[Editor’s Note: Everyone has mental health experiences on the spectrum between thriving and struggling. Perhaps you (or a friend) are in a season where you need extra mental, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical support. In this #mentalhealth series we want to balance personal experience/story with input from mental health and medical professionals. We want to also explore, “How does our faith in Jesus relate to our mental health?” Our desire is to support you as you work towards mental well-being.
If you are considering hurting yourself or someone else, or you know someone who is, please contact a mental health emergency hotline. If you need urgent counselling support, Kids Help Phone is also available for young adults up to age 29 for phone calls, Facebook Messenger, or texting conversations.
Today we’re talking with Jen Watt. Jen recently received an MA in Counselling, and is a Registered Psychotherapist (qualifying). Prior to becoming a counsellor, she worked at a Christian non-profit organization for 20 years, creating safe spaces for discovery in conversations on mental health and spiritual growth. Her interests vary from interior design to watercolour, from furniture assembly to thrifting for treasures. A staff member of Power to Change – Students recorded this interview.]
P2C-Students: I know you’ve spent many years of your life in “Christian ministry,” both as a volunteer and as a paid worker. How can someone’s service of God shape their identity, for better or for worse?
Jen Watt: I think that when people go into vocational Christian ministry, aside from feeling a sense of “calling from God,” there is at least some part of them that finds the work fulfilling and valuable. Some of that is also seeing this type of work as a good stewardship of their resources, talents, and time. There’s that aspect. But I would say there is also a sneaky part under that—well, from my own reflections and gleaning—that people who go into ministry work are servant-hearted but they are also probably people-pleasing. I think you almost need to have a people-pleasing tendency to want to be in ministry.
There’s a feedback loop where a person might like their job, how it connects with serving God, but also the experience of respect received in that ministry community. I think at some point, especially if it’s a ministry position that involves funding and support raising, there is another component. This can impact a person’s mental health over the long term if there isn’t an awareness of this possibility, because the dynamic of support raising connects money and/or your livelihood with the ministry result that you want to report to supporters. The positive thing is that there’s accountability, for sure. But when ministry workers have questions or doubts about God, they can also feel like there’s no permission or freedom to explore or engage in those legitimate stages of a spiritual life.
P2C-S: Are you talking about something like deconstruction, where a Christian starts to question and discard some of the ways they’ve been taught to follow Jesus?
Jen: Yeah, a deconstruction of faith can be one of those examples. If you’re in any kind of ministry leadership or vocational ministry, it can feel like you’re being a hypocrite if you question God. Just that piece alone can cause a lot of stress, shame and self-loathing.
P2C-S: It sounds like the well-being of someone in ministry can really depend on the community of people around them.
Jen: Yeah, I think so. And I think there is also the pressure to perform. If you were to work somewhere where having faith in God is not the foundation and assumption of your work, your goals and purpose for work can be meaningful. But, in vocational ministry, if you’re not reaching those goals that are out of your control (such as how many people came to know Jesus through your ministry, or even how many people you talked to/with about God), it can be disheartening. For instance, we may say “We want to trust God for a number of people to attend an event.” In that one sentence, there is at least the notion of: 1. Trusting God; 2. My own effort of spreading the word; 3. If people respond. If not enough people show up, well the questions should come: “Did I not trust God enough? Did God not want people to come? Why would God say no to filling this awesome event that we put so much effort into? Did I not work hard enough? Are people not wanting to seek God? Then where is God at work?” But the counter response might be, “I shouldn’t be doubting like this. I need to have more faith,” and a shame response might kick in and then we are internally conflicted. A lack of resolution to this kind of inner conflict might be called a “lack of faith.” But I personally know I don’t want to just double down on believing more, when there are good questions to wrestle through that can solidify my relationship with God.
As a parent, my relationship with my kids is better when we have dialogue, not when they decide they should mute their questions. But back to the part of meeting or not meeting goals—most people set goals of some kind in life and work, but a “failure” or even “success” of meeting ministry goals in particular connects to your own spirituality, your faith, and your work. Ultimately, it can be kind of murky for the person to want to feel they’re doing a good job. Because if you want to find meaning and satisfaction in your work based on the concrete results, the results are dependent on other people’s autonomous choices (how they feel about events, how they feel about God). There is a lot of mystery in that space, which then is out of your control.
