We are thrilled to publish this interview with Inspire member Chris Morris, compiler and editor of the soon-to-be-published and groundbreaking Whispers in the Pews: Voices on Mental Illness in the Church.
Could you give us a brief overview of Whispers in the Pews?
Whispers is a collection of essays from 17 people, telling their stories of how mental illness has been handled by the church. Some of these stories are positive, and others less so. The diagnoses and circumstances vary from story to story, but the common threads are the existence of mental illness and the presence of the church.
Why did you call it “Whispers in the Pews?”
In today’s church world, there is an openness about many topics that were once taboo. Instead of hiding from issues the church as a whole is learning how to step into the gap, speak truth, show love, and move forward. Sadly, this is largely not true in the realm of mental illnesses. Instead, pastors and counselors are telling those suffering under a mental illness to just pray more, just believe more, or even ask for deliverance from demon possession.
Rarely do you hear pastors talk about mental illness from the pulpit, even though one could make arguments for biblical heroes like Elijah being bipolar. No, most churches act as though mental illness is not an issue in their congregation, despite the statistics that show it’s likely 1 in 4 at any church currently have or have had a diagnosis of a mental illness. Mental illness remains one of the church’s dirty little secrets, only whispered about in the pews.
How did you go about getting the submissions?
The process of getting submissions for Whispers in the Pews isn’t that exciting really. I started talking about this project on Facebook through my personal page and my writing page Chris Morris Writes, which helped me gauge interest in the project. I personally invited a small number of people to submit their stories, because they were my friends and I knew their words would be compelling.
From there, I set up a portal for submissions on the Llama Publishing website. The submission was a 250-word summary of what the full article would be about, so I could get a taste of the topic and the writing style and skill of the submitter. This is where things got interesting, because I started to receive submissions from those I didn’t already know. Strangers found the Llama Publishing site through web searches or the recommendations of other friends, and the submissions began to roll in.
I received about forty submissions overall. Some were focused on the church, but not mental illness. Others didn’t mention the church in the context of their mental illness. And, as happens with any open submission process, some were just weird. I had a target of 15 essays, and ended up with 17 overall.
What inspired you to compile the book? Was there one thing that pushed it from an idea to actually making it happen?
The last three years have been intense for me and my mental health. My pastor has been wildly supportive of my struggles, and I’ve shared his support with a lot of my friends. I learned through sharing with my friends that this type of support is not at all common, and it broke my heart. As I started learning more about the prevalence of mental illnesses in the church, I realized that this was a problem I could do something about.
I already have a small platform that talks about chronic illnesses, and so many of the myths related to faith in the mental illness community mirror those of chronic illness. I decided that it was time for a book of stories to be put out into the world. Not a memoir with a victorious ending, and not a book that preaches with answers, but a tapestry of stories that shows just how different mental illness can look in different people with different diagnoses. In short, I knew I needed to compile this book when I realized I was the lucky one with the supportive church.
Why do you think that mental health is such a taboo subject in the church?
I actually think that a lot of the more difficult things that happen in life are taboo subjects in church today. We don’t hear a lot of sermons on divorce, or abuse, or transexuality, or any number of other topics that impact churchgoers on a daily basis. And if there are sermons on these topics, it’s largely coming from a moral standard perspective rather than a story-oriented perspective that appreciates the busted broken nature of this world. At the end of the day, it’s easier to preach on topics that will make people feel happy or encouraged on Sundays, instead of tackling the difficult topics.
Another aspect that specifically makes mental illness taboo is that certain denominations or churches continue to teach that mental illness is completely a spiritual problem. The judgment or potential judgment that comes from this presumption introduces fear for those who suffer from a mental illness. Nobody wants to be told they are spiritual inferior because they have PTSD from an early childhood abuse situation, or because they have depression stemming from a chemical imbalance. So, we stay quiet and the taboo persists.
One last element that I will mention here (understanding that I could probably write a whole book on this one question) is that complex topics like mental illness require community, and safety within that community. Many churches struggle to maintain a sense of community or a sense of safety, because people don’t have the time to invest into real community. When relationships stay shallow, tough topics remain off the table.
What are your hopes for Whispers in the Pews?
My hope is that pastors and leaders of churches begin to see that all mental illnesses don’t look the same. There are as many different representations of mental illness as there are people with diagnoses in mental health. Not only that, but there are people hiding their pain every single week at church, or not showing up at all, because they are afraid of what people will think.
Beyond that, I hope that conversations are started because of some of the harrowing stories in Whispers in the Pews. I hope the conversation starts with these questions: How well are we supporting the mentally ill? and What can we do better?