M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust

Saddleback co-founder Kay Warren talks to Portland pastors about the church’s role in addressing America’s mental health crisis.

Two hands holding open a Bible on a table, with a notebook, pens, and coffee mug nearby.

Guest post by Harold Smith, President Emeritus, Christianity Today, Visiting Fellow, The MJ Murdock Charitable Trust

Much of the media’s attention over the past month has been spent reflecting on the past year. The past pandemic year to be more specific. And all that has been undone in the wake of COVID-19.

Including the mental health of our nation.

Throughout his career, Jack Murdock believed strongly in the value of investments in mental health, both within the workplace and within the community. He rightly recognized that individuals – and therefore the organizations and communities they support – could not thrive if their mental health was neglected.

At the Murdock Trust, we continue Jack’s work in supporting those who seek to serve the mental health needs of individuals and families throughout our region. We do this both through grants to nonprofits working in the mental health space, but also by gathering diverse voices to share experience and discuss new ways to serve our communities.

Recently, the Trust hosted such a convening, inviting leaders to discuss the topic of mental health and the church especially timely. And for me, as a long-time mental health advocate, deeply encouraging to say the least.

Featuring Kay Warren, the co-founder of Saddleback Church with husband Rick and a pioneer in awakening churches nationwide to the very real needs facing congregants battling a variety of mental health challenges, this strategic and at times emotional Zoom conversation with 11 Portland pastors put the spotlight on the unique role local churches must play in actively walking alongside the over 40-million Americans caught in the throes of a mental health crises.

“The church has to be in the thick of it,” Kay urged. A clarion cry that an increasing number of brave—and too-often bruised—champions (like my own wife) have tirelessly taken to local bodies of believers across the country over the past few years. All in an uphill effort to replace the stigma of mental illness with the compassion of Christ and the hope of restoration.

And yes, it’s been an uphill effort all the way.

For sadly too many churches today still ignore or deny the emotional needs of their congregants: Labeling mental illness as “simply” a lack of faith; or a result of poor spiritual disciplines; or even a sell-out to the pagan culture, rather than understanding it as being not unlike like any other life-altering illness. One that demands not only medical expertise but human compassion, kindness, and understanding. The very things a Christ-committed church can offer. If it will open its eyes and see.

“When someone is diagnosed with cancer,” said Warren, “our natural reaction in the church is to offer aid in the form of meals, babysitting if needed, car trips to the doctor, and prayer. Lots of prayer.

“But when it comes to someone battling a mental illness, our response all too often is absolute silence.”

“This has to change.”

Characterizing a crisis that impacts all churches, including many pastors and their families, Warren poignantly talked about the suicide of her own son and the resulting impact it continues to have on remolding her own ministry focus on the emotional stranglehold mental illness has on so many men, women, teens and children. And with that, she offered both challenge and an array of channels by which churches can begin to reach out to those in their midst in desperate need of hope.

“Mental health is real, common, and treatable,” Warren emphasized. “And if you can articulate that statement and believe it, then you’re miles ahead of most churches.”

To put feet to this three-fold statement of fact, Warren offered an acrostic for guiding pastors in shaping their own mental health outreach:

C:        Unconditional care for and support of families and individuals dealing with mental illness

H:        Offer practical helps (like the aforementioned meals, babysitting, etc.)

U:        Equip and utilize (unleash!) trained volunteers (it doesn’t need to be “just” the pastor’s responsibility)

R:        Remove the stigma (from the pulpit, in the Bible study, by allowing people to tell their stories)

C:        Collaborate with the community (tap into trusted social and medical resources that can supplement the love and care offered by your church)

H:        Offer hope (validate that God himself has emotions and that people’s emotions are part of the imago dei.)

Understanding the scope of the current mental health crisis, Warren acknowledged that not every church can do everything. Nor does it need to. But that said, Warren emphasized that every church must do something.

“Even praying generally for those on a Sunday morning who are depressed or in some other way emotionally in crisis is a place to start,” she said.

I know I speak for all the pastors on the call when I say our two-hour conversation could have easily gone on another two hours—and then some! There is simply so much more that needs to be discussed. So many more questions that need to be answered. But this learning was a start. And one I’m pleased to say the Murdock Trust hopes to build upon in the weeks and months to come as we seek to continue Jack Murdock’s legacy and work.

And I for one, as referenced earlier, cannot be more pleased by this latest step. Having reported on the life and witness of the church throughout my years at Christianity Today, I have seen firsthand all that’s Christ’s body can do to bring spiritual, physical, and emotional wholeness to his followers. But even with that said, emotional wholeness remains a stumbling block for many Bible-believing communities. A painful ministry gap for many individuals and their hurting families.

Addressing this gap is not the pastors alone to fill. A point I was pleased Warren made loud and clear. No, it is the whole churches responsibility to bear one another’s burdens if they are to communally live out the great commandment to love God and their neighbor as themselves.

Thus the critical importance of this conversation. And, as God directs, the growing importance of the many more conversations to come. We at the Murdock Trust are eager to participate in these discussions to help ensure that every individual, family and community has an opportunity to flourish.



Needless to say, the number of books, articles, conferences, and websites addressing mental health issues are accelerating at a rate seemingly equal to the mental health crisis itself. And helping pastors in the Zoom Room navigate this expanding universe, Kay Warren took some time to offer some of her own favorite resources–many of which powerfully link the role of faith and the church to bringing hope to those in crisis.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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