How Houses of Worship Could Play a Greater Role Improving America’s Mental Health Epidemic 

With increased loneliness, isolation and mental health challenges impacting communities throughout the country, houses of worship have a unique role to play improving the overall well-being of individuals and community life.  

A recent Wall Street Journal piece, “The Mental-Health Benefits Linked to Going to Church” highlights the significant role houses of worship play in providing a greater sense of community and belonging for individuals. The unique role spiritual leaders have in the lives of so many Americans highlights the opportunity these faith leaders and communities have to improve the overall well-being of Americans struggling to find their sense of purpose, identity and calling. 

To foster greater attention on approaching mental health-related issues within houses of worship, a collaboration among Sanctuary Mental Health Services, The Porter’s Gate Worship Project and Duke Divinity School recently partnered to launch a curriculum called “Sanctuary Course,” and “Sanctuary Songs.” The Sanctuary Course equips the church as they learn to support those with mental health challenges while the Sanctuary Songs is a complementing worship album that focuses on themes related to mental health and faith.  

There are currently around 2,000 churches throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom benefiting from this resource and around 300,000 individuals completing the course in small groups of Sunday school class formats. 

Esther Larson, senior director of programs at Philanthropy Roundtable, recently spoke with Isaac Wardell, the director of The Porter’s Gate, and Daniel Whitehead, CEO of Sanctuary Mental Health Services, to learn more about the collaboration and how philanthropy can help further fuel their impact.  

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

 Q: Tell us about your collaborative project “Sanctuary Course” and “Sanctuary Songs.” 

Wardell: One of the places where the most regular and consistent spiritual formation takes place for Christians is in their experience of weekly worship. It’s in worship that we get the language and the tools for talking about the struggles we face – through preaching, through corporate prayer and also through singing together.  

Many of us have even had the experience of calling to mind the lyrics to a song or a hymn that has really spoken to our hearts during a difficult season. It strikes me that many churches don’t feel like they have the language or the tools for how to talk about mental health in worship. The hope of the Sanctuary Course and this new suite of worship resources called Sanctuary Songs is that we can provide churches with the language for how to talk about mental health journeys in a way that’s biblical faithful and also emotionally powerful. 

Whitehead: For us at Sanctuary, we see the power of music and art in helping people make connections in the mental health conversation. Sometimes when we can’t find words to explain how we’re feeling or what we’re going through or what we’re experiencing, it is art and music that help us.  

It’s also a goal of Sanctuary to change the culture of the church to be more hospitable to people amid crisis, and music is one of the most powerful discipleship tools that the church has. For us, to help create music that better reflects all of human experience by re-establishing a more biblical vision for worship through lament and honestly bringing our troubles to God in the community, strikes us as a vital task, especially in this historic moment when so many people are looking for hope. 

Q: How do you see the intersection of faith engagement and mental health?  

Wardell: There are so many stories of individuals approaching a pastor or youth pastor with a mental health challenge as their first point of entry for talking about this issue. In that crucial moment, there are really different outcomes that can take place. In the worst-case scenario, a pastor might be in error or ill-informed and cause a person to feel like their mental health challenge is a sign of spiritual deficiency or even personal sin. In other cases, a pastor might just not know how to talk about it, which might make the parishioner feel isolated and unknown. 

But, I’ve also heard really beautiful stories of how talking to a pastor has been the first step in a journey of healing when the pastor has helped destigmatize mental illness and been able to point the person in the right direction. We want to equip more pastors and church leaders to help reach these kinds of outcomes. 

Whitehead: Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries began 13 years ago because of research that shows that at a point of mental health crisis, people are more likely to turn to the church than they are to a doctor. The challenge is that very often the kind of support people get in the church is at best non-existent, and at worst unhelpful, or damaging. Faith and mental health belong together because at the heart of our faith is a belief we can bring all things before God and God has a redemptive plan for all human experiences, including difficult ones. 

Q: You successfully launched the first iteration of this project and it was well received by faith communities. Describe what the initial project for “Sanctuary Course” and “Sanctuary Songs” entailed and what impact it has had. 

Wardell: We’ve already seen these songs and prayers used in at least 2,000 churches over the past two years. We’ve been receiving emails and notes every week from individuals and from church leaders expressing gratitude for these worship resources. 

Whitehead: In our recent annual review, we detail some of the feedback we’ve received from people who have listened to Sanctuary Songs. We could also report on a great number of churches across a large geographical space that have incorporated the songs into their song worship. 

It is through this project that I believe there is so much more to be leveraged in the Christian music space, I believe it’s possible Sanctuary Songs will be looked back upon as a seminal moment that helped to move forward a re-emergence of lament and brutal honesty in sung worship. This will be a good thing for so many people in our congregations who often have to suffer in silence because of stigma, to hear their experiences sung about in community as the Jewish people did when hearing the Psalms of Lament sung in community. 

Q: What does success look like for this project working with youth around mental health? How does the collaborative think about success metrics and impact? 

Wardell: One of the goals of this project is to see more churches around the country take on conversations about mental health in small groups, in worship and through counseling ministries. We’ve seen so many individual churches start this journey, but we’re also focusing more in the coming year on conversations with whole denominations and larger groups of churches to help whole organizations of churches feel well-resourced. With our partnership with Duke Divinity professors Warren Kayhorn and John Swinton, we are hosting a gathering this coming fall with scholars, mental health professionals and musicians as we continue to increase awareness about this project together. 

Whitehead: An exciting part of the upcoming youth series that we are launching is that for the first time ever we will be doing an in-depth pre- and post-study to track and report on changes in attitudes and practices in response to the Sanctuary Youth Series. This will be a conclusive and publishable study working with a third-party research institution. At the base level, success will look like young people, and the people who serve those young people, gaining a shared framework and language to understand faith and mental health, so young people can bring their whole authentic selves to the church, and take their faith authentically into their mental health journeys. We are also excited about the prospect of cross-generational conversations happening around faith and mental health because we will have collaborative resources for young people and their parents. 

 Q: How has this work been funded? Any specific funding needs to make this project a reality?  

Wardell: Funding so far has come in the form of individual gifts as well as several grants. Many of the individual donors and family foundations that have become passionate about this work have been families touched in a personal way by mental health challenges. I think the more families come to recognize the great need in this area that they become more interested in working toward solutions that address mental health, especially in a way that’s consistent with their Christian faith and biblical values. 

Whitehead: All of Sanctuary’s work relies on the generosity of donors and foundations. We are close to achieving our fundraising goal for the youth series, but we are always looking for support to help us create new resources and raise awareness of existing resources to communities of faith across all denominations, cultural settings and geographic locations. 

 Q: Anything else you’d like to share with donors about why they should consider funding mental health as part of their portfolio of giving? 

Whitehead: When I look back at history and see the role the church has played in meeting very real needs in society, I am left wondering what history will say of this moment, and the church’s response to this overwhelming challenge in our society. I for one believe the church should be at the forefront of mental health conversations, helping the world to see a different way to hold this subject, in a way that is informed by psychology, by faith and always elevating the value and voice of those who are suffering.  

The church has all it needs to hold this space in society. But sadly the church is often too afraid, or lacking the right framework and terminology to lead the way in rehumanizing people amid crises, and reassuring people that God is still near to those who are struggling in their mental health. I can foresee a day when the church is famous for its deeply compassionate love and care of those in the midst of mental health crises. But we have a long way to go to make that a reality, so we need all the help we can get. 

If you are interested in learning more about how Philanthropy Roundtable supports donors committed to addressing our nation’s mental health crisis, please contact Esther Larson, senior director of programs at Philanthropy Roundtable here. 

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