Healthy Ways to Help the Opposite Sex

Healthy Ways to Help the Opposite Sex


THEMA S. BRYANT-DAVIS, PhD, is professor of psychology at Pepperdine University and is an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

CAMERON LEE, PhD, is professor of family studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he has taught since 1986. He is author of nine books, including three on the life of pastors and their families, and serves as a teaching pastor himself. As a Certified Family Life Educator, he regularly conducts marriage and relationship workshops in congregations.

Q: Nearly nine out of 10 Protestant pastors are men. At the same time, women are more likely than men to reach out to a pastor for relational help (many men say they prefer to read a book or search online for help). Do you think the gender disparity matters? In what ways has the imbalance has been detrimental or beneficial?

BRYANT-DAVIS: The gender disparity matters because too often men lack awareness, sensitivity, compassion and training on issues that are more likely to face women: sexual harassment, sexism, depression, anxiety, PTSD, sexual abuse, intimate partner abuse, body image, infertility, miscarriage, sexual assault and workplace discrimination. This is detrimental when women congregants experience victim blaming, a lack of adequate concern for their safety and distress, and bad theology that can take the form of spiritual abuse. There are no benefits to only having male religious leaders available.

LEE: The disparity matters. From the help-giving side, the imbalance can create unrecognized norms of pastoral care. For example, does the pastor emphasize toughening up one’s faith or building a relationship of empathy? It’s not strictly either / or, of course, but the direction the pastor leans can affect his or her ability to connect with the person seeking help.

From the other side, there are also gendered norms in help-seeking. A man may say that he prefers to get help from a book or website. But that’s not just a purely individual preference; it’s a response to perceived norms (men aren’t supposed to need help). Many men would welcome a more personal form of help—but only in a context in which it is safe to be vulnerable.

Both male and female pastors are capable of developing the skills and perspectives needed to connect with a wide range of people. But the existing disparity among pastors can tilt help-giving norms in a stereotypically male direction. The result is missed opportunities to establish better relational connections, or even to shift a congregation’s culture toward greater emotional safety.

Q: What do you wish pastors knew about mental illness and treatment? What is the one thing they could do more or less of to help churchgoers flourish in this area? 02

BRYANT-DAVIS: Pastors should know that mental illness is not an indicator of lack of faith. People can have great faith and love for God and still live with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety or schizophrenia. Therapy is not counter to the Christian faith, and ministers should not dissuade people from getting help. Therapy, prayer and reading the Bible can work together and are not at odds with one another. Just as studying the scriptures does not tell you everything you need to know about dentistry, plumbing and engineering, study of scripture alone does not give you all the information needed to address psychiatric disorders.

It is important for churches to be comfortable making referrals to mental health agencies to complement the services of pastoral care that are offered through the church. Churches could invite mental health professionals to provide workshops at the church. They could include information about mental health in bulletins, announcements, prayers and sermons.

Church leaders, including pastors, can seek mental health services themselves— many are facing great stress with limited support. They can commit to not preaching sermons that joke about or dismiss mental health concerns.

LEE: The first and most important step would be to reduce the inherent social stigma that is attached to mental illness so that sufferers don’t feel they have to hide or pretend in order to be accepted and loved. Mental illness wears many guises and is much more common than we like to admit. A recent government report estimated that in 2018 roughly one out of every five adults in the United States suffered from some form of mental illness.14

Imagine, then, a congregation of 100 people; 20 of them may be suffering clinical levels of anxiety or depression or less common disorders like schizophrenia. They are part of the worshiping and serving community, but is it safe for them to admit their struggles? If they did, would they be shunned or avoided? Would they be told that they weren’t being faithful enough, weren’t praying enough or that they were demon-possessed?

These are all responses that the mentally ill have endured in their churches— responses that often discourage them from pursuing the treatment they need. Pastors can help by examining the explicit and implicit theology of their own congregations and asking themselves what they might do to increase awareness and compassion and reduce stigma and isolation.

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