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'I'm Not Okay': Cultivating Compassionate Churches

In this enlightening episode host Chris Orme has a candid conversation with Tom Jantzi, Director of Congregational Assistance Plan and Clergy Care at Shalem Network. Tom shares invaluable insights on destigmatizing mental health within church communities, emphasizing the importance of normalizing conversations and acknowledging the holistic nature of well-being. From practical programs like CAP to fostering safe spaces for vulnerability, they explore how churches can authentically support mental health while integrating faith and professional psychotherapy.

The following is a transcript of Season 8 Episode 3 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

Chris: Well hello friends and welcome to Do Justice. My name is Chris Orm. I'm your host and joining me today is Tom Jantzi. Tom is the director of a Congregational Assistance Plan and Clergy Care programs. He's a practicing, registered psychotherapist. He has previous experience in pastoral ministry and management with a national employee assistance program. He definitely brings a unique perspective to the direction of these Shalem programs. Tom, welcome. Thanks for joining us today.

Tom: Yeah, thanks for having me, Chris.

Chris: Let's just dive right in here. If you had five minutes with a church, what is something that you would want them to know about how to approach mental health and the services that Shalem offers to them?

Tom: I think that might be perhaps the most difficult question you could ask, because five minutes isn't very long. But I think there's been a lot of great work done in the last few years in the line of normalizing and destigmatizing the conversation. And I think that's a really big part of what needs to be done in church to continue to move forward, create safe spaces, and to care for the mental health of the people in our communities. So a big part would be normalizing and destigmatizing those conversation and also acknowledging in those conversations that our mental well-being isn't exclusively and directly indicative of our spiritual well-being. I think that's another important aspect of it. In Christianity, we see our beings as holistic beings, in terms of God's created us body, mind, soul, and spirit. Same thing in the ministry of the church, we have ministries that care for the spiritual aspect of people. We have ministries that care for the physical aspect of people. Part of caring well for mental well-being in our communities is also acknowledging that there's a mental health aspect to this as well, right alongside the spiritual, the physical, and the environmental. So the way that lines up with Shalem programs is: we've developed this Congregational Assistance Plan and Clergy Care programs to give churches the opportunity, the resources, a simple way to invest in and engage in supporting the mental well-being of people in their communities. To take some of that pressure off of the spiritual care that pastors provide and acknowledge that sometimes there are other factors and there are other avenues to go in that care.

Chris: You said something about equating or not equating mental well-being and spiritual well-being. Why do we conflate the two? 

Tom: That's a really good question. I think sometimes perhaps – this is this is totally off the top of my head. I think sometimes perhaps we equate the two very easily because both go on in our heads a little bit. We pray and we wrestle with God, a lot of times, in our thoughts and in our hearts. Similarly, in our mental health, a lot goes on in our heads, in our thoughts, and in our emotions. So those two things can feel like the same sometimes. Another great example is even that there's a lot of similar experiences when someone experiences an anxiety attack. An anxiety panic attack, there's feeling flush, churning in the stomach, feeling light-headed, all those kinds of things. That could also be described as feeling convicted by the Holy Spirit in certain contexts. So there's a lot of those interchanging things. That's another aspect where it's really important to recognize and acknowledge that there's mental well-being and there’s spiritual well-being and sometimes those aren't as directly connected as we so easily assume.

Chris: Yeah, thanks. I appreciate the explanation. I'd like to know a little bit more about how the partnership works. How does Shalem work with churches, with local congregations, or with denominational partners?

Tom: Yeah, so this program was designed… I think it's about 17 years ago now that the Congregational Assistance Plan program was designed. Clergy Care is basically the same thing, except it's specifically with supporting faith leaders, Christian pastors, and such. So I'll talk about them pretty interchangeably through this. But the Congregational Assistance Plan is a way that we help churches by providing them with a payment plan, basically, where they would pay Shalem a yearly fee to be able to provide every single person in their congregation with access to six free counseling sessions over the course of a calendar year. The church pays based on the number of households. So a household could be 4-6 people. But every single person within every single household will get access to six free sessions. 

