Where Churches and Mental Illness Meet
Lately, I’ve been thinking – and writing – about the place where faith and mental illness intersect. (See Mental Illness, Faith and Sin – https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-DB; Prayer and Bipolar Disorder – https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-B6.) I’m still thinking about it, so I’m still writing.
Churches, among other groups, have outreach ministries to the homeless mentally ill, providing sandwiches, socks, and hope of salvation. And the stereotype of the soup kitchen is that patrons “pay” by listening to a hymn or a sermon.
But what about the rest of the mentally ill community – those like me who have homes and families and a certain degree of function? What are churches doing about us?
The answer is: They struggle, but at least some of them are doing something.
Of course, some of them are doing the wrong thing. Andrea Jongbloed reported in Relevant magazine:
I sat in the chair in my pastor’s office, listening to him list off strange things I had done recently. My pastor informed me, “the church leadership is not convinced you are mentally stable enough to continue leading your bible study.”
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. I had come here to talk about the book I was writing, on mental health and spirituality. Instead, I felt bombarded with accusations…. I left feeling judged and misunderstood.
An article in Christianity Today notes, “In many ways, the church, the supposed haven for sufferers, is not a safe place for those who struggle with mental illness.” The author adds:
The more Christians struggle with how to deal with mental illness, the more we fail to create a safe and healthy environment in which to discuss and deal with these issues. As a result, many of our Christian churches, homes, and institutions promulgate an aura of mistrust, guilt, and shame.
Amy Simpson, writing at qideas.org, outlines what is wrong with churches’ relationship with the mentally ill:
In general, the church tends to handle mental illness in one of three ways: ignore it, treat it exclusively as a spiritual problem, or refer people to professionals and wash our hands of their trouble.
Like it or not, the church is the first place many turn in crisis. And fair or not, the church’s silence or rejection feels like rejection from God. We cannot keep turning away from the most vulnerable among us.
According to Lifeway Research, however, 66% of pastors speak to the church about mental illness in sermons or large group messages “once a year, rarely, or never.” And 74% of pastors say that they are “reluctant to get involved with those with acute mental illness because it takes too much time and resources.”
But some churches are taking on the challenges, or at least trying to.
In a PBS interview, Deborah Potter, a correspondent from Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, explores how Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Atlanta and St. Catherine-St. Lucy Roman Catholic Church in suburban Chicago are providing not just outreach, but community to the mentally ill.
According to Potter,
Holy Comforter responded … when a group home opened nearby and the priest at the time invited the residents to church. Today, almost two-thirds of the congregation is made up of people with mental illness—including bipolar disorder, clinical depression, and schizophrenia—who worship together and pray together.
The video also features Connie Rakitan, who founded the program at St. Catherine-St. Lucy, “helping to design worship that’s welcoming to all.”
Walking into a church with a long service and a long sermon and lots of music and lots of people could just be so overwhelming that it’s just not doable….We would never, ever use a healing passage, because we would not want to set somebody up for an unrealistic disappointment, because the fact is not everybody gets cured.
Rakitan also points out that the church community offers something that the mentally ill may not find elsewhere: “Their families might be alienated from them or estranged or whatever. They might not have work communities. What do they have left but their faith in God?”
Lorrie Lattimore, of the Baptist Press, tells about a weekly “combined Sunday school and worship time” at First Baptist Church, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
It’s not an ordinary class. Some get up and pace during the Bible lesson. Some rock steady in their chairs. Some mumble to themselves. But all love God and know God loves them in spite of being consumers [sic] of a mental illness, those who have schizophrenia, for example, or depression or bi-polar disorder. Jimmy Tilley, the leader of the class, who also suffers from depression, chronic anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, wouldn’t want the group to act any other way.
Few Baptist churches offer some kind of outreach for mental illness consumers. Jim Hightower, minister of pastoral care at First Baptist Church…. noted more churches should have education programs and even ministries because “every church has members who have a mental illness.”
The best advice for churches? Amy Jongbloed sums it up nicely:
Be open to learning about mental illness. Have potentially awkward conversations with newcomers who struggle with their mental health. You won’t regret stepping outside your comfort zone. You will be blessed with stories of struggle, resilience and redemption. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll even become part of someone’s story of recovery and reconciliation with the Church.