Review: Ministry with Persons with Mental Illness and Their Families

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Most of us in ministry have received little training in mental illnesses. Our learning comes through self-education, and most of that happens in reaction to a difficult ministry situation. We say to ourselves anxiously, “They never taught me about this in seminary,” then scramble to find a decent resource. Publishers have recognized this need/market and have produced books (like Christian Counseling by Gary R. Collins) and series (like Resources for Christian Counseling) that many of us have opened with hungry eyes to figure out how to begin caring. Ministry with Persons with Mental Illness and Their Families* makes a valuable contribution to this genre. 

Each chapter discusses a particular family of mental illness such as depression, personality disorders, eating disorders, and dementia. Experts in the various fields co-author chapters with the goal of dialogue among the disciplines of psychiatry, psychology, and theology so that they “work in partnership and not at cross-purposes (p. 5).”

The chapters each divide into two sections: a description of the disorder and reflections on pastoral care with persons affected by the disorder. The descriptions of the various disorders allow people who have not been trained in psychology to gain a general understanding about these mental health issues, though some authors use jargon that does not serve the book’s overall purpose: “ . . . medications that enhance serotonergic function or potentiate the effects of gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) are superior to placebos . . . (p. 45).”

The reflections on pastoral care extend beyond the individual with the disorder and recognize that good caring must include the individual’s loved ones and the entire faith community. For example, the authors of the chapter on psychotic disorders emphasize that pastoral leaders must engage in education about mental health so that their public voice will challenge the stigma of mental illnesses and will talk “about persons whose lives are marked by psychosis with a sense of deep respect and dignity . . . ” instead of engaging in “inaccurate generalizations (p. 79).”

The pastoral reflections suggest avenues for caring. One of the authors of the chapter on acquired brain injury gives a first-person account of his own process of healing from a stroke. (Sadly, the book’s editors do not identify which author wrote which section.) This author says that pastoral care must acknowledge the loss, and must engage in a deeper kind of caring that engages in the same sort of work that God did at creation.

We look into the eyes of someone who has been touched by a stroke; we struggle to understand what they are saying; we wonder what we can say. We wonder if there is any way to transcend the reality of loss. To which I answer: there is, but we must turn from the language of loss to the language of life. Something is happening in there, in that brain that is in the midst of reordering the world, struggling to accept a new set of bearings. In this new beginning, there is something going on. We find ourselves taking to heart and living through the first lines of Genesis. . . . / The language of creation replaces, and transcends, the language of loss, just as it does in life. Our [the pastoral care-givers'] question is not, “What have you lost? But “What’s it like?” and “What’s happening?” (pp. 189, 190)

This author argues that while empathy and support have their place, the care-giver must minister from the perspective of curiosity, not curiosity for its own sake as if the individual is a specimen in a petri dish, but curiosity for the sake of clasping the hand of God and the hand of the individual as God engages in the work of recovery and creation in the life of the individual. This perspective will enhance pastoral care immensely. Ministry with Persons with Mental Illness and Their Families will help.

*Robert H. Albers, William H. Meller, Steven D. Thurber, Editors, Ministry with Persons with Mental Illness and Their Families, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), x + 245 pp. Paper, $29.00. ISBN 978-0-8006-9874-4. This review is a preprint of a review submitted to the Journal of Religion, Disability, and Health, © 2012 Taylor & Francis.

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Thanks for sharing this book, Mark. I downloaded the Kindle version and have been reading it. I appreciate the way the first part of each chapter is written so a laymen can understand it. If we as churches are going to become more inclusive when it comes to including people with disabilities, then we are going to need to learn how to relate to them and their disabilities. This book helps us do that with people who have mental illnesses.

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Steve, yes, it lays out difficult concepts in terms that most of us (usually) can understand, and gives good ideas for ministry as well. You may want to consider attending Elly's webinar too (and encourage others from your church to do the same). Mark