My mom, Clara Stephenson, passed away peacefully this morning after a long struggle with dementia. We mourn her loss, and are thankful that she now knows the full blessing of the hope that was within her in Jesus Christ. A much more famous person, Matthew Warren, died this past Friday at his own hand. As the son of Rick and Kay Warren, his suicide puts the issue of mental illness front and center in churches across North America. I'm in no shape to write anything thoughtful today, so I'm thankful to the person who sent me the link to a very fine blog by Ed Stetzer, My Take: How Churches Can Respond to Mental Illness. Here's a brief summary, but it's worth reading the whole piece.
Stetzer laments that most churches have few resources available for people living with mental illnesses. In contrast, "Matthew had the best medical care available, a loving church that cared for him and his family, and parents who loved and prayed for him. Yet, that could not keep Matthew with us."
Still, the challenges of living with mental illness should never be a cause for despair. The people of God can take several steps toward more effective ministry.
1. Churches need to stop hiding mental illness.
Mental illnesses are real. "In 2009, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index showed 17% of respondents as having been diagnosed with depression. There are people in the pews every week - ministers, too - struggling with mental illness . . . "
2. The congregation should be a safe place for those who struggle.
"A study from Baylor University indicates 'that while help from the church with depression and mental illness was the second priority of families with mental illness, it ranked 42nd on the list of requests from families that did not have a family member with mental illness.' This is a real need among our congregations, one that we absolutely cannot ignore or expect to go away."
3. We should not be afraid of medicine.
"We’ve long seen the value in the medical treatment of cancer. It’s time for Christians to affirm the value of medical treatment for mental illness as well."
4. We need to end the shame.
Stetzer gets personal here. "I saw it in my own family. Suicide has struck our family more than once, making the news where we wished it did not. . . . Yet, it was hard to talk of these things. They had to be 'handled in the dark' because 'no one could know.' I love my family. But shame was something that was difficult to avoid in every case."
Churches struggle enough as it is. Their leaders may fear taking on new ministry challenges. So Stetzer asks, "Why should this be of concern to people of faith? Simply put, there is no place where Americans are more connected and no place where grace is more expected than the church. . . . Christians believe the church is the body of Christ—the hands and feet of Jesus—and that means going into the darkest places and the toughest situations to bring light. It means walking with those who are suffering, no matter what the suffering looks like."
Question: Some churches have found healthy and creative ways to minister with people dealing with the challenges handed them by mental illness. Has yours? Please tell me about it.