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For some souls, pastors preach psychiatry

EAGLE SPRINGS, N.C. — The pastor’s phone rang in the midnight darkness. A man’s voice rasped: “My wife left me and I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth. Give me one reason why I shouldn’t pull the trigger.”

The Rev. Matt Brogli, a Southern Baptist pastor scarcely six months into his first job, was unnerved. Gamely, he prayed with the anonymous caller, trying out “every platitude I could possibly think of.”

Eventually the stranger assured Brogli that he would be all right. But the young pastor was shaken.

“I was in over my head,” he recalled. “I thought being a pastor meant giving sermons, loving my congregation, doing marriages and funerals, and some marital counseling.”

Since that midnight call two years ago, Brogli, 33, has become the unofficial mental health counselor not just for his church, but throughout Eagle Springs, population 8,500, a fading rural community of mostly poultry and tobacco workers, with five trailer parks and six churches.

It is no easy task, in large part because from pulpit to pew there is a silence and stigma among conservative Christians around psychiatric disorders, a relic of a time when mental illness was seen as demonic possession or a sign that the person had fallen in God’s eyes.

But Brogli and other evangelical ministers are trying to change all that. “We need our evangelical leaders to lead by example, to say that not all psychiatric medicine is bad, to have conversations with non-Christian therapists,” Brogli said. “The older ministers say that mental illness is not an issue, but clearly it is.”

Evangelical leaders are increasingly opening up about family suicides, their own clinical depression and the relief they have received from psychiatric medication.

In 2013, Frank Page, president of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, which provides guidance to 16 million Baptists, published a searing, unvarnished account of his daughter’s struggle with mental illness, “Melissa: A Father’s Lessons From a Daughter’s Suicide.”

Melissa Page Strange, once spunky and fun-loving, ricocheted among addictions and risky relationships, and died at 34 of an overdose. Her parents had sent her to religious counselors, as well as secular psychiatrists and psychologists.

Page has been lecturing across the country about faith and mental illness. At each appearance, he said, he has been struck by the hunger for information and consolation.

He is eager to help pastors like Brogli. Page urges clergy members to partner with clinicians in the treatment of mentally disturbed congregants.

Studies show that during episodes of stress, grief and depression, more Americans turn to clergy than mental health professionals.

Yet many new pastors like Brogli feel overwhelmed and ill equipped to help. Conservative Protestant seminaries offer little education in psychology, instead favoring courses on pastoral counseling with prayer and reading the Bible.

In a study by Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, 71 percent of Baptist pastors said they were unable to recognize mental illness. In another study, he found that while 55 of 70 seminaries offered pastoral counseling electives, directors said students were often unable to fit them into their schedules.

According to a telephone survey last year by LifeWay Research, a Nashville, Tenn., organization affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, nearly half of evangelical Christians said they believed that mental illness can be healed with prayer alone.

Some 66 percent of 1,000 Protestant ministers surveyed this year mention mental illness in sermons once a year or less, the organization has found. Yet nearly a quarter have experienced some kind of mental illness themselves. Nearly 60 percent have counseled people who were later found to be mentally ill.

LifeWay also interviewed hundreds of Protestants who have received a psychiatric diagnosis or were related to someone who did. Almost two-thirds said they wished mental illness were discussed openly in church, to help erase the taboo.

But in the culture of conservative Christianity, “mental illness became defined as mental weakness,” said Anthony Rose, a Southern Baptist pastor in LaGrange, Ky.

Young pastors like Brogli, trained in biblical counseling, worry that a psychologist might undermine a patient’s spiritual well-being. But he knows some need more help than he can provide.

Recently, he recalled, a congregant sought him for counseling. She had trouble getting out of bed for work, she said. She ordered delivery pizza six nights in a row. These assaults of darkness had come upon her for the last three years. “I love the Lord,” she told him. “I pray, but I can’t shake this.”

So Brogli did what just two years earlier would have been unthinkable. He suggested she see her company’s psychologist.

“It will give you other tools,” he said. “You don’t have to walk through this alone. I’m your friend, I’m your pastor, and I’m not going anywhere.”