When I pastored in rural Kentucky, we lived in the parsonage (a house the church provides for the pastor). Because this church always wanted to know where to find the pastor, they located the parsonage right next to the church. Everyone in that rural community knew if I was home, they felt great liberty to call me and tell me someone had left a light on in the church next door.
After three years, my wife and I sensed the time had come to move on. A church in Louisville had contacted me, expressing interest. We set a time to meet with them, on the next Sunday evening.
On the appointed Sunday evening, I was finishing tying my tie, when there was a knock at my door. Opening it, there was a young woman, about 23, wearing jeans and rubber farm boots.
"Are you the preacher?" she asked. I told her I was. "I want to kill myself," she said.
I wish I could tell you my first thought was "You poor woman," but it actually was "Not now! I have an interview!" My pastoral gear did kick in, however, and I invited her in. Gina and I listened to her story - she worked on one of the dairy farms, her marriage was falling apart, and she felt like there was no hope.
I knew this woman's troubles were over my head. I told her we would get her the help she needed. I called the chair of the committee and explained the situation (if you must cancel a pastor search committee interview, dealing with a suicidal woman is a pretty good excuse). Gina and I drove the woman into Louisville, to the hospital where I had interned as a chaplain. On the way there, I asked her why she came to our house. She said, "I figured it was a safe place."
Mental illness touches one out of five Americans. Chances are pretty good you know someone who struggles with a mental health issue. Mental illness can manifest as addiction, depression, anxiety, outbursts of anger, disorientation and disconnection from reality. In my years as a pastor, people have sought me out for these issues and more.
Pastors by nature know a little about a lot of things. We're generalists. We are not really equipped to treat people who have mental health issues. But we can do two important things.
First, we can make sure the churches we serve are places of grace. We need to make sure people know they can be real about what's going on in their souls. When the disorientation of mental illness begins, we want people to know that they can talk about it to spiritually wise people at church. People with mental illness will not be judged but loved. As churches and pastors, let's pledge to do our best to steer people toward the best care available.
Second, we can pray for God's peace in souls. I believe our God heals not just the body, but also thoughts and feelings. We do not pray enough for healing of troubled souls. There is a peace that passes all understanding, and God wants to give that to people. How much time do we spend praying for God's peace for people?
Our mayor has proclaimed this weekend as the Mental Health Weekend of Faith. He has shared with me and other pastors this is a growing concern in our community. We know that ultimately, spiritual power can overcome the evil that robs people of mental health. This is why Jesus' church must be a place of grace for all; therefore, Jesus' people must boldly pray for the peace of God to richly dwell in every heart.
A month after that Sunday night, there was again a knock on my door. When I opened the door, it was the same young woman with a bright smile on her face. She told me at the hospital she had gotten some medicine, which she considered a gift from God. She had talked to some helpful people, who gave her a different perspective. She found out she loved her life and was making plans to move ahead. I celebrated with her, prayed with her and then stood up to say good-bye. She looked me in the eye, and said, "Thank you for being there, for being a safe place when I needed one."
Somewhere in our town, someone needs a safe place of grace and a powerful prayer of peace.
Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.
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