There are times when you need to care for yourself before you can care for others. It could be called the oxygen mask rule. On an airplane, you are told to put your mask on first before helping others with theirs. This principle also applies to mental health care. As pastors, we need to care for our own mental health. Otherwise, we won’t be able to help others.
At Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary (WLS), we are proactive in helping students maintain good mental health. Each year we spend several class periods educating incoming students on how to care for their own mental health. Since the mind, body, and soul all work together, students are encouraged to maintain good spiritual health by spending time in God’s Word and prayer. This helps nourish the soul. They are encouraged to get regular exercise, a good night’s sleep, and eat a healthy diet. This helps maintain the body.
They are also taught practices that can help them with their mental health.
Examples would include focusing on a thankfulness attitude (we have a gracious and generous God), replacing negative thought patterns with positive ones, positive self-talk (e.g., I am a redeemed child of God), limiting the use of smart phones and social media, and being engaged in a hobby or other enjoyable pastime. Whether these things focus on the mind, body, or soul, they all help students maintain good mental health.
Nonetheless, we all know that we live in challenging times. The COVID-19 pandemic added a layer of anxiety to our daily lives. The news media brings images of disasters to our devices the moment they happen. Social media creates an unrealistic picture of our lives and the lives of others. And the list goes on. WLS students are not immune. These things affect them also and can result in mental health struggles.
At the seminary, we are also reactive in helping students who face mental health challenges. Among the most common struggles are anxiety and depression. As the president, the dean of students, or the faculty advisors meet with students, they assess for mental health. When the need arises, the students are referred to the campus counselor for further assessment. When needed, he will refer students to a professional counselor who can help them move toward healing and give them skills to maintain good mental health. The seminary covers the cost of this counseling. This applies not only to seminary students but also to their wives, families, and fiancées. Each year students who seek mental health services express appreciation for the program and the help it gives them.
Students with good mental health are better equipped to serve others in the ministry. The seminary equips students to provide pastoral care and counsel for those they serve. This includes courses taught during the second and fourth years. As they prepare for the vicar year, the focus is on strengthening listening skills because good care begins with good listening; understanding some of the signs of child abuse and knowing how and when to make a report; and knowing how to minister to the sick, the straying, the bereaved, the incarcerated, those in the military, and those facing difficult medical decisions. They also learn about the unique challenges of ministering to God’s people at a time of suicide.
In the final year of seminary training, students have two courses that focus on pastoral counseling skills. These courses teach the importance of counseling within one’s area of expertise. This means that, as counseling pastors, they address the spiritual needs of the people they counsel and refer to mental health professionals as the need arises. They also learn about a wide variety of mental health disorders. This education does not equip them to counsel in mental health. Rather, it enables them to recognize various mental health disorders and unhealthy relationships and get people the help they need.
This help is important because mental illness can affect a person’s spiritual life in significant ways. It can alter the way they hear the law and the gospel. It can change the way they understand sin and grace. It can separate them from both the Head—Christ—and the body—fellow believers. At the seminary we teach the five “Ts” of stewardship. Besides time, treasure, talents, and trees (God’s creation), we focus on our temple. Our mind-soul-body is a gift from God that he asks us to care for, since it is this temple that we use to serve him and others.
Professor John Schuetze teaches classes in systematic theology and practical theology, especially counseling, and serves as campus counselor.