Shortly before he was approved for ordination, Father Kevin Gillespie, S.J., sprained his ankle in a game of volleyball. This may not sound like the biggest deal in the world. After all, a sprained ankle would hardly prevent him from meeting with the rector authorizing his ordination. Still, this was his last year of formation. Priestly formation involves anywhere from eight to 12 years of theological and academic study, service work, and intense contemplation and prayer. But as he emerged from a years-long journey, Father Gillespie found himself relegated to a pair of crutches.
One day, he hobbled in for an important meeting with the rector. During the meeting, Father Gillespie expressed frustration over his immobility during a stressful time. The rector responded, explaining to Gillespie that the sprained ankle was “one of the best things that could’ve happened to you before [becoming] a priest.” After all, he noted, “you’re vulnerable right now. It’s not permanent. But you're going to work with vulnerable people. And because of your vulnerability now, you’re going to be able to enter those spaces in a way that's more respectful and sensitive.”
And because of your vulnerability now, you’re going to be able to enter those spaces in a way that's more respectful and sensitive
When Father Gillespie, now pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Washington, DC, told me this story, I didn’t immediately grasp its significance. I had just begun a project exploring the ways various religious communities respond to mental health concerns, and I was preoccupied with questions of policy and protocol. Nothing about this story, with its focus on vulnerability and entering sensitive spaces, seemed directly connected to these concerns. And so, I filed it away. It wasn’t until later, as I began to notice a pattern emerging from conversations with religious leaders around DC, that I returned to it. As I did, I realized that Father Gillespie’s emphasis on vulnerability, on accepting and embracing weakness and using that as a way to connect with and serve others, was a common theme in every congregation I visited over the course of my project.
I had gone into these interviews expecting many accounts of conflicting practices, disparate views on the boundaries of faith, and different beliefs on the role of divine intervention in times of mental crisis. And to be sure, these complexities were evident. But time and time again, it seemed as though all of my interlocutors kept pointing to a virtuous cycle of service, self-care, and community formation that led to better mental health outcomes. As I began to probe this new connection, my interviewees showed me that the act of serving often has mental health benefits for both the performer and recipient of the service.
Of course, not all religious communities boast a virtuous cycle of service, self-care, and close-knit community. We hear about certain faith organizations shaming LGBTQ people, inadequately engaging with mental health resources, and harboring a distrust of secular services. However, the leaders I spoke with showed the way many religious communities have, consciously or unconsciously, used service to fight isolating mental health struggles. By building organizations focused on others, these groups offer us new perspectives on mental healthcare, and show us how the health of a mind ultimately affects the health of a community.
Service and Religious Community
St. Luke Lutheran Church is a large, brick building on a busy street corner in Silver Spring, Maryland. When I walked through the church’s doors, the first thing I noticed was a bulletin board that fluttered with flyers promoting service work in every area imaginable. There were homeless outreach initiatives, education reforms, retreats and conferences, and advertisements for the church’s signature traveling theater troupe. I also noticed the bustle of people darting in and out of the lobby, dropping off packages, scheduling meetings, and checking in about upcoming events. Mind you, it was a Tuesday morning. Not exactly prime time for a church. And yet a persistent hum of activity filled the building.
I was there to meet with the church’s pastor, Reverend Connie Miller. Rev. Miller is the sort of person who immediately fills a room with her presence. She walks with the confident march of someone who has a million things on her mind and is still on top of all of them. When she strode in to introduce herself, I imagined that many people, upon meeting her, had immediately been swept up by an ineffable desire to go and change the world.
See, changing the world is sort of the thing for the congregation at St. Luke. As Rev. Miller and I settled down in her office, she explained that the church is driven by a strong commitment to service. In lieu of the “Rally Day” celebration that they used to throw at the beginning of the year, St. Luke now holds a congregation-wide day of service. The congregants run a variety of homeless outreach programs. They host community dinners. A few years back, they introduced a “blessing of the animals,” a night where everyone in the neighborhood brings their pets over near St. Francis Day in October. The church’s traveling theatre ministry routinely tours the country, putting on dramatic performances and gathering supplies for the Saint Luke Food Pantry.
