A Scandia pastor struggled with his own mental health, then used his story to help congregants

Pastor Seth Perry
Pastor Seth Perry works at Elim Lutheran Church in Scandia.
Seth Perry

A recent Pew Research study shows that more and more Americans are not religious — more than 40 million Americans have left religious life behind in the past 25 years. The reasons for that decline are, of course, complicated.

MPR News is continuing a series of conversations with faith leaders across the state about how they’re adjusting their leadership to meet modern spiritual needs.

Pastor Seth Perry, from Elim Lutheran Church, noticed his community in Scandia was facing unprecedented mental health challenges. And he is using his personal experience to fill in the gaps.

Perry joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about how he’s creating community by addressing mental health.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: A recent Pew Research study shows that more and more Americans are not religious. More than 40 million Americans have left religious life behind in the past 25 years. The reasons for that decline are, of course, complicated. We're going to continue our series of conversations right now with faith leaders across the state about how they're adjusting their leadership to meet modern spiritual needs.

Joining us right now is Pastor Seth Perry from Elim Lutheran Church. He noticed that in his community in Scandia, Minnesota, well, it was facing unprecedented mental health challenges. And he's using his personal experience to fill in these gaps. Pastor Seth Perry, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

SETH PERRY: Thank you for having me, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Say, let's start out by talking about you. That was a really brave thing you did to tell your congregation about your own mental health journey. How did that go over?

SETH PERRY: Yeah, so I've had a diagnosis of bipolar type one since I was in my early 20s. And I went through all of my education as a pastor without telling anyone. So in February of 2023, I went public with my bipolar one diagnosis. And I was concerned that I'd be judged by people in the church. And what happened was kind of the opposite. I was overwhelmed with support. And I also was overwhelmed with people that needed help. They needed help with their mental health diagnosis or with their family members' mental health diagnosis. So it did begin some dialogue.

CATHY WURZER: I'm sure there are many rural congregations, yours included, that, as you say, there are these mental health issues. And I'm betting there are some gaps, some pretty significant gaps, in mental health services in rural Minnesota.

SETH PERRY: Yeah, I started to witness that people had really no access. Either counseling was too far away, they didn't have the proper insurance, or their family and their culture and their community had just really never talked about mental health conditions or challenges or anything like that. And so they started to come into my office. And after I made it public, I really got to work doing quite a bit of referral work. And I referred people to addictions treatment. I referred people to counseling.

And I've even had the Washington County Crisis Response Team here on facility a few times working with people, getting them the appropriate supports that they need when they're in crisis. And this is really something that I have seen needed in a church community. In the church community that I grew up in when I was a kid, there was nothing like this. And really, the reason for that, I believe, was there was a massive stigma around mental health conditions and psychiatric treatment in the Lutheran church and in other churches.

CATHY WURZER: Why do you think, Pastor, that it's important that a church step up to provide this kind of help and the support?

SETH PERRY: Well, first of all, a church is a place for all people. And I think that we have to be able to serve anyone who comes in, in any state. So whatever mental health state that they're in, the church should be ready and prepared to respond to them. And the other part about this is, I think historically, Protestant denominations and other denominations, we like to bury things. We like to keep things secret. We like to keep our private lives private and not be vulnerable.

But in my perspective on scripture, theology, I see a lot of vulnerability in the bible. And it seemed that people really weren't talking about that side of their faith. And if we were able to highlight that for people and get people talking about that aspect of this book that they all carried around and studied, that we would be able to see some form of healing as a community together. And the community aspect of church is really key to this.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah, let's drill down on that. That's interesting. Do you think because of what you're doing, you're helping folks find more community at your church?

SETH PERRY: Yeah, I do believe that. Because in the last year since I got public about this, then people started to get passionate about volunteering about this specific type of ministry, mental health ministry and care ministry. And so we started to get to work at looking at what community partners we could bring into our church, like the National Association of Mental Illness Minnesota came in. They've done up to this date, they've done four workshops in our church. And there are more coming up.

And bringing in an organization like that was key to people having a place where a secular organization could come into church, could educate our people, could make them feel more comfortable sharing and learning about mental health. And so church doesn't have to be a place that's, A, a place you just go on Sunday, or B, a place that you have to keep private the biggest struggles that you're having in your life.

And then one other thing that we uncovered when we started talking about this as a community is that community members started to say, I have a history of suicide in my family, I have a history of suicide in my family. And then we began to realize that in this rural area of Minnesota, in Scandia and this corner of Washington County, that there is a deep history of death by suicide. And we wanted to really do something about that because we didn't want our congregants to, A, be alone in the grieving process, or B, not be able to recognize the signs in our fellow community members, both inside and outside of the church.

CATHY WURZER: Pastor, as more folks leave religious life, as I mentioned in the introduction to our conversation, I'm wondering, when you think of being a member of a religious community, it's like your soul is being taken care of, right? But you're talking about something else too. Yes, that's happening. But also, you mentioned your mental health ministry. Do you see this maybe as a model to help people body and soul, in a sense more holistically, in a religious community? And maybe is that a way to bolster numbers in churches across the country as this could be a model perhaps?

SETH PERRY: Yeah, I think that we are looking at developing our own model and also collaborating with other churches as they continue to look at this similar issue and develop their own models. And so the way I think our congregation moves forward is that we begin to look at bringing in more services that, yes, they do treat your mind as well as your spirit.

So if there's a lack of counseling in our community, which there is, we're going to need to find ways to use our underutilized space, which is almost every Protestant church has this problem of underutilized space, and then bring in other organizations that can fund things like counseling, they can fund things like support groups, that can be here locally for us. We've put in $10,000 of our own budget this year to bring in educational workshops and things like that.

So as we move forward, we want to develop our volunteer base and then continue to seek grants and funding that will expand this slowly. And I don't think that the goal for us is to bring people into our church on Sunday morning. That's not really been the goal of our church leadership. The goal has been, look around the community and see where we need to help people.

What's the biggest need? And doesn't matter what age you are. If you're in Scandia right now or in this corner of Washington County, we know that there is a definitely lack of services for mental health counseling and support groups. And that's where we think our church steps in. Yeah.

CATHY WURZER: Pastor, it's really been a pleasure talking to you. Very interesting. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

SETH PERRY: I appreciate it. Thank you so much.

CATHY WURZER: We've been talking to Pastor Seth Perry. He's with Elim Lutheran Church, based in Scandia, Minnesota.

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