The interpretive phase, where a pastor or congregational care minister assesses what is going wrong is one of the most important phases. To use a golfing metaphor, if a golfer fails to determine where the pin is located, they may aim in the wrong direction. Likewise, assessment is crucial because it informs diagnosis and treatment.
Cognitive distortions are concrete obstacles that I faced, and do face, in my experience of depression. Defined, cognitive distortions are firmly held beliefs that have no basis in reality (Ellis, 1959). At this link here, you will find a list of 20 common cognitive distortions. I encourage you to look at this list and consider how or in what way you may have engaged in distorted thinking. This can create an awareness and sensitivity that can empower care. Cognitive Therapy believes that how a person thinks will influence how they feel. Therefore, changing how and what a person thinks is a primary method used to create change (Beck, 1976).
Two cognitive distortions I commonly engage in are fortune telling and mind reading. Fortune telling is a process where a person negatively predicts the future. While I was applying to doctoral programs, I engaged in fortune telling by saying to myself, “You’re just not smart enough. No one is going to admit you.” Mind reading is similar to fortune telling. Rather than predicting a future event, I attempt to predict what other people are thinking or feeling. Here, my insecurity and fear or rejection becomes commandeered by the belief that a person must not like me or secretly thinks I’m worthless. Mind readers make negative predictions regarding the thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes of others.
Taking time to reflect on your own thought processes and patterns and learning about what and how your congregants with depression think will aid you in assessing depression related issues within your congregation. Important note: If you are not a trained ministerial counselor or clinical therapist, be sure to reach out to a licensed expert for advice before providing care for congregants with depression. A licensed trauma trained therapist should already be part of your professional care network. You can learn more about developing a professional care network in the 2016 ICTG General Ministry Resource Guide.
One resource you and your therapeutic consultant may find facilitates your understanding of how and what people think, related to distorted thinking, is a handbook by Robert Leahy. This book is most useful because it defines core concepts and then systematically and methodically shows you how to translate them into real-life therapeutic practices. This book is an excellent resource to help ministers in their practices of care if they are professionally and clinically trained. For non-clinical practice, this resource can help ministers to learn more about the experience of people who experience depression.
Learning about, and coming to understand, the internal dialogue of individuals who experience depression can inform practices of care. Specifically, related to ministry, preaching, teaching, worship, and liturgy can be used to construct counter-narratives that people who experience depression face. In addition, these tools can be constructed and used to challenge cognitive distortions people with depression face. Below are some examples and ideas of how to address depression within your congregation:
- A sermon of the Imago Dei could cognitively challenge congregants who experience depression to reconsider and evaluate their identity and self-concept.
- Teaching can be used to construct a “theological anthropology”, or a view of human nature, that ascribes inherent value and worth.
- Worship can be used as a form of confession, opening opportunities for individuals to cry out in their distress and express their feelings (to God).
- Liturgy can be a powerful practice and help congregants finds the words when no words seem to exist. Sometimes, the throes of suffering can be so deep and overwhelming that an individual cannot finds the words enter into communion with self, others, and God – liturgy can facilitate this encounter.
Follow the entire 5-part series here:
Tell Your Story and Create a Culture of Hope and Healing - Part 1
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.