CALLED Convention Pre-Session Tackles Mental Health

Experts discuss challenges of the present time and provide tips on how to cope.

Kimberly Luste Maran, North American Division News
CALLED Convention Pre-Session Tackles Mental Health
[Photo: Kate Wolfer, North American Division News]

The 2022 CALLED Pastors’ Family Convention started on June 19, 2022, in Lexington, Kentucky, United States, with a special pre-session on mental health. Of the nearly 6,000 expected CALLED attendees, more than 1,100 registered for the Kettering Health Mental Health Seminar, which ran in two parts from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. The third and final session, on pastors’ mental health, is scheduled for June 21.

“The pandemic has highlighted the need for pastors to be aware of mental health needs and how to ensure that their congregants receive mental health care,” NAD Ministerial Association director Ivan Williams said. “The pandemic has also demonstrated that pastors, too, need mental health support. We are honored to partner with Kettering Health to provide this to our CALLED attendees.” 

The first segment was titled, “The Mind: God’s Design and What Went Wrong and What You Can Do About It.” Sul Ross Thorward, a psychiatrist from Sitka, Alaska, hosted the discussion with presenters/panelists Torben Bergland, psychiatrist and psychotherapist and associate director of General Conference Health Ministries; Daniel Xisto, pastor of the Takoma Park Seventh-day Adventist Church in Maryland; Andrea Xisto, clinical psychiatrist; and Andrea Jakobsons, lead pastor at the Kettering Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ohio. Several shared their stories as they’ve dealt with extremism, racism, and polarization — and how this has impacted them personally as well as their experiences in the church.

Panelists Daniel and Andrea Xisto talked about their experiences with racism. “White supremacy … I think it’s a major blind spot in our church that we need to confront,” Daniel said. “We need to recognize the impact that it’s having on our church and have the courage to stand up and speak out.”

Nestor Bruno, psychologist and director of the Ministry Care Line of the Kettering Health Network, presents during the pre-session mental health seminar at the 2022 CALLED Pastors’ Family Convention. [Photo: Pieter Damsteegt, North American Division News]

The Xistos have encountered racism from family members and church members over the course of their interracial relationship and marriage. Andrea talked about the hurt she’s experienced throughout her life, sharing how people even told her she couldn’t go to an Ivy League university. “I was told not to apply to some of the Ivy League schools because they’re only for certain kinds of people. Spoiler alert: I did end up going to the Ivy League school, but I also went to law school, going on to become a clinical psychologist with a PhD in psychology.”

She added, “There are so many kids out there — how many of them have been stopped from pursuing their dreams because someone with influence told them what they couldn’t do? Racialized trauma — the depression, the anxiety disorders, disordered eating, the substance abuse issues — all these things that can come with some of the polarized and racist things that are experienced, including what we experience in/through the church.”

Jakobsons, who grew up in the Czech Republic, shared that Czech culture is suffused in racism toward people known as gypsies. These beliefs “seep into the church.… We don’t realize that the things we say are hurtful. We have to be able to talk and share things. We all make mistakes, we have to work through them,” she said.

Addressing another topic, she added, “I have faced polarization in women in ministry: I knew I would never become a pastor because of the fight I would have to face. No matter how much I felt God’s call, I said no until I couldn’t shake the pressure from God on me.” Jakobsons talked about how her father supported and urged her to go into ministry, giving her this advice: “Hear things then flush them away.”

After participants on the platform told their stories, Bergland shared a presentation on polarization and extremism from the perspective of mental health experts, Ellen G. White’s writings, and biblical resources, including a biblical passage, 2 Timothy 4:3-5. “These issues of extremism, polarization, and fanaticism are things that we really struggle with, both in society and also in our church,” Bergland said.

“We all need a place where we can go and just be totally vulnerable, feel whatever [we] feel, share everything about it, process it together with someone so that [we] can go back into the world and face it.”

The panel answered questions posed by Thorward, who later participated in a panel, after a quick exercise break with the F5 Challenge team.

The second part of the pre-session, titled, “Relational Wellness and Wellbeing: The Pastoral Family; How to Breathe Again,” included an interview with Jonathan Duffy by Mary Ann Schaepper, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Loma Linda University Medical Center, followed by a panel discussion, and tips and resources in a presentation by Nestor Bruno, psychologist and director of the Ministry Care Line of the Kettering Health Network.

Duffy, executive director of Mission and Ministry for the Kettering Health Network, shared how his son’s suicide affected him and his family. Duffy then joined the panel, moderated by Bruno, which also included Schaepper, Thorward, and Rob Lang, North Pacific Union Youth Ministries director.

On dealing with the aftermath of suicide, Thorward spoke about the common reactions of survivors. “Expect the survivors to have a bewildering flash of emotions, to be angry and sad at the same time; to be relieved and disappointed at the same time,” he said. “They themselves will not understand the roller coaster. And there is no understanding for that roller coaster beyond knowing that that’s a part of the process.… Survivors will search for meaning. And survivors tend to greatly overestimate their own contribution to the event. What you can do is stand beside them and hold their hands in the rapids while they go through this, reduce their isolation, and provide support.”

Lang shared a report that through the period of the COVID-19 pandemic, one in four adolescents has considered suicide. “What about our church’s role? As pastors, we feel responsible for these things.… I just want to say a word to you today that if you’re trying to carry all of that for your church, yourself, that will crush you.

“What if the church can become what God intended it to be: a fellowship of people that would journey together and have these relationships that would help bring resilience?” Lang asked, sharing about the Growing Together movement, in which pastors invite their church leaders, young adults, and others to create an intergenerational conversation in their churches.

“Mental illness is illness. It is a battle,” Schaepper said. “The God that I know and love is the One that my mom said drove her to Scripture in such a way that she came to know this loving God she could trust with all of these amazingly complex situations — and that His grace is sufficient.”

Bruno ended the segment with resources, tips, and an audience activity. “There is no such thing as a spiritual problem,” Bruno said. “There are human problems that can be a spiritual, cognitive-emotional behavior of social, medical, and we can have other variables, but this is just to put it in context. They are human problems.”

He asked the attendees to finish three sentences that start with “I have to …” Then he had the group change the first three words to “I choose to …” He asked the audience if that changed their perception and feeling about the statements. “I work with pastors, and we have the world on our shoulders; we have to be everything for everyone. But we can choose. And we can choose to get help; we can lift the magnifying glass of loneliness … and connect.”

The original version of this story was posted on the North American Division news site.

Kimberly Luste Maran, North American Division News

Kimberly Luste Maran, North American Division News