Ministering to Persons who Have Depression or Anxiety

Post Author: Ali Van Kuiken

This is part of a series on the intersections between pastoral care and mental health. Read the rest of the series by selecting the Mental Health and Ministry tag

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), depression and anxiety are the most common mental illnesses diagnosed in the United States. With almost a third of adults experiencing symptoms related to one or both of these illnesses, chances are you will have folks with these struggles in your congregation. In my setting, a state psychiatric hospital, the people I see with anxiety and depression are going through an extremely difficult time and dealing with experiences that are beyond their level of coping. Still, some of the lessons I have learned can be applied to the parish setting as well.

The most important advice I could give a church pastor providing spiritual support to a person struggling with depression or anxiety is to provide an atmosphere of acceptance and love. Whatever someone is going through, don’t try to fix them or say something to try to make them feel better. It will actually serve to invalidate their experience. That being said, it is also important not to get stuck with the person in their feelings of depression or anxiety. Your task is to walk the middle ground of validating their experience while at the same time maintaining your own sense of hope and equanimity.

Someone who has depression or anxiety may feel hopeless and have lost interest in faith. These signs can be difficult for a pastor to witness in someone. After all, part of a pastor’s call is to preach the gospel, a message of hope and faith. It can be difficult to hear that someone to whom we are providing care thinks the gospel does not pertain to their suffering or that their faith is not helping their struggles. It is important to respond pastorally and not merely to double down on a message of hope and transformation. Remember how much of Scripture is made up of lament and a crying out to God from a place of despair and hopelessness. It may not feel like enough, but offering these biblical resources to a suffering person gives them a place within the faith to express their current feelings and experiences. This can be very valuable for someone who feels lost and outside of it all.

A decorative image of a person with a shaved head looking out of a window with rain running down the pane.

Someone struggling with depression may feel hopeless and yet at the same time find value in being shown there is a place for them in their faith.

Another challenge providing pastoral care to someone struggling with depression or anxiety is that they may not be very verbal. Finding words might be a big struggle. As a pastoral care giver you may need to be creative in how you offer pastoral care. Perhaps instead of offering a lot of words and conversation, you can offer a song. Or perhaps you can provide a space within a Bible study setting for participants to express themselves through art and color. 

Finally, someone experiencing depression and anxiety may not be able to verbalize a positive reaction or any reaction to your pastoral care. You may not know whether what you are saying or doing is effective. The cues we normally take from folks simply may not be there. It’s important to realize that the lack of a cue does not mean the person does not need or appreciate our support. Something important we can offer is consistency and commitment. The church pastor in this situation may well benefit from being personally grounded and tending to her own self-care so that she has resources to offer someone who cannot offer the usual feedback.

In addition to cultivating these attitudes and responses, another preparatory step for church pastors is to educate ourselves on the experiences of people with depression and anxiety. Some resources for further reading and exploration are listed below:

The Rev. Ali Van Kuiken is a chaplain at a psychiatric hospital in central New Jersey where she lives with her husband, toddler, and cat.

Image by: Klaus Nielsen
Used with permission
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