First, sharing is important because it produces a bridge that help people to connect with their story, the story of God, and the story of others. In many cases, a person may lack a context to consider their struggles. As Gachago et al. (2014) says, sharing provides a “counterstory” or an alternative “window” through which people can understand and interpret their experiences. In many congregations, a “window” to view and address depression may not exist. By telling your story, you create a new “window” for your congregation to begin to acknowledge and address their stories.
Second, sharing is important because it builds a supportive community. Bernard Rimé suggests social sharing creates social support, empathy, and non-verbal comforting behaviors from others (Rimé et al., 1998; Rimé, 2009). When a leader, or a hurting congregant, shares their story the congregation often responds with empathy, gratitude, and social-spiritual support. Sharing builds community around a particular experience and has the ability to create and/or transform the culture and norms of your congregation. For example, an implicit norm in a church may be, “everyone is okay and we expect everyone to be okay.” It would be
counter-normative to have a problem, if everyone “seems” to be “okay”. Sharing our struggles can create and/or shift the norm so that “not being okay” is not counter-normative, but normal.
I used to go to a church that used the motto, “It’s okay to not be okay.” This motto came from their collective narrative, which assumed most of their congregation was “not okay”. This motto created a norm and a culture where it was “okay to not be okay.” People who struggle with depression may already feel vulnerable, judged, and ostracized. Therefore, they may be less likely to seek help if it will make them stand out, feel judged, or be uncomfortable. Creating a counter-cultural norm demystifies the norm that “everyone is okay” and creates space for authentic and genuine living to occur.
Creating a counter-normative culture is significant because research has shown that people who are unable to express their spiritual distress may be more likely to “walk away” from their faith or religious tradition. In opposition, individuals who are able to express their spiritual struggles and concerns are not only unlikely to walk away from their faith but they are likely to experience coping and spiritual growth (Exline, Kaplan, & Grubbs, 2012). Thus, sharing your story can create new opportunities for others to share their stories and begin the process of acknowledging and addressing their hardship.
To summarize part 1 of this series there are three things you can do to begin to acknowledge and address depression in your congregation.
- Get to know the stories in your church.
- Be courageous and share your stories. Integrate your personal struggles into the stories you share. If nobody shares the stories of hardship an implicit norm can be constructed that says, “Everyone is okay so it would be ‘weird’ to have a problem”.
- Consider creating a supportive outlet among trained pastoral caregivers for individuals safely to share, study, and explore their difficult experiences.
Here is a link with additional stories that can help pastors and congregational care teams gain a greater understanding of people’s experience with depression
Follow the entire 5-part series here:
Understanding What is Going On - Part II
Understanding Change - Part III
What to Do: Insights and Reflections in the Practice of Pastoral Care - Part IV
Demystifying Norms for Leadership and Sharing My Story - Part V
A member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Joseph Kim Paxton is an ICTG Advisor while pursuing doctoral degrees in Practical Theology at the Claremont School of Theology and Clinical Psychology at Pepperdine University. His current research areas include clinical-community psychology, pastoral care, social scientific approaches to biblical interpretation, group processes, spiritual struggle, coping, and attitudes.