Mondays Set Aside for Mental Health at Washington State Congregation
By Carl Stagner
Much of the Western world bemoans the cyclical Monday morning reality; even pastors often choose to steer clear of the office following their busy Sunday routines. For one Church of God congregation in Washington State, the stereotypical first day of the work week isn’t about taking the day off in promotion of mental health, though. Instead, it’s about discussing and addressing the pervasive problem of mental illness. Crossway Church in Auburn hosts “Fresh Hope for Mental Health” each Monday evening and offers their participants—and the broader Church of God family—a closer look at the ministry and its vitally important content.
The program began at Crossway Church just a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic. Another church had then been renting space from Crossway, and had introduced the mental health ministry to the community. Washington, known at the time for its more stringent and longer-lasting pandemic regulations, brought the in-person gatherings to a halt. Online meetings worked for a season, but came up lacking in their ultimate design to encourage effective peer-to-peer support. Thankfully, in the spring of 2021, Fresh Hope was relaunched under the leadership of Crossway Church and has been operating—and helping so many—cope, grow, and find holistic help for the struggles in their own minds or the minds of ones they love.
For Pastor Cheryl Olson, the issue is personal.
“My father was a three-tour Vietnam Marine Veteran, who was wounded twice in battle,” she explains. “Throughout his life he struggled with PTSD, both from his service in the Vietnam War and his traumatic childhood. I watched him struggle to find support from both the VA and the church. His ‘symptoms,’ which most would be labeled bad behavior or unholiness, were most often a result of unresolved trauma or triggers he experienced while attempting to understand God’s plan for this life. In my mid-thirties, I was prescribed a medication that led to me developing social anxiety. As a pastor, struggling with social anxiety is problematic, as we are often in front of people speaking, meeting new people, and reaching out to the communities where God has planted our churches. I found myself having to find entirely new ways to deal with stress, and the regular social interactions that my calling required.”
In mental health recovery and healing, Pastor Cheryl has discovered an intersection of God’s Word and psychology.
“Whether that is mental flexibility, learning new coping skills, or challenging negative bias,” she observes, “I found the truth of Scripture manifest in the newest findings of psychology. Additionally, if we truly believe that Jesus makes life possible, and specifically abundant life today, our church wanted to demonstrate how God’s truths are timeless and able to meet us where we are with what we have.”
One of the challenges in the church today, especially in the West, is the stigma often associated with mental illness. Too often, diagnosed physical issues that affect thinking and, therefore, behavior, are conflated with unrepentant sin and given strictly spiritual prescriptions. Crossway Church and the ministry of Fresh Hope for Mental Health understands the dilemma, and actively seeks to bust the myths.
“In an attempt to tie things with a neat bow,” Pastor Cheryl says, “I think we, especially as Westerners, oversimplify the deep issues that sin causes in our world and the mysterious depths of truth God’s Word offers for what we face. When a person is sad, we often quote verses like Philippians 4:8–9…. In doing so, we often glaze over the more complex narrative that many of our predecessors understood: lament. Yes, we must focus our mind, attention and affection on the things of God, and seek the wholeness—shalom—found in Christ. Yet we forget the story where Jesus weeps over his dead friend Lazarus despite his resurrection to come just moments later.”
“Sin is traumatic,” she continues, “It splits families, communities, individuals, and our world against one another and against God. It causes deep rifts and pain within communities for generations. We wondered what might happen if we lived out this verse as our neighbors both won and lost in life, ‘Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!’ (Romans 12:15–16 NLT).”
Crossway Church observes the lack of hesitancy among Christians to acknowledge the diagnosis of a cold, the flu, or heart disease, but not mental illness. Medicinal methods are encouraged at Fresh Hope, as well as intentional decision-making about new ways of thinking. God can still restore the mind, as he can the rest of a person. Their ways are strategically holistic—just like our gracious, holistic Lord.
“Even Paul encourages Timothy,” Pastor Cheryl continues, “to ‘[not] drink only water. You ought to drink a little wine for the sake of your stomach because you are sick so often’ (1 Timothy 5:23 NLT). We have mentions such as this, wherein wine is being used as medicine. Am I encouraging people to drink? No. However, what if the church saw mental health as part of our overall health that may require medicine, and rejected the cultural idea that complex feelings and the struggle with sin is a moral failing rather than a reality of post-Genesis 3 life?”
Through psychologically proven, Scripturally sound methodology, Fresh Hope for Mental Health offers practical steps each week that help participants learn to cope and ultimately live well in them midst of the struggle, and find freedom in Christ. Identity is never surrendered to a diagnosis; participants confess who they are as God sees them. Pastor Cheryl personally loves this point.
“We have a choice in the battle for hope, and we encourage people to say yes to their part in walking with Jesus to find his hope and peace,” she concludes.
In recognition of related scourges of depression and suicide, the church also hosts a “Survivors of Suicide Loss” event each year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.