Daughter to a pastor of small congregations, I learned a lot about what the church has to offer the world. Daughter to a mother with schizophrenia, I learned what families in crisis need. As an advocate for bringing the two together, I’ve seen wonderful things happen when churches intentionally engage in ministry to individuals and families affected by struggles with mental and emotional health. One of the greatest ministries we can offer is simply to be loving communities.
While most churches don’t realize it, faith communities are the number one place people go when seeking assistance for mental and emotional pain. The holidays are prime time for ministry to hurting people: As they seek comfort and meaning in religious celebration, many are simultaneously living with the year’s most significant threats to their mental and emotional health.
Like all communities, our churches have the power to hurt or to aid healing. Just because we gather doesn’t mean we automatically offer what suffering people need. We can make some choices that move us toward becoming the kind of community that will help people in pain, knowing we represent Christ, we are empowered by His Spirit, and He will use our offering in His work.
Here are 10 things churches can do to aid people with mental and/or emotional illness.
• Take some risks—Behaving like a community means knowing and being known, investing in relationships, and noticing when something is wrong. It means bringing our whole selves with us to community gatherings, ready to engage in relationship.
• Acknowledge our brokenness—The people who are truly effective in ministering to others are the ones who recognize they need ministry, too. The ones who point toward deep and lasting hope are the ones who, driven by their own desperation, have themselves found it.
• Teach truth about suffering—The Bible leaves no room for thinking that Christians should not suffer, people with mental illness simply need to repent of sin, or suffering means God has stopped loving a person. Our churches must contradict these common myths.
• Meet practical needs—Every church knows how to do this, yet we often overlook the tangible needs of people affected by mental health struggles. We can offer the same casseroles, transportation, childcare, financial assistance, and hospital visits that we offer to other people in crisis.
• Prioritize people—Many individuals with mental illness do not fit neatly into expectations, programs, and plans. We need to notice when someone isn’t fitting in, our ideas are falling flat, or symptoms make a person unable to participate. Flexibility is important; we must be willing to lovingly adapt our agenda for the sake of those who need something different than what we’ve planned.
• Be quiet—No one in our society really needs more noise, and that’s especially true for people whose minds are overwhelmed by the basic demands of everyday life. Create space and time for silence; occasionally, all a person needs is for someone to be there and lovingly still.
• Stick with people—When crisis hits, the last thing someone needs is for everybody else to walk away. In our fear and discomfort, we often do exactly that to people with mental health challenges. But when we hang in there, we support the message that God will not abandon them.
• Refuse to live in a spirit of fear—Most people feel afraid of someone whose behavior or thoughts are hard to understand, and those who have no experience with it are often hesitant to discuss mental illness. Most of our fears are unfounded, and when we allow fear to rule our heart, we make enemies of people who need us to be friends.
• Allow them to serve … and lead—With appropriate boundaries and expectations, we can arrange opportunities for people who struggle with mental or emotional illness to use their God-given gifts. For example, we can provide ways for them to minister to others, with the expectation that they care for themselves throughout the process. And we can grant them grace (and a loving substitute) when their symptoms keep them from fulfilling responsibilities for a time.
• Let God be bigger than us—God is not surprised by anyone’s suffering, nor does He panic in the face of hard questions. Mental illness has no easy answers or quick fixes, and platitudes only add to pain. Sometimes people just need to know we will love them as they struggle. We can point people toward God and help them find comfort in Him, without feeling we need to “fix” or heal them.
Ours is not merely an individualistic faith, and we are not responsible only for ourselves. We are created to be in community, which has the power to bless hurting people or condemn them to isolation and possibly despair. We are designed to be “body-like” communities, fitting the apostle Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 12:21-26: “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 1:26).
This holiday season, consider what kind of community your church offers people who feel troubled. Notice where your church is doing well, and address the ways it falls short. We can be a source of healing when we are willing to be communities of mutual suffering and celebration—to be a people who hurt with those who hurt, even as we invite them to rejoice with us.
Illustrations by David Doran