Courage in Pursuit of Our Callings

In this talk from Disability and the Church 2023, Dr. Steve Grcevich discussed topics and trends he observes in the medical and mental health professions likely to impact the disability ministry community and shared ideas for how the individual Christians and the Church as a whole might prepare to serve the vulnerable in the months and years to come. He urges followers of our ministry to share with anyone who might be encouraged or inspired by his message.

For those of you who follow our ministry, you know that I haven’t been nearly as visible as a few years ago. My work as a child and adolescent psychiatrist has left me very tired, very burned out, and very angry. The mental fatigue from all the clerical and administrative tasks involved with helping families access the support services and medication they need has made it more difficult for me to exercise the emotional self-regulation expected of a ministry leader and elder in the church.

One conclusion I’ve come to with the help of a trusted friend and ministry coach is that I need to accelerate the process of “retiring” from medicine to ministry for my own spiritual well-being and the sake of my witness to others. With that said, I’ve come to recognize much of my anger may represent a sort of “holy discontent.” My ministry coach suggested I consider how the trends I’m observing in medicine and the struggles I see in kids and families served by my practice might inform and impact the ministry done by churches supported by Key Ministry.

For the most part, I’ve loved being a physician for the last 37 years. While I’ve primarily been a clinician, I’ve had a hand in research that’s helped lots of kids and families and helped to inform our ministry. As a med school professor, I’m involved with one of the most important areas of our curriculum – teaching the principles of evidence-based medicine.

I’m occasionally asked how I reconcile my faith with my roles as a physician, scientist and child psychiatrist. That’s never been a problem, because there’s a common thread that connects my roles – the pursuit of truth.

Jesus refers to himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life. The pursuit of truth inevitably leads us to Christ. While most of my colleagues don’t share my faith, we historically shared a mutual desire to pursue the truth of how our bodies and brains work. The process of discovering truth often included some vigorous arguments based upon our research and our observations, but the end result was usually a better understanding of how to serve the kids and families in our care.

Not anymore. There’s stuff we can’t talk about. I’m angry, embarrassed and ashamed by what has become of my profession. The pursuit of truth that historically characterized medicine is rapidly taking a back seat to the embrace of an “anti-culture” within our large healthcare institutions, our professional societies and medical schools characterized by unquestioning affirmation of expressive individualism and radical self-determination. An ethos in which identity is substantially based upon sexual preferences and a subjective, internal sense of gender and understood in the context of systems of oppression rooted in Western culture. The antipathy toward Western culture in our profession is antipathy to the Christianity foundational to Western culture. The anti-culture is a rejection of the idea that our identity as humans is that of embodied beings created in the image of God, a rejection of the natural law evident in the created order that provides even those who don’t know or acknowledge God with a sense of right and wrong. The anti-culture is a rejection of the created order, and by extension, a rejection of the Creator Himself.

My profession of medicine is at the forefront of a movement that increasingly seeks to pervert God’s created order. Confusing kids about what it means to have been created as male or female. Distorting marriage and usurping the family structure established from the time of creation – the God-given structure for raising children foundational for our civilization. Twisting language in such a way that words lose their meaning. Killing preborn children is “reproductive health care.” “Pregnant persons. “Men” who menstruate.

We have a word to describe efforts to twist and distort the creation God described as good. We don’t use it very often – but I think it’s appropriate here. That word is evil.

In Ephesians 4:26, the Apostle Paul encourages us to “be angry and not sin” – implying anger is a normal, human condition that’s not sinful when we deal with it appropriately. In the next chapter (Ephesians 5:11) he tells us “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” and at the end of Romans (Romans 12:21) he implores us to “not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”

I’ve been wrestling a lot with what will look like for however long I continue to serve in medicine and for the work I do through Key Ministry. And I’ve been angry at myself and disappointed in myself for the excuses I’ve made for not confronting practices in my field that are just flat out wrong.