The value in that is A: it's a set fee. The church knows how much they're paying in the year. If you do it out of your benevolence fund, you could have an influx all of a sudden and suddenly your budget's drained. B: we have a network of therapists across Canada already. We're across Canada now. We have a network of therapists whom people can be connected with. So the church doesn't have to go through the work and the challenge of vetting therapists who are Christians in their community. Or if someone moves away, someone goes off to university, we've got therapists all across Canada.

The other aspect of it is that it provides a certain level of confidentiality. Again, another aspect of living in community and church community and wrestling with mental health, the work that we need to do in normalizing and destigmatizing is necessary to help people feel safe to ask for help. Still, there are many people who may not be comfortable acknowledging to their elder or to their pastor the addictions that they're working through, the relationship challenges that they're facing, affairs, whatever it is. Being able to give them that safe, confidential way to access this support, ultimately with the goal of having them be able to have mental health support so they can be healthy, have mental well-being, and be able to reengage with the community in a healthier way, further building up the community overall. 

Chris: Part of our focus for this season of conversations has been around: what are the questions that we wish people would know to ask? We referred to it in the intro to this season as the elephant in the room. It's that thing that everyone sees, everybody knows, but nobody wants to talk about or ask. So what's something that people won't say about mental health in the church but would be a helpful starting point in trying to be a light in this world?

Tom: I'm going to quote a book title that's actually about grief but it fits in here too: It's Okay To Not Be Okay. It's a really great book out there about grief by Megan Divine. She uses that as the title, but I think it fits in church and mental health. It's okay to not be okay. That can be a really complicated thing to say out loud in church, from the pulpit, in our Bible studies because of – again – that spiritual well-being and the intersection of all the different parts of ourselves. I think physical health is de-stigmatized in the way that if we're sick we're going to say, “Hey, I'm staying home from church today because I've got the flu.” But the reality is that mental health is a sickness as prevalent… Mental challenges, anxiety, worry, and depression are just as prevalent as physical health sicknesses. To be able to acknowledge and say, “It's okay that I'm not okay” and to say to each other, “It's okay that you're not okay,” opens up that door to be a community and to support each other and to engage with these resources.

Chris: I wonder, can you share a story about a difficulty that you've experienced working with churches to address mental health? Where do you see God working in that?

Tom: Going to keep everything general because of confidentiality and stuff in my line of work. But one of the difficulties I see, especially along those lines of accepting that it's okay to not be okay, is how scripture is sometimes used to invalidate our mental health experiences or our emotionally challenging experiences. And, certainly, there are a lot of very well-meaning individuals who want to use scripture to encourage and exhort each other. But sometimes it can come across as very invalidating of the mental health experience. Even just “Rejoice in the Lord always, say it again, rejoice,” and using that as a way to try and encourage someone who has a very real clinical depression. It can be really difficult to feel like it's okay to not be okay when simply quoting scripture or memorizing scripture is used to try and combat the problem. 

I see this a lot as a therapist as well. A lot of people coming in and saying, “I feel sad. But I know that God is good. I feel angry, but I know that God is good.” What we do when we use that word but is we say, “My anger, my sadness, my fear, my anxiety is not valid, because of what I believe about God.” What I challenge my clients to do every time is to switch that word but with and, because both of those things can be true at the same time. I feel sad and God is good. I feel angry, but… I did it there because it's so natural. Edit that out. I feel angry and I trust in God's justice. When we say and, we're allowing that space for both of those things to be true, to be held in tension. We're validating that my current experience is expected. When someone does wrong by me, I'm going to feel angry. At the same time, God is still good. God is still just. So even just those kinds of things of shifting our language to be aware and cautious of not invalidating someone's very real experience.