The philosophy behind all these projects is expressed in the “Forgotten Luther” conference that the church hosts. Eagerly pulling a few books from under her desk, Rev. Miller hands them to me, explaining that the church published the speeches of each of the speakers at the conferences. Glancing at them, I see titles such as “The Subversive Luther” and “Reclaiming the Empowerment of Ordinary People.” The purpose of the event, she tells me, is to remind people that even though we’re saved through grace, “that doesn't mean you can just sit back and put your feet up. Grace is for everybody equally. Which means that we need to work within the system to make sure everyone knows that equally.”
Rev. Miller tends to jump around from topic to topic as she talks. Still, there’s definitely a clear through line in everything she says. In particular, she seemed preoccupied with one, enduring question: “How do we connect?” How do we connect with the inhabitants of Silver Spring experiencing homelessness? How do we connect with the neighborhood’s Latinx population? How do we connect with other faith groups in the area? These questions, and others like them, clearly occupy much of Rev. Miller’s thinking.
A large part of this focus on connection stems from St. Luke’s emphasis on grace. As Rev. Miller notes, all the work that St. Luke does “comes back to that grace thing. ‘By grace we are saved.’” Leaning forward slightly, she explains that “grace is a gift. There's nothing we can do to earn it. It's equal for everybody. So, we are called to make sure everybody is equally served.” This, more than anything else, embodies the reason the congregation at St. Luke places such a high premium on serving others. For the congregants, the belief that all people are imbued with an innate dignity and self-worth drives them to oppose systems that oppress that dignity. Through service, they try and make the inherent worth of others evident to the surrounding world.
At one point in our conversation, Rev. Miller described the homeless outreach programs at St. Luke. “We now open our doors Sundays through March for a homeless ministry,” she said. “When the shelters aren't open on Sundays, people come here. We have food. We have TVs on. We watch football or whatever. We put newspapers out. And we have volunteers who help people look for jobs. We connect.” During one homeless outreach program, Rev. Miller found herself talking with a man who, due to a series of escalating health complications, had lost his comfortable corporate job, eventually becoming homeless. “You never know,” she reminded me. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Not all communities couch their service work in terms of grace and redemption. Not all religious groups employ the same, disciplined approach to service as the congregation at St. Luke. However, service featured prominently in almost every interview I conducted. And in every case, this work stemmed from a belief in the innate worth of other human beings. As in the story of Rev. Miller’s conversation with the man experiencing homelessness, service is predicated on a realization that the world is far from perfect. Misfortune can arise, casting us into spaces where we feel utterly alone. At the same time service is also fueled by a desire to connect with one another. This connection leads to close-knit communities, strong support systems, and powerful improvements in the mental health of the individuals involved. And as the interviewees I spoke with showed me, these mental health benefits often begin in the minds of the people doing the serving.
Barriers to Service
“I think I want to spend a little time with ‘the neighbor.’ Not the Samaritan, but the neighbor.” As Pastor Cindy Kent opened her sermon about the Good Samaritan, she surveyed the crowd in front of her. She has a measured gaze, which seems to both scrutinize you and shower you with compassion.
Pastor Cindy would be the first to acknowledge this. As she herself admits, she tends to operate with a bit of a “who-sent-you” mentality. This wariness doesn’t mean Pastor Cindy eschews service to others. All it means is that she is a bit guarded about people and their intentions. So, when she gave a brilliant sermon about how the story of “The Good Samaritan” challenges us to examine our own mental defenses, I knew that she was speaking from the heart.
Within my first few minutes at Van Buren UMC, a small Methodist church in a quiet little corner of Takoma, I felt right at home. The church body is small. Each service is typically composed of about 20 people. I received numerous hugs, words of welcome from almost every member of the congregation, and even a mid-service shout-out from Pastor Cindy.
It was my first time at Van Buren UMC, and I had scheduled an interview after the service. After the last hymn wrapped up, Pastor Cindy and I walked back to her office. Before long, we found ourselves talking about the idea of mental defenses, and the ways they often inhibit us from effectively serving others.
This, in a nutshell, was the message of Pastor Cindy’s Good Samaritan sermon. Instead of focusing on how we can be Good Samaritans to others, as analyses of the parable often do, she asked us to examine the ways in which we might be the neighbor in need. In doing so, she tied the call to service of others with an examination of our own mental health. Until we probe our own mental struggles, she explained, it’s difficult to reach the type of security and stability needed to serve others.