What makes you angry in a way that compels you to overcome evil with good? I’d guess if you’re here this weekend, you’re angry when you see disabilities get in the way of individuals and families coming to know Christ, serving and being served through the local church. How are you called to overcome evil with good where God has placed you? And do you have the courage to do something about it?

The Christian church gained influence within the Roman culture in the first, second and third centuries because of the love and concern individual Christians demonstrated for the most vulnerable in society. Our predecessors in the faith adopted the children who were abandoned and unwanted, many because of illness or disability. Their courage was on display when they risked their lives by staying behind in the cities caring for the sick through the plagues that regularly ravaged the population. Their values were foundational to our healthcare system, much of which in America was established by Christians and Christian denominations.

The disability community in America will soon confront the reality of a medical community engaged not just in preserving life, but in ending life. I got a call last month from a staff person with the Christian Medical Dental Association looking for physicians willing to testify before a state legislature in the Northeast against granting the “right” to physician-assisted suicide to college-age adults whose capacity for higher-order thinking and decision-making hasn’t yet fully developed.

On the other side of our church’s baptistry across the street, physician-assisted suicide is now the sixth leading cause of death in Canada. Canada has “temporarily” put on hold plans to expand the right to physician-assisted suicide to individuals with primary mental health conditions and to “mature minors.” The College of Physicians and Surgeons in Ontario has declared that the refusal to provide an “effective referral” to a willing colleague if a physician is unwilling to kill a patient who meets criteria is an ethical violation that justifies taking away that physician’s license to practice medicine. And it is killing. In 99% of cases, the physician or medical practitioner personally administers the lethal dose of medication. In debate on expanding the right to suicide to minors, a pediatrician from the college recently argued that parents be given the right to request their child’s physician to administer lethal doses of medication to infants up to age one born with “severe malformations,” “grave and severe illnesses” or infants whose “prospective of survival is null, so to speak.”

Increasingly, reports are coming out of Canada of persons with disabilities seeking out physician-assisted suicide because of difficulty accessing necessary healthcare services or appropriate housing and support. In some instances, healthcare professionals are reportedly suggesting suicide as a solution to their suffering. The U.S. is five to seven years behind Canada in expanding access to “medical assistance in dying.” Ten states now have physician-assisted suicide provisions, and legislation has been introduced in ten additional states.

The medical ethicist Dr. Farr Curlin has described the emergence of a “Provider of Services” model within medicine in which patient autonomy is paramount, and physicians are expected to support patients’ decisions so long as they are legal and technologically feasible. In this model, a physician’s conscientious objection to a procedure that a patient desires violates the very aim of the medical profession. Patients have the right to choose the services they believe contribute to their well-being and physicians are obligated to accommodate patients’ choices, even when those choices conflict with the physician’s conscience or ethics.

We’re fortunate in Ohio that our legislature approved a “right of conscience” law stipulating that professionals in our state can’t lose their licenses for refusing to participate in treatments or procedures that violate their religious beliefs. I find it unsettling that the lobbying in OPPOSITION to the law was led by the Ohio State Medical Association, the Ohio Academy of Family Physicians and the Ohio Hospital Association.

Another trend I find infuriating is the way in our medical societies justify their social cause of the moment by claiming their cause of the moment for is “evidence based,” even when the evidence basis is limited is to non-existent. Who can forget our public health officials who boldly asserted that the dangers of COVID necessitated the closure of our schools and churches, but protests in support of social causes they supported justified the risks? Or the church that moved worship services to a casino in a state where casinos were open but churches were closed?

When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, my professional society issued a policy statement – “To ensure the healthy physical, mental, and developmental health of children and adolescents, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends ensuring children and adolescents have access to evidence-based reproductive health services, including abortion. I’m convinced our professional societies make these pronouncements with the assumption no one with the ability to call them out on falsehoods could possibly disagree with them. I did a literature search of the National Library of Medicine after receiving that e-mail. There is NO evidence abortion has mental health benefits for adolescents. The more appropriate question based upon the research is the extent of psychological harm experienced by teens who undergo the procedure.

