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On Religion: Are Many Religious Leaders Afraid to Help Depressed, Suffering People?

Week after week, the Rev. Todd Peperkorn listens as pastors talk — in private — about people wrestling with loneliness, depression and urges to commit suicide.

Most ministers believe they know their own people and their struggles. Then things start happening that reveal dark secrets and pain in the lives of members of their parishes, said Peperkorn, senior pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Rocklin, Calif.

“What I hear pastors saying is, ‘I didn’t know. I didn’t see it. Now I see it everywhere and I can’t stop seeing it,’ ” he said. “Pastors want to help. They want to do the right thing. Most of all, they are scared that they will do something wrong and make a situation worse. …

“At some point, you can get so involved in the details of people’s problems and their needs that you feel like you don’t have the time or the energy to pray for them and carry on with all the other things that pastors need to do.”

There’s a reason that Peperkorn ends up on the other side of these conversations over coffee or on the telephone. He has openly discussed his own experiences as a patient diagnosed with clinical depression.

A decade ago, he shared what he has learned in a book entitled “I Trust When Dark My Road: A Lutheran View of Depression.” Here’s one unforgettable image from his story: During one busy Holy Week, he found himself writing an Easter sermon — while, at the same time, pondering how he could commit suicide.

Right now, many pastors — especially evangelical Protestants — have been shaken by the death of the Rev. Jarrid Wilson, associate pastor at the Harvest Christian Fellowship megachurch in Riverside, Calif. He was best known as the co-founder of Anthem of Hope, a mental-health ministry dedicated to helping people struggling with depression, addiction and suicide.

On Sept. 9, Wilson appealed to his Twitter followers for prayer as he prepared to lead the funeral of a “Jesus-Loving Woman” who took her own life. A few hours after that service, Wilson sent out a poignant tweet.

“Loving Jesus Doesn’t Always Cure Suicidal Thoughts.

“Loving Jesus Doesn’t Always Cure Depression.

“Loving Jesus Doesn’t Always Cure PTSD.

“Loving Jesus Doesn’t Always Cure Anxiety.

“But That Doesn’t Mean Jesus Doesn’t Offer Us Companionship And Comfort. He ALWAYS Does That.”

Later that evening, Wilson shot himself with a handgun and died.

Peperkorn stressed that pastors should focus on the truths that Wilson voiced during his urgent, timely ministry, not the mystery of his final breakdown. The bottom line: This tragedy should inspire more churches to face sobering issues linked to depression and mental health problems. The way forward will require more believers helping suffering people, as opposed to church leaders being too scared to get involved.

Ironically, this may mean that pastors, and seminaries that train them, should spend less time focusing on how to do “biblical counseling” for church members who, in reality, need professional help, he said. Pastors need to know how to recognize problems, so that they can steer people to trained counselors trusted by their churches.

Too often, said Peperkorn, pastors hear church members say things like this: “I don’t have the time or the money to go to a counselor. That’s why I’m coming to see you.”

Congregations also need to pay attention to painful issues that are often linked to depression. Any shortlist of these problems would include broken homes, looming college-loan debts, bullying, addiction to smartphones, sleep deprivation what researchers have warned is a rising tide of loneliness in the lives of many Americans, especially the young and the elderly.

“I tell people, ‘I’m not a doctor. I’m not a counselor. I’m your pastor,’ ” said Peperkorn. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t try to help. The worst possible option is for churches to be too scared to help people. …

“When someone gets cancer, we do everything we can to help — even though we’re not doctors. The fact that we’re reaching out is the whole point. That’s the lifeline. To hurting people that means, ‘I am loved. I belong to a community that cares about me.’ It’s never OK for the church to be too scared to act like the church.”

Terry Mattingly (tmatt.net) leads GetReligion.org and is Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

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