Instead of focusing on how we can be Good Samaritans to others, she asked us to examine the ways in which we might be the neighbor in need.
As Pastor Cindy discussed this connection with me, she reflected on her own path to ordination. When you become a pastor in the United Methodist Church, she said, you have to undergo “a very robust psychological evaluation.” The reasoning she gave for this was very similar to that of Father Gillespie. It’s “important to be mindful of your weaknesses—to know where those may be so you can be aware of them, so you can attend to them.” This is something Pastor Cindy really welcomes. “One of the things I appreciate about the United Methodist Church is not only that this [therapy] is something they require, but something they expect,” she said. “They expect us to continue in our education. They expect us to seek counseling. We need to always be working and growing in that so that we can better care for those who come to us.”
This is especially salient advice for someone like Pastor Cindy. After all, people often come to her with their troubles. They come with health problems. They seek help with feelings of isolation, doubt, and despair. And in response, she often gives them the same advice that the United Methodist Church gives her: Explore your weakness. Perhaps a lost job is an “opportunity to head in a different direction.” Perhaps, much as Father Gillespie had pointed out several weeks before, health problems provide a chance to consider what is “being offered by this vulnerability.” She’s not advocating for some Pollyannaish view of our problems. Trouble will arise, there’s no denying that. Instead, she’s imploring us to think earnestly about the ways our suffering presents us with the opportunity of personal redefinition.
She’s not advocating for some Pollyannaish view of our problems. Instead, she’s imploring us to think earnestly about the ways our suffering presents us with the opportunity of personal redefinition.
This is a message that applies to both leaders and congregants in a community. Many religious organizations are animated by a call to service. However, the members of these communities also recognize that in order to be effective servants—in order to be in a stable position to assist others, in order to avoid being blind to the things in our lives that might hurt or distance those we’re trying to help—we need to engage in self-care. This is a belief that Rabbi Hyim Shafner, the head of Kesher Israel Synagogue in Georgetown, tries to show by example.
On a balmy summer day, I biked to Kesher Israel for a meeting with Rabbi Shafner. Kesher Israel, as Rabbi Shafner would later tell me, is the only full-service Orthodox synagogue in downtown Washington, DC. Visitors are constantly flitting in and out of the building, adding a sense of flux to the congregation of Jews who attend Shabbat services there every week. On a Saturday morning, you can see little clusters of people in front of the building talking and joking with one another.
Rabbi Shafner is a friendly and easygoing man, whose voice seems to crackle with a descant of warm amusement. I asked him about his path to becoming a rabbi. He explained that he grew up in an Orthodox community, attended Jewish school, and found the role of a rabbi a natural fit. He outlined three parts to rabbinical duties: “One is being a teacher and a religious scholar, one is being a counselor, and one is being a CEO.” Seizing on his roles as religious teacher and counselor, I asked him about the intersection of faith and mental health. Rabbi Shafner answered that disturbances in our mental health “stop us from being ourselves…The stronger our defenses [against being helped] are, the less we're able to be really present and genuine. Which means we're not really going to be able to serve our fellow man, and we're not really going to be able to serve God.”
Removing these barriers to service has been an important part of Rabbi Shafner’s formation as a leader. As a student at Yeshiva University in New York, Rabbi Shafner earned master’s degrees in Jewish philosophy and social work. He also runs a small practice in psychotherapy and has sat down for many hours of therapy himself. “One of the things often missing in the education of clergy is their own therapy,” he mused. “I'm not sure you can be a clergy person who’s really effective without having had your own therapy.” This, he explained, is because as a therapist it’s important “to know what's you and what's your patient.” The same is true of religious leaders. The minute an interaction with congregants “becomes about the leaders, that’s the end. In really good leaders, their humility manifests. They know that their job, in a certain sense, is that of the servant. It isn't about them.”
One of the things often missing in the education of clergy is their own therapy. I'm not sure you can be a clergy person who’s really effective without having had your own therapy.