Chris: Yeah. I wonder if it's helpful there to meditate or put forward the idea of incarnation. A central tenant of our faith is that, in Jesus Christ, God actually stepped into humanity. That's definitely a moving toward. Maybe that's where the and hangs out.

Tom: Yeah, totally. A great example – I could talk about this forever. A great example of that is Jesus weeping before he raises Lazarus from the dead. Here's Jesus, fully God, fully man, weeping over the loss of his friend moments before he raises him from the dead. He felt sadness. He allowed himself in his humanity to feel that sadness alongside knowing, “Guess what? I'm going to raise this guy up.” 

Same thing in the garden of Gethsemane. He cries out to God and says, “Please take this cup from me.” He feels a lot of emotions. You can see it in the Gospels, the description of the emotions he feels. Yet he knows how that's going to go. He knows who he is in God. 

Chris: It's funny because I think of some of the songs we sing in church. I'm thinking of the old ones like “Our God is an Awesome God.” We sing these songs and maybe there's a second verse that could also be like: our God is a guy who walked and sometimes stubbed his toe, bringing up that incarnational piece with it.

Tom: Yeah, there's so much hope in remembering the humanity of Jesus. It's just right beside his divinity. 

Chris: What's it like for people to experience therapy or a therapeutic relationship with a therapist with faith? We see it popularized so often in TV shows and movies, but what does the faith component bring?

Tom: Yeah, that's a great question, because that's another aspect of something unique that we actually bring through our Congregational Assistance Plan. We are contracting with therapists across Canada who are professional psychotherapists and also Christians. I say that very specifically because we value providing professional support. There's science, there's research behind the work that psychotherapists do. At the same time, being able to sit in that clinical space with someone who has that understanding of your culture when it comes to your Christian faith. So when coming in and building that therapeutic alliance, it means a different level of being able to share some context as to why you might be struggling with certain things or to share some context of where you find your hope and have that validated in a unique way. Whereas someone who maybe doesn't know the Lord, who doesn't have that experience, that history, and knowing the hope that comes from our faith may not be able to relate in the same way. 

We talk a lot in the psychotherapy world about being client-centered. It's really important to be client-centered, that we're not influencing our clients in undo ways. So when being client-centered a lot of Christian therapists will have the conversation about… So for myself, I should speak for myself first. But have that conversation about if you want to pray, if you want to include scripture in meaningful ways, and explore how faith and your Christian spirituality are meaningful and supportive of your mental health journey. Being able to do that in a way that others may not be able to. 

Chris: We've talked about some of the difficulties that you've experienced working with churches, but the flip side is interesting too. And I think it's helpful and hopeful. Can you share a story about a church or what it looks like when a church is addressing this elephant? What sets those churches apart?

Tom: Yeah, well, my bias is clear here. Those churches who sign up for CAP – the Congregational Assistance Plan. But honestly, I found it so encouraging. I've been in this role for almost a year now, and it’s so encouraging to see how many churches out there are interested and wanting to invest in the mental health of their communities by way of signing up for the Congregational Assistance Plan and being able to give them confidential access to six free sessions, removing those barriers that are typically there. I don't think anyone's immune to the reality that costs are going up in every single aspect of our lives and the same is true for a lot of churches. The number of churches out there that are doing extra fundraising, that are doing – someone mentioned to me the other day they're doing a fundraising marathon to raise money for their church to be able to offer this to their greater community. Those kinds of things are just so exciting to me – to see how churches are willing to invest in that. 

A more specific example, again going along the side of normalizing and de-stigmatizing, I live in Barrie and there's a church up here called Connexus that a year ago – and you can still find their sermons online for this – a little over a year ago, they did a series on mental health. Right from the pulpit, preaching about the experiences of having anxiety and worry as a Christian. Talking about trauma as Christians navigating trauma. 

