I listened to a podcast recently about the perhaps uniquely American desire to find a solution to every problem. Infomercials actively market products that were once only a vision – but also educate potential buyers about a need they may not know exists, that can only be solved by – you got it – buying the marketed product.
It’s tempting to step into mental health ministry with the same mindset. We just need to find the secret sauce, and churches everywhere will minister to the mentally ill.
However, ministry has never worked that way. Jesus was very deliberate and personal as He met needs. Paul the apostle admonished fellow Christ-followers to do the same, to learn what’s important to the group with whom he was working. Paul said, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.” 1 Corinthians 9:22. What this means is that your mental health ministry will only – and should only – fit your church.
Understand who YOUR church is. If you’re launching a mental health ministry, it is critically important to understand who your church body is – and who it is NOT. Start with your demographics: A church made up of people in their 20’s and 30’s have grown up understanding that mental illness is real – but they may not be willing to talk about their own struggles or the struggles within their families. Brokenness and life experience take time. For that reason, a church of people in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s – even though they did NOT grow up hearing about mental illness in positive terms – may be more willing to share their life experiences, because they’ve gone to the hard places themselves, or with family members. They’ve learned that no one is immune from such struggles, that mental illness is just another common aspect of being human.
It’s also important to understand not just the spiritual but also the secular impacts and communities of your members. Denominational churches often have good data on the economic, educational and other factors comprising their church bodies. In most cities or metropolitan suburbs, there are data sources that can be accessed to understand economic and other factors that impact your faith community. I was fortunate to find a local foundation that surveys and monitors the health of communities in ten zip codes in which the majority of our members reside. From this foundation, robust data was readily available on specific mental health-related community needs. These already identified needs are helping Ironbridge Baptist Church begin to formulate a specific plan, for a specific set of needs of our faith community and our residential community.
Every cause needs champions. Ironbridge Baptist Church was already well on its way to becoming a ‘mental health friendly’ faith community before Outside In Ministries got involved: we already had a Depression and Bi-Polar Support Alliance (DBSA) group meeting bi-weekly in our church; we already had a DBSA Sunday morning small group. Our prayer team had for years fielded many prayer requests that were directly related to mental illness – meaning many individuals and families within our community were dealing with mental illness and its impacts. Ironbridge Baptist Church staff had already been thinking and praying about mental health ministry.
But just because the church staff wants to tackle a specific issue doesn’t mean the church members will be supportive. If you’ve held a job, you’ve likely seen the unintended consequences of management commanding a change. Employees will do what they are told, but often while grumbling and complaining. There’s no heart change.
One of the goals of Outside In Ministries is to end the stigma around mental illness. Ending stigma requires a heart change. To accomplish this within a faith community, other community members need to be on board, advocates for the cause.
Before launching the Ironbridge Baptist Church mental health pilot, I spent months talking and meeting with individuals of influence within the church community, many with ‘lived experience.’ The goal of such conversations was ultimately to generate support for the idea that we could – as a faith community – be much more upfront about the reality of mental illness, in all its various forms – and begin truly supporting one another.
The champions help change the conversation about mental illness within the faith community. As important as it is that your pastor not be afraid to mention mental illness in your communal worship experiences, it is also critically important that the other people in the room are free to talk about the lived experience of their own or their loved ones in an open and accepting way. Mental illness stigma in churches won’t end with an ‘either/or’ approach; stigma will only end with a ‘both/and’ approach – both pastors and community members involved.
Anecdotally, I am confident there are more conversations about loving and serving those with mental illness and their families within the Ironbridge faith community than ever before. I am a champion in my own faith family, but I can’t be the only one. By acknowledging that mental illness is a common human experience – even the scriptures do that! – and giving people space to talk about it, the shame goes away, the burden is shared. Spiritual healing comes faster when we’re open with people we trust about the things we find hardest to bear.
Once we start having these conversations, we can begin to see clearly the practical needs that churches are so very good at meeting.
Takeaways: Understand who your faith community is. Look at your own data, as well as data collected by government agencies or local foundations about the communities where your members live. Such data will reveal insights about factors impacting the mental health of your geographic area. If you are the pastor or ministry leader with a passion for the mentally ill, start conversations about the desire to better support individuals with mental health needs. Find the lay person or people who can be the mental health champions in your faith community. Be patient and encouraged in this process: you are laying the groundwork for the ministry to come.