P2C-S: Do you think there is a correlation between the amount of your involvement in ministry work and the quality of your mental health?
Jen: I don’t know. I haven’t read into that. But I think, in any aspect of life, it’s normal to have mental health struggles, and if you don’t, you should expect one. Everyone gets headaches, everyone gets colds. In the same vein, I think everyone has mental health struggles. Jesus himself says that we will face trouble. Not everyone might admit this, but I think it’s normal to feel a kind of despair that sounds like “I wish I didn’t live.” The experience of this is of course alarming, because we are wired to desire life. But the old spiritual saints have captured these moments as the “dark night of the soul.” A person might come to this point because things in their life feel so painful, that to consider not living is one way out of the pain. I think that when experiences like these are not talked about, then it’s uncomfortable and alarming when we experience this.
At the same time, this is not to say we should minimize or dismiss when someone is talking about wanting their life to end, we need to take those notions seriously. My point is to normalize that we all experience discomfort within, and it’s good to know that it’s ok if we go there and it’s ok to talk about it. The tendency for many in spiritual leadership or ministry is to deny inner suffering because of the shame of not having their spiritual life together or their emotions “under control.” My bottom line is that most people will face mental health challenges in their lifetime.
P2C-S: In the context of Christian communities, is there a burden of responsibility on leaders for the well-being of participants? Or is each person responsible for themselves? How do you care for others while still recognizing that you can’t control them?
Jen: Everyone needs to be responsible for themselves, but I think it’s important for leaders to be advocating for a culture of mental health. I think mental health should be considered as a continuum of health, just like we might consider physical health: from being very ill to somewhat healthy all the way to excellent health. These can also be measured just as physical health can be measured. Perhaps rather than saying, “I have or don’t have mental health issues,” we can pose it like this: we all need to gauge and evaluate how our mental health is doing. You know, several decades ago, the need for everyone to exercise was not a norm. Mental health is like how exercise was considered back then.
While it’s getting there, it can still feel awkward to talk about having depression, anxiety or other forms of mental health challenges, especially so if there is also medication involved. We all know exercise is a really normal and healthy thing to engage in and incorporate into our lives. So engaging with our mental health is similar, in that it needs to be something that gets talked about and an area to be considered, just as physical health and spiritual health are important to check in on. I think leaders can cause more damage by not advocating for or normalizing language around mental health; or worse, by being fearful of or reactionary against mental health challenges arising among staff.
There’s a term called “spiritual bypassing,” which is using spiritual language to bypass real emotional or mental health issues. I believe it’s somewhat part of the reason the Christian community, in my opinion, is slow on the uptake on normalizing mental health challenges. It’s done by using spiritual answers to counter and keep away normal and important experiences of humanity.
P2C-S: Could you give an example of spiritual bypassing?
Jen: I’ll use anxiety as an example. The part of the brain that is mainly responsible for the experience of fear and anxiety is called the amygdala. I love talking about the wiring of our bodies and its processes, because God made our bodies to have such integrative detail that we can learn about what’s going on. We can learn about emotions and feelings connected to these God-designed hardwired parts of our bodies! If I’m having doubts over being able to reach a goal, I might say, “Oh I’m just lacking trust in God,” or “I know I shouldn’t question God in this, I just need to pray more and memorize Scripture more to cast these doubts away.” These statements might be partially true, and by doing so, I might find some relief. But neither the statements nor the accompanied actions address what is happening on the whole.
The use of spiritual language and terminology with the goal of avoiding the experience of legitimate and appropriate emotions is spiritual bypassing. God has designed for us to experience emotion––even the emotion of doubt and fear is wired to our brains. There is a purpose to this hardwiring. God didn’t make a mistake. When we find fear within us, it’s a clue pointing to something we need to explore. God created us to experience a range of emotions. He’s created our body’s networks to have signals and mechanisms to experience emotion across the spectrum. When the experience of emotion is appropriate to the situation, but that experience is denied or “rebuked,” that’s spiritual bypassing. It’s like detaching yourself from the bodily experience we are meant to have and covering everything with a pretty blanket of spiritual language. It’s over-valuing the cognitive and denying the uncomfortable emotions. It’s a division between your head and your heart, like trying to overcome your emotions with information. It’s the unwillingness to go into the difficult or unpleasant places. In my opinion, this is quite rampant in the church and can be quite damaging to people’s faith and view of God.
P2C-S: Why do you think that is?