Thus, the service calling underpinning so many religious communities also requires a degree of self-care and self-reflection from those who participate in it. The main reason for this, as Pastor Cindy showed me, is that one goal of service is the creation of “places of trust.” As she noted in our conversation, “if the church is the best that it can be, it meets someone where they are. There aren't any requirements or zip codes you need to be in or paperwork to fill out. The fact is that you have a need that hopefully we can meet. We try to have a heart for you and meet you there.” This focus is very similar to the theme of connection that so preoccupies Rev. Miller. It was also a theme echoed by Father Gillespie who, drawing from his own experience as a licensed psychologist, analogized the therapist’s goal of reaching patients through a common language with the aims of a congregation member trying to connect with others. Inherent in the idea of service work is a notion of connection, of transparency, of an ability to actually engage the person you’re serving.
Forging those places of trust, as Pastor Cindy explains, requires work. Doing so necessitates her “being organic and transparent” and “letting people get to know [her].” It requires her “to be open. To be nonjudgmental. To not try and solve all of the problems or to talk badly about past actions. To be embracing and caring.” Such transparency and self-awareness only come about when a person’s undergone rigorous self-examination. Such examination helps them get to know their biases, their blindnesses; it helps them identify the hang-ups blocking them from connecting with others through service.
Perhaps the best illustration of the connection between service and self-care comes from a few reflections Father Gillespie offered about the way psychotherapy, pastoral counseling, and community-building all rely on a deep understanding of the person you’re interacting with. At one point, he mentioned that too much individuality (that is, too many mental barriers between us and the surrounding community), “cuts off the person in relation to others.” To prevent this from happening, not only did he suggest a similar probing of one’s weaknesses as Pastor Cindy, Rabbi Shafner, and Reverend Miller, but he also emphasized the importance of learning to speak a common “language of meaning” as the person you’re serving. When working with a Muslim woman, for instance, he “worked to really zero in on her language…literally [pulling] out the Quran” to try and understand, at a deep and personal level, the way she views the world.
This sort of connection requires us to truly listen to those we’re trying to form community with. It requires us to view others, not as abstractions or obligations to check off a list, but as people to be taken seriously. This is where self-care and self-examination become so vital. When we’re distracted by our own struggles or unaware of our own parochialities, it becomes impossible to engage in the service work that forms the bedrock of so many religious communities.
According to Rev. Miller, this was exactly the realization that occurred in the congregation at St. Luke. For a long time, the church was too removed from the surrounding community for her liking. “The issue was,” she said, “for many years, the way we'd reach out was to write a check.” The congregation wasn’t blind to social injustices. However, its members also “weren’t getting [their] hands dirty.” For Rev. Miller and others at St. Luke, this wasn’t good enough. “When you ask [how] to connect with community,” Rev. Miller told me, “you start to get creative.” The church had to wrestle with the question of what connecting with the community actually looked like. Their answer was, as Rev. Miller put it, “to get creative.”
The process of getting creative was a radical one for the congregation. As they introduced new ideas and programs, a deep change began to occur in the church. When they started worshipping in Spanish, more members of the Latinx community began attending services. Before long, Rev. Miller told me, congregants were “talking to people and hearing their stories. And they were hearing our stories. And we were all one.” When they started hosting more community events, they realized that they were “starting to look more like the Kingdom of God.” Nowadays, if you ask Rev. Miller where the church is located, she’ll often respond by asking you the time. “If it's 10 o'clock on a Tuesday, we're in the boardroom, we're at the school, we're down the road at the store,” she said. The church had learned to connect with the surrounding community. And in order to do so, they had changed the very fabric of their organization.
This, on a smaller scale, is what occurs in the mind of the individual engaged in service. Service work exists as a fundamental part of the mission of many religious organizations. This service work, in turn, requires places of trust and transparency to be effective. These places are only possible to attain by removing the mental blockages that prevent us from truly listening to others.
To help with the removal of these blockages, many of the congregations provide mental health services to help both leaders and laypeople address areas of struggle in their own lives. Rabbi Shafner, in his capacity as a psychologist, routinely counsels people referred to him by other rabbis. St. Luke is involved with a service called Stephen Ministries, which is “an international program that trains laypeople to journey with people who may have challenges in their lives.” And according to Pastor Cindy, the United Methodist Church is so concerned about the mental health of its leaders that it provides “a group of counselors that you can either resource for yourself personally or send other people to.”
