husband listened to everything, asked some questions, nodded a few times, and said, “I think you should be a pastor who counsels. Congratulations! You have direction.” Sometimes, my husband has a really unique gift of summing up everything the Spirit has been telling me for the last year.
Well… that was a few weeks ago, and as of today, the group has been added to the care ministry roster. We’re stepping forward under the name Out of the Darkness, in mind of Ephesians 5:13. With fear and trembling, along with the most certainty and confidence I've ever felt, I’m walking in this direction, and God still hasn’t said, “Stop.”
And we’re not alone. We don’t have to be all of the other things--God has shown me that, more than ever this week. He is raising up other people. He is building a community of support. The church can focus on being the Church. We can “give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). And it is well with my soul.