Jen: I think that somewhere in our journey, it became that Christianity is primarily about being joyful and showing others that we have it together. The tendency reflects a sense that only joyful people can be of use to God.
P2C-S: It’s easy to assume that we need to make Jesus look good by never having hard emotions.
Jen: Right, that’s totally the assumption. It’s like we are a dysfunctional family: we have to show the world outside that we’re a happy, blessed family. Most people will admit they are not perfect; with good intentions, they might say, “God has changed my life, and look at how good God is!” We set ourselves up to only show a good front of how good God is. We might be afraid to talk about our struggles, because we’re afraid of glorifying those struggles and emphasizing them too much. That’s when spiritual bypassing can happen, because we want to say that God can take away our pain because he gave us joy. Yes, God IS good, but he also created my body to feel emotions, emotions that often reflect our experience of living in an imperfect world.
Many fear the experience of emotions because emotions are also equated with a lack of control… sort of like a picture of “those crazy cult people who thrash on the floor.” So we would rather deny feeling any emotions than to risk becoming out of control. This is a legitimate fear, because we call many emotions “negative” that I like to call “unpleasant.” Because if sadness is a negative emotion that we avoid, we may never get to experience the fellowship of suffering with Christ, and therefore miss out on the good experience of God’s comfort. Emotions are seen as an ethereal, fleshly response, and the belief is: to flail emotionally is to be unspiritual.
It reminds me of my early years of parenting. When I first witnessed my own children’s tantrums, I reflexively wanted to make my child stop crying because that’s what was expected of me. If we are learning from childhood to stop our tears in an instant, it impacts our lifelong experience of dealing with emotions and also influences our way of relating to people and God. We can develop an underlying belief that “I better get in control of my emotions because if I don’t, I’m bad.”
P2C-S: How do you think ministry leaders can change this culture? What would it take to start making a ministry or a church a place where people can engage with these harder things?
Jen: Well, in a concrete way, I think all ministry leaders should go to counselling and/or see a therapist just to know what counselling is about. If you never go to a counsellor, you probably have inaccurate assumptions of what happens in a counselling appointment. By attending a few sessions, a person can learn and understand what happens in the counselling space. For example, some people think that counselling is about receiving advice from the counsellor, or digging to find the “root issue” of a problem. These are actually not really what happens in a counselling office.
What I do as a psychotherapist is often to help clients make sense of their own story and support them to reach their goals by providing some resources or a different vantage point. Many people are afraid of saying they are seeing a counsellor, perhaps out of shame. To me, if you claim to believe in the gospel, then you would assume you have brokenness. Therefore, going to someone whose profession is to help you to sort out and heal from some of that brokennes would be a logical next step. If everyone is trying and going to counselling, it breaks down the sense that we have to keep a facade of having it together. As a result, community can happen through this kind of vulnerability and trusting in grace.
P2C-S: If someone’s a participant in a ministry environment, they can’t necessarily make their leaders do this. So if someone’s under leadership, how can they encourage the group they’re in towards mental wellness?
Jen: Well, I think they themselves can go to counselling. They can also bring other people along to counselling. And then by gently sharing, observing, and noticing, they can be an advocate to and for the people in leadership. I think there are ways that you can influence people. There is a concept in leadership called “leading up.” As an individual explores their voice in counselling, one of the outcomes might be to articulate their desire for leadership to understand counselling. Before I became a counsellor, I saw myself as the person who brought people to the counselling door. There’s a long pathway before people are ready to go to counselling, and that is the space of normalizing brokenness by incorporating this into daily conversations.
I got thrust into counselling when I was sixteen. I had a new relationship with Jesus and was contending with a host of adverse childhood experiences at the same time. The youth pastor of what became my church heard my story, and reached out and set me up to see another pastor who was studying to become a counsellor. I’m so grateful that he did that for me. I shudder at the idea of all the things that I could have done, and how I was on my way to ruin my life, despite the transformations that took place from coming to faith in Jesus. Going to see a counsellor set me on a healthy path spiritually and interpersonally. It didn’t “fix” me and make me a better person, in a simplistic way; going to a counsellor helped me make sense of my early years, and be able to make good decisions for the future while being mindful of what negative tendencies I might have.
P2C-S: It’s so interesting that a pastor who, in theory, could offer a level of counselling, was able to say, “Oh, you actually need to see a different kind of professional.” A pastor can offer a certain type of care, but how do you know what kind of care you need?