Data show that “nearly one in four U.S. congregations (23%) provided some type of programming to support people with mental illness."
She can recall a few times when “clergy were put on six-month Sabbaths so they could care for themselves, so they could get some counseling to deal with a significant family transition or health transition or something.” This, she says, is all “so we don't stay busy being busy and avoid the work of working through the things that happen to us in our lives.” By working through the troubles in our lives, we improve in our ability to serve others. We also reach stronger, healthier mental states in the process.
Building Effective Communities
Because of this adjoined relationship between service and self-care, many religious communities undergo a cycle where leaders and congregants, in their efforts to serve others, first have to accept help with their problems and be vulnerable themselves. This vulnerability can occur by accepting assistance from one’s fellow community-members, working through struggles in counseling, or just generally addressing the issues preventing them from being effective servants. In turn, this cycle solidifies the bonds of strong communities. This was a point reinforced to me by Jon Rice who, until recently, served as the head of Georgetown’s Residential Ministry program. During my junior and senior years, he served as my chaplain-in-residence. Over the years, Rice has remained steadfastly invested in my life and well-being. And so, as my project developed, I was interested in hearing his perspective on the relationship between faith and mental health.
Rice grew up in the church and was surrounded by ministry his entire life. His father was a pastor, and some of his deepest friendships and most formative experiences occurred in church contexts. When it came time to explore various career paths, Rice said, “the idea of helping people in a church setting really resonated with me.” Specifically, he realized that what he “loved most about ministry was the one-on-one setting. Being able to help people walk through their problems and difficulties.” He never felt a particularly strong calling to local church ministry. However, he “really loved working with college students in that pivotal point in their lives.” And so, he became a campus pastor—his role at Virginia Tech in 2007, when the shooting occurred.
In the days following the tragedy, Rice spent weeks in a state of constant motion, opening his home for countless support sessions with students. And yet his biggest take-away from this experience came, not from any initiative that he introduced, but from the students themselves. “What helped the students the most was not what I did but was creating an environment in which they could help each other,” he shared. In the days immediately following the attack, many students left Virginia Tech. Those who stayed behind quickly began to support one another. “A community was just formed in the midst of the heartbreak,” he said. There was a sort of bond unifying those who tried to pick up the pieces. The students could have retreated into themselves. They could have lost themselves in the trauma of the tragedy. Instead, those who stayed chose to serve others. And, they came out stronger for it.
The students could have retreated into themselves. They could have lost themselves in the trauma of the tragedy. Instead, those who stayed chose to serve others. And, they came out stronger for it.
Rice took these lessons with him to Georgetown. When he arrived at the university, his focus was not on building the largest, most popular events on campus. Instead, he tried to grow a large network of small groups led by students. He placed a high premium on intimate group spaces, abiding and personal relationships, and the cultivation of key student leaders. While many of these initiatives came from his love of the personal aspects of ministry, Rice did not forget his takeaways from the Virginia Tech tragedy. “At the end of the day, it matters a lot less what I do,” he shared. “It's much more important what the students and their peers do.”
This is a valuable take-away for members of religious communities wondering how to build upon the connection between service and self-care. After all, the vulnerability and self-examination inherent in service work naturally produce strong bonds between people. However, to take these bonds and build community from them requires careful and discerning leadership. And, as Rice illustrated, sometimes the best leadership consists in stepping back.
This harkens back to Rabbi Shafner’s emphasis on setting an example for his congregants on how to connect with others. As he explained to me, he “really sees the ideal synagogue as one where everybody feels like an ambassador to welcome others.”
In a video message to his congregants, Rabbi Shafner reminded viewers of their obligation to give to and connect with others—particularly during the trials presented by COVID-19.
This is especially true for a community, like Kesher Israel, that’s so frequently inundated with visitors. By adopting a similar strategy as Rice and fostering a community where the congregants lead a lot of the service work and connection, he’s able to create an environment that organically and cohesively responds to the needs of those who come to their door.
