Serving a Church with Mental Illness in Mind

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Larry Van Essen, retired Christian Reformed pastor and author of This Poison Called Depression, wrote this blog to encourage church leadership to remember the many people affected by mental illness in their congregations.

“In a typical congregation of 200 adults, 50 will experience depression at some point, and at least 30 are currently taking antidepressants.” (Dan Blazer, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University, in Christianity Today, March 2009).

If Dr. Blazer is even close to being accurate, what could that mean for your church’s preaching, programming, pastoral care, and congregational care? Can you continue to do ministry as you have been at your church before you became aware of these statistics?

Just what you wanted to hear today right? Another concern to add to the list. May I make a few small suggestions that you might consider at your church?

Preaching. Several times a year, refer to the suffering that occurs with major mental illness. If you do this, there is a good chance that someone in your congregation or a family member or caregiver will know that they are not as alone with their burden as they may have thought. You will have blessed them.

Praying. In your congregational prayers, prayer chains, church newsletters, and bulletins, mention people with mental illness along with those struggling with cancer, facing surgery, entering the hospital for tests, heart disease, etc. Even if no one has given you permission to refer to them by name, you can make reference to people living with depression, bi-polar disorder, etc. Too often I find no mention of mental illness in the public life of the church which contributes to the stigma of mental illness in the church.

Pastoral care including elders and congregation care. Could your church alone, or in cooperation with neighboring churches, lead a support group for people with mental illness and their caregivers?

Amy Simpson has written a wonderful book on mental illness and the church: Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission. The entire book is worth a read by every pastor and anyone else interested in improving their knowledge of mental illness. She writes, “I believe Christ is calling his church to a great outpouring of love, overflowing from the bottomless well of living water he has placed within each of his people. I believe he wants that love to reach people with mental illness and lift them in great ways of healing and hope—right where they are, among those our society considers untouchable, avoidable and justifiably condemned to the fringes.” Pastor and teacher Dr. Steven Waterhouse highlighted the importance of this work as well: “When evangelicals finally do understand this need, then we will wonder how we ever thought Christianity had so little to contribute in the way of ministry. When silence over mental illness ends, churches will discover families of mental illness in their congregations. When we remember that pain often results in a search for God, we will think of families of the mentally ill as a ministry that we can no longer ignore.”

Too often people with mental illness are treated in church the same way that lepers were treated in New Testament times. In sharp contrast, Jesus reached out to lepers in love. As a church can do no less with the people with mental illness among us. We can no longer think of people with mental illnesses as "them" and not "us". What do you think? What can you/we do?

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We love your comments! Thanks for your help upholding the Community Guidelines to make this an encouraging and respectful community for everyone.

Larry, 

A resource you might be interested in is Key Ministry's blog, Church4EveryChild, written by Dr. Steve Grcevich. He regularly writes about how the church can include families and individuals impacted by mental illness. 

Thanks for shedding light on this import topic!

Katie