I’m very happy to bring you this guest post by Dr. Stephen Grcevich. Dr. Grcevich is a psychiatrist, an author, and a person who cares a lot about the experiences that children with disabilities–and their families–have within our churches (at the end of this post, you can learn a little more about him, his work, and his helpful book). He’s also the founder and president of an organization called Key Ministry, which seeks to help churches better understand how to welcome families affected by disabilities, including the “hidden disabilities” of mental illness. When it comes to mental health and the church, he knows what he’s talking about. And I’m excited to share a bit of his wisdom with you!
Many pastors and church leaders are unaware of the widespread perception in the larger culture that churches are not welcoming places for persons with mental illness. A study by Lifeway Research indicated that 55 percent of U.S. adults who don’t regularly attend church disagreed with the statement that most churches would welcome them if they had mental health issues, compared to 21 percent of weekly churchgoers.
How did we get into this situation? One possibility is that lots of people with mental health issues are having negative experiences of church and telling their friends and neighbors. A Baylor University study found three in ten attendees who sought help from their church for themselves or a family member for a mental health condition reported “negative interactions” that were counterproductive to treatment and for 13 percent of those interviewed, their interaction resulted in the end of their involvement with their church.
In a nutshell, there are a number of reasons why church attendance is often difficult for children, teens, and adults with a wide range of mental health conditions. In addition to a general lack of understanding about the nature of mental illness by far too many church leaders, we fail to recognize how attributes of common conditions cause affected kids and adults to experience difficulty functioning in the environments where ministry takes place, and how the interaction of those attributes with elements of church culture–our expectations for how people should act when we gather together–creates real barriers to church involvement for persons with mental illness.
This is a critical issue for the church because of the sheer numbers of individuals and families affected. According to the National Institute of Mental Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, approximately 4.5 million children between the ages of eight and fifteen have a mental health disorder at any given time. It is estimated that 21.4 percent of America’s twenty million teenagers will experience an episode of mental illness categorized as “severe” by the time they turn eighteen. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimated that in 2015, 17.9 percent of the adult population, or 43.4 million American adults, had experienced at least one mental illness. Combining the child and adult populations, more than fifty million Americans experience at least one diagnosable mental health disorder on any given day!
So why hasn’t the church done more to address such a vast mission field strategically located immediately outside our entrances? We have a well-known pastor and his wife (Rick and Kay Warren) who have spoken publicly about their family’s experience of mental illness following the suicide of their son Matthew. Far more families in ministry–and the public at large–are affected by mental illness than any other category of disability. I’d suggest there are three reasons we’ve neglected such a vast ministry opportunity.
• Mental illness is stigmatized in many of our churches in ways that other disabilities aren’t. The stigma may be greater in churches and denominations most inclined to pursue evangelism and outreach.
• The term “mental illness” is used to describe a very broad range of conditions affecting thinking, perception, mood, emotions, and behavior. The typical pastor or ministry leader may have some knowledge of the signs and symptoms of some conditions, but an in-depth understanding of how the attributes of common mental health disorders impact church participation or spiritual growth is extremely rare in my experience.
• We haven’t had a commonly accepted ministry model for mental health outreach and inclusion.
Our team at Key Ministry has attempted to help support churches through developing a model for churches to follow in developing a church-wide mental health outreach and inclusion strategy. The model is based upon recognition of seven common obstacles to church involvement for kids and adults with mental illness and their families and seven inclusion strategies sufficiently comprehensive to guide mental health inclusion efforts in large churches with multiple campuses, yet flexible enough to be useful for churches of all sizes. Taken together, the strategies represent a paradigm to guide church teams in designing and implementing an inclusion plan across every area of ministry.
The seven strategies are easily remembered with the acronym TEACHER:
• T: Assemble your inclusion TEAM.
• E: Create welcoming ministry ENVIRONMENTS.
• A: Focus on ministry ACTIVITIES most essential for spiritual growth.
• C: COMMUNICATE effectively.
• H: HELP families with their most heartfelt needs.
• E: Offer EDUCATION and support.
• R: Empower your people to assume RESPONSIBILITY for ministry.
The entire model is presented in Mental Health and the Church: A Ministry Handbook for Including Children and Adults with ADHD, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, and Other Common Mental Health Conditions. Our ministry has prepared a variety of resources and supports for churches seeking to minister with children and adults with common mental health conditions, including a downloadable planning tool, an online book study, and consultation available through videoconferencing.
The church is beginning to make significant strides in supporting church members and attendees with mental illness. The logical next step is to seek to welcome and include those for whom church participation has been difficult because of a mental health condition.
Stephen Grcevich MD is a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, serving as president and founder of Key Ministry, an organization that promotes meaningful connection between churches and families of kids with disabilities for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ. He is the author of Mental Health and the Church, a guide for churches seeking to minister with families impacted by mental illness, published by Zondervan in February 2018.
© 2018 Amy Simpson.