Indeed, this focus on letting all members of a congregation lead in service work was one adopted by many of the leaders I spoke with. And through our conversations, they showed me two ways of accomplishing this congregant-led service work. One, as Rice told me, is to know your limits. He explained that as chaplains, they “had clear training about things we weren't qualified to handle. The beauty of the Georgetown system,” he said, was that “we weren't trying to be who we weren't. We weren't trying to be mental health professionals. Even though I have a master’s in counseling, in my capacity as chaplain-in-residence, I was not acting as a mental health professional. I was acting as a spiritual resource and guide. So, we were partners with the mental health resources on campus.”
Many leaders I spoke with had similar systems in place. St. Luke boasts a panoply of programs designed to address mental health concerns, and Rev. Miller has formed relationships with trusted partners that she’s willing to refer congregants to.
Research shows a positive correlation between a congregation’s engagement with the communities that surround it and its provision of social services (including mental health resources).
“I 100% believe that no pastor who doesn't have the skills or knowledge should engage in significant counseling,” she told me. Instead of falling into the trap of trying to micromanage every problem that arises in their congregation, these leaders have developed support networks—both in-house and through community partnerships—that individuals can access on their own basis. This means that the religious leader can be a constant supporting presence, while also allowing individual congregants to take the lead in supporting themselves and others.
The other strategy for creating organic networks of service and self-care came from a conversation I had with Imam Rasoul Naghavi, a visiting researcher at Georgetown and the author of three books on Islamic jurisprudence, whom I went to visit near the end of my project. After settling into his airy office, we began to talk about what he saw as the close-knit nature of the ideal mosque community.
One reason these close-knit communities are such a valuable space for Muslims contending with mental health struggles is that members of a religious community often share a language of experience and expression. When Muslim worshippers open up to an imam, he explained, “they're able to open up in a way they wouldn't be able to with anyone else. It isn't that counselors with a secular mindset wouldn't know. A secular mindset, sometimes, just misses the language of a practicing Muslim.” This observation is redolent of Father Gillespie’s emphasis on really understanding the views and voice of the person you’re trying to serve. It’s also similar to a comment made by Rabbi Shafner, who noted that there is a set of mores and outlooks that religious people possess that may not necessarily be shared by secular mental health resources.
All of this doesn’t disqualify secular mental health resources or mean that they have no place in religious communities. In fact, close partnerships between these resources and religious communities will likely lead to common understandings and more effective treatments. However, it does explain why many individuals in religious organizations may express skepticism about mental health resources or, in some cases, find them less effective. And because of this, Imam Naghavi’s emphasis on fostering close-knit community provides leaders with a second avenue for empowering individuals in service and self-care: Programming.
“The best way to bond the community, to bring people together to solve their problems, is having more programs,” Imam Naghavi explained.
Data show that fellowship between members of religious communities frequently results in positive mental health outcomes.
“The more congregants spend time together, the more they break bread together, the more they play and have fun with each other, the closer they get to each other.” These informal bonds aren’t meant to replace professional mental health services. However, proximity and shared activities help create spaces of trust among people with a common experience. “Community-building is like any other architecture,” Imam Naghavi told me. “It needs a blueprint and a foundation. And the main ingredient in community building is spending time together. And that happens when you have constant programming.” By filling a community with both programming to draw members together and mental health partnerships to help address issues driving them apart, many religious organizations find effective ways of pursuing their call to service. In the process, they generate positive mental health spaces filled with self-examination, service to others, and the relationships of trust needed to make both of those possible.
Indeed, the cycle of service, self-care, and community formation that so many religious organizations possess provides a valuable perspective on mental healthcare. A large number of religious communities are animated by a call to service. For some, like St. Luke, this call is articulated in a specific philosophy. For others, it’s more inchoate. In every case, however, service work requires us to connect with and listen to the people we’re trying to serve. Such relationships of trust and connection require us to self-examine and pursue self-care—to probe our areas of struggle and blindness. This self-care requires us to be vulnerable and, in some cases, accept the service of others. And so, the cycle continues. By learning from these patterns, we can begin to build institutions that are oriented towards service and connection. As we do so, we equip people with the tools and resources to transform their own lives—and reach clearer, healthier mental states in the process.
Jake Dyson graduated from Georgetown College in 2019 with a major in government. During the summer of 2019, he researched faith and mental health under the mentorship of Berkley Center Senior Research Fellow Rev. Gerard McGlone, S.J. His project received financial support from the Doyle Engaging Difference Program, a collaboration between the Berkley Center and the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University.