Not only did they have sermons on Sunday about this, but there were a couple of times where they did bonus podcast episodes in the middle of the week to connect with a therapist who has experience working with trauma and to talk about that integration of: what does it look like to go to therapy for trauma, to work through trauma and hold on to our faith as followers of Jesus? So having those explicit conversations and engaging with the professional and the spiritual side. Integrating those two things together is when it starts to be done well. 

Chris: Often the first step is the scariest in a lot of journeys that we take. I mean, I can be vulnerable here and say that, in my life, I've learned to live with anxiety and I've been the beneficiary and participant on the receiving side of this equation. So, for me, personally, it's a really important conversation and I'm thankful for you and for your partners who step into that space and provide that safe platform to land that first step on. But let's dream. We'll close here. Let's dream together for a minute. If people would say, “I'm not okay,” and the church is a safe place to land that first step, what could the church look like? How could the church be for all?

Tom: That's a big dream. There are so many aspects of that. If the church were a safe place for people to say, “I'm not okay.” It would look like that wouldn't change anything. To say I'm not okay, wouldn't change anything. In terms of there wouldn't be any undo ramifications to saying that. It doesn't mean that you're – I mean, depending on what you're not okay with – it doesn't mean that you're disqualified from serving automatically. It doesn't mean that you're automatically forced into the boxes that are prescribed in typical situations. I'm being very vague here, I’ll see if I can be more specific. So one great example is: many of us may go to church services where there are pews and there are rows and you have to sit in specific spaces and maybe sometimes the back seats are blocked off to make the front seats more filled. A safe space as a church when someone says I'm not okay is allowing people to sit wherever they need to sit to feel safe in that space. It looks like allowing, for example, people to work through and navigate: is what I'm feeling inside my body right now the conviction of the Holy Spirit or is this a trauma response to something that I saw or heard, or is this an anxious moment for me because of this, and if this is an anxious moment for me then it doesn't mean that I'm a bad Christian or not a Christian or or any of that. So I think the church that's safe for mental health is one in which we can have compassion and we can sit with each other and listen to each individual's experience and not force those molds to be met when it comes to engaging in community. Does that make sense?

Chris: I can think of instances where: “Get up and say hi to your neighbor. Shake hands with your neighbor.” And I've been in settings where it's just: stand up and do it. And I've also been in settings where the worship leader, the pastor would say, “If this isn't for you, just sit down and we'll respect your boundary.” It's a learning. It’s being willing to learn.

Tom: I think so. That's a great example. I wish I’d thought of that one. Another one for me is even just like along those lines of worshipping and the worship leaders challenging everyone to dance or whatever. We would think, “Okay, yeah, if someone's in a wheelchair, we're not going expect them to get up and dance around or challenge themselves if they have mobility issues.” Yet, when we look at mental health challenges in these contexts, we think, “Well, you just need to push through. You just need to trust God more. You just need to have faith, to have courage, all those kinds of things.” When there's value in acknowledging and recognizing each individual story where they come from and where they've been.

Chris: If a church is interested in initiating this journey, where can they find out more? Where can they connect with you and the work that you do?

Tom: So they can go to our website That's S-H-A-L-E-M And on there there's a whole page about our organizational well-being programs where you can see information about the Congregational Assistance Plan and about the Clergy Care network. As well, beyond that even, we're beginning to develop and engage workshops and trainings for church leaders, elders, even small group leaders – any level in the congregation. I think it takes all levels of leadership and engaged people in a community to shift the narrative when it comes to mental health. So we're able to come and do workshops and trainings in that realm as well.

Chris: So our guest today has been Tom Jantzi. He is the director of Congregational Assistance Plan and Clergy Care with the Shalem Network, a registered psychotherapist. Tom, thanks so much for spending the time with us and having this conversation. 

Tom: Thank you for having me and thank you for having this conversation as well. This is a big part of the journey towards normalizing and de-stigmatizing mental health as well.

Chris: Thanks, Tom.


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