Jen: I think pastors should definitely be on the forefront of integrating mental health and theology. And when things move beyond their skill set, they need to know their limits of care and encourage the person to seek the help of a mental health professional. In certain provinces in Canada, therapy/counselling is a regulated health profession with ethical codes. Ethical codes are necessary to prevent harm. As for knowing what kind of care you need, if you go to a counsellor, they will tell you what is outside of their parameters of care. If it’s a spiritual need that is not a mental health concern, they will recommend that you go there. Sometimes, it’s just good to seek help and then pivot toward what that professional might recommend. However, if there are topics such as depression, suicide ideation, etc., that’s when it is clear that a counsellor should help. Actually, in both cases of depression and suicide ideation, a medical doctor and a counsellor are both needed to support the person. There have been cases in the US, for example, where church leaders advised a member against taking medication for their depression, and that person ended up committing suicide. Perhaps medication wouldn’t have helped them in the end, but we will never know.
P2C-S: So even if a Christian was going to a non-Christian counsellor, they can feel safe talking to them.
Jen: Yes. One of the ethical codes that is common among mental health bodies is around imposing religion. The client decides if they want to bring in faith. So in that case, Christians can see a counsellor who is of another faith and find support around mental health, in the same way that we don’t need to see only Christian doctors or dentists. And then of course, you can always ask your pastor for their counsel, or seek out a spiritual director for their guidance. I hope that as pastors become more informed, individual strides in mental health will not be discounted from the pulpit and the pastoral office.
P2C-S: I’ll leave it open-ended then. Is there anything else you would like to say? A word of wisdom, a final comment?
Jen: As I have referenced before, there are correlations of emotions that can be scanned and seen on a brain scan. This knowledge causes me to worship God because these are God’s intricate designs. It’s really important for us to understand that our emotions are not just felt in a non-defined way, such as a mysterious trigger of tears or the unpredictable rage of anger. Emotions can be correlated and felt in our entire body. There is a Finnish study that surveyed 700 people, charting this concept of how emotions are felt in the body. How we are doing in our soul is actually carried in our body. Acknowledging and exploring where we feel something, in our body, is actually a way to understand what is going on.
I’ll put it this way: if we are only focusing on conscious thought, and our faith is all about knowledge alone, we really discount and dishonour a significant piece of how God has made us. Because God has not made us brain-cognitive machines. In the brain, the cognitive part is just a smaller part of the brain. Around two thirds of the brain is given to non-conscious cognitive processes. If God designed our brains and bodies to carry all this information, we give glory to him when we explore and understand these systems.
It’s not unspiritual or woo-woo, or whatever you call it to say, “How do I feel God’s love in my body?” We’re so anti-body that we’re afraid of these concepts. By doing so, I think we are really ignoring information that can give us a good idea toward even finding solutions to many problems. The research is evident that experiences are felt in the body first, before they register in your brain. So if someone has strong reactions in certain social situations, there are physiological cues that can be noticed and worked with to overcome those tendencies. Memorizing Scripture or praying for that fear to simply go away is not likely going to be the solution to this struggle.
Years ago, I read that the reason most people leave vocational ministry is because of other ministry workers. That’s interesting, isn’t it? From my vantage point, there are a lot of people’s bodies that are struggling and could really use prayer AND mental health support. In those cases, most people will freeze, they’ll be stunned, they won’t know what happened. Then they’ll have days of where they can’t sleep, they can’t eat. That’s their body giving them the signal that something is broken.
P2C-S: It sounds almost like your body can’t release the tension until it’s acknowledged. Is that what you’re saying?
Jen: Yeah, I would say so. Because the cognitive part of the brain is actually the director of how to manage these things. But sometimes our cognitive brain can go offline or become inaccessible, and it doesn’t allow for the body to be relational. We need sleep to get back to restoration or whatever. Our bodies are wired to prioritize emotional safety. If your body senses, “We’re not safe! We’re not safe!”, even if you override that and force yourself to do something, it will impact your functioning.
P2C-S: This is making me think I should get a massage and more sleep.
Jen: Right! Care for your body, because if your body feels calm, you can think clearly.
P2C-S: This has been excellent, Jen. Thank you!
Did you enjoy this article? We encourage you to check out more articles in our #mentalhealth series.