The most conspicuous misuse of the term “evidence-based” involves the claims of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Endocrine Society regarding interventions they describe as “gender affirming care” in children and youth. The British Health Service shut down their nation’s gender medicine clinic after a comprehensive review of the research on the services provided there to children and teens, concluding “Evidence on the appropriate management of children and young people with gender incongruence and dysphoria is inconclusive both nationally and internationally.”

Why talk about “gender-affirming care” at a disability conference? The disability scandal nobody’s talking about is the vulnerability of kids with preexisting mental health conditions or developmental disabilities to gender ideology. When the British government shut down the Tavistock Center, the London clinic that exclusively provided gender-affirming care to kids throughout the U.K., 35% of kids treated through the center were identified with moderate to severe autism – seventeen times the reported rate of autism in the nation at the time.

A couple of months ago, I was sitting at the kitchen table of a family I’ve known for a long time. Their son on the high end of the autism spectrum has struggled with social isolation and social anxiety for a long time. His parents were thrilled when he finally found a peer group at school. Except that every kid in his new circle of friends is a girl who thinks they’re a boy and lunchtime conversations center on how they might persuade their parents to take them to the gender clinic at the local children’s hospital. My patient has now become resolute that he’s really a girl. I won’t forget for a long time the fear on his mother’s face as her son and I spoke and the tenacity with which he clung to this newly acquired perspective was evident. This is a fear often expressed by parents of my patients on the high end of the spectrum in the privacy of their appointments.

I can remember one lecture of the hundreds I sat through during my general psychiatry residency at the Clinic in the late 80’s. The Grand Rounds speaker was discussing approaches to kids born with ambiguous genitalia or abnormalities of sex-linked chromosomes. The takeaway was that the worst thing you could do to a kid was cause them to experience confusion over gender.

The embrace of the gender revolution by the medical establishment and our academic institutions is the ultimate gaslighting. If they, with the support of the media and our internet overlords can convince the public that a person with male genitalia and a Y-chromosome in every cell in their body is a female, there is no lie our culture shapers won’t be able to propagate.

I’ve always taken it as a given that an important part of my job as a child psychiatrist is to promote healthy reality testing. Affirming distorted gender identity is antithetical to everything I was trained to do. I learned early on you don’t affirm delusional thoughts that are out of touch with reality. If I’m asked to see a young person with psychosis who thinks they’re Jesus, I don’t bow down to them and call them “messiah.” We don’t agree with teens with anorexia who insist they’re too fat or tell kids with body dysmorphic disorder they’ll be happier and look great after they get the plastic surgery they want. My profession has literally shot its’ credibility to hell and violated a trust that won’t be repaired for a long time, if ever.

So…what do we do as church, and how should the disability ministry movement lead the church when the caregivers and institutions persons with disabilities depend upon reject the Imago Dei?

1.    Our most effective and impactful witness to the people in positions of influence in medicine, education and people of a similar mindset and worldview who shape the larger culture is the love we demonstrate through our care of the most vulnerable in society. Folks in my line of work are more likely to see the Bible as a tool of oppression than a repository of truth. What DOES get their attention is when they see us providing respite care for families of kids with disabilities who can’t access respite anywhere else, providing foster families for kids who have experienced serious trauma and neglect, helping the uninsured or underinsured access necessary medicine, medical equipment or services, or providing opportunities to persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities for productive and meaningful work and authentic community. Disability ministry is our most powerful witness to a hostile culture because it causes outsiders to reconsider the assumptions they hold about Christians and Christianity and disability ministry is a demonstration the church acting with integrity in however much of the Gospel they’re familiar with.

Are you angry about the diminished influence of the church in the culture and among our culture shapers? Start or grow a disability ministry. Start a mental health ministry. Support the families caring for kids who have experienced severe trauma.

2.    We need to embrace a cradle-to-grave pro-life ethos. If you look at the trends Western culture regarding physician-administered suicide, persons with disabilities unable to access medical care, support services or appropriate housing are increasingly being offered death to obtain relief from their suffering. The church has appropriately demonstrated care and concern for women with unplanned pregnancies by establishing crisis pregnancy centers. If your church is in one of the ten states that currently permit physician-assisted suicide, or one of the ten states considering physician-assisted suicide it, think about what a “disability support center” might look like where those with conditions that qualify them for physician-assisted suicide might obtain the care, support and hope they need to bear their suffering.

3.    We need to do everything possible to promote mental wellness among the people of the church and our friends and neighbors not yet part of the church. I want to share this slide I’ve used in previous examining the impact of disability on family church attendance. We know that in absolute numbers, mental health disabilities, more so than any category of disability interferes with church attendance. While correlation doesn’t represent causation, I doubt it’s a coincidence that as mental illness becomes more common, church attendance is becoming less common.

We have some pretty good working hypotheses to explain the explosion of mental illness in recent years. We know the images and information our kids are bombarded with through their smart phones and social media apps contributes to increased rates of anxiety and depression. We know more people are more socially isolated than ever before.  Part of why society is in the situation we’re in is that in supporting the autonomy and freedom and personal choice necessary to support and sustain the sexual revolution, we’ve embraced a moral relativism that requires us to kick aside the God-given guardrails regarding sexuality, gender, and marriage we need to thrive. The breakdown of the traditional family structure is producing an epidemic of trauma. Experience of trauma greatly increases the risk of mental illness, and people with mental illness who have experienced trauma often fail to respond as well to our traditional treatments.

The culture we’re living in is toxic to our kids. If they’re going to make it through with their mental and emotional health, but far more importantly, if they’re going to make it through with their faith, we need to create a counterculture in which they’re surrounded by peers raised with the same beliefs by parents in relationship with other Christian parents committed to raising kids with a Biblical worldview through which they might make sense of what the world tosses at them and acquire the confidence to overcome it.

Our counterculture is going to be built around strong churches and strong Christian schools. Why should parents of kids with disabilities have to use public schools to get the specialized education and supports their kids need? Christian schools should represent the model our public schools emulate. Our next front in the disability ministry movement needs to be mental health inclusion and inclusion in Christian schools and universities.

4.    We need individual Christians to demonstrate courage in the face of extraordinary pressure to conform to defend the vulnerable when our medical and mental health professions have abandoned their moral compasses and act at odds with their historic purposes.

Most of my colleagues working in large healthcare institutions or academia recognize that to speak out against this is likely to be career-ending. The medical profession has become a reflection of a culture that silences those with approaches or ideas that challenge those in positions of authority.

I want to tell you about a colleague of mine. This is Dr. Allen Josephson. He’s a child psychiatrist who built the department at the University of Louisville. We met working on stuff for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s Annual Meeting. He served as the head of the psychiatry section of the Christian Medical Dental Association. And he’s been unemployed for the last five years. He was fired by his university after speaking at an event in Washington where he advocated for supportive therapy as opposed to puberty blockers or hormones for kids struggling with gender discordance. The Alliance Defending Freedom accepted his case and is representing him as his case proceeds through Federal Court.

This is hard. Several years ago, one of our ministry volunteers in a position to do very impactful public advocacy asked me to get involved in speaking out against common treatment practices in pediatric gender medicine. I came up with all kinds of reasons to say no. I’m not an expert. I need to make a living. I don’t want our ministry to become a target for the activists and government officials bought into these agendas. I’m embarrassed and ashamed by my response.

Part of our job description as Christians is to witness to the truth and care for the vulnerable – and kids with autism or kids with mental health conditions who latch onto gender as an explanation for their discomfort in their bodies or parents who are emotionally blackmailed into consenting to unproven treatments by gender clinic staff with unsubstantiated claims their children will kill themselves if denied access to those treatments – I’m pretty sure they qualify as “vulnerable.“

I’ve reached out to some colleagues in recent weeks to see if they might be willing to advocate publicly on these topics. All of them responded as I did three years ago.

I’d like to say a few things publicly that need to be said by someone in my profession with my background and experience. Somebody needs to go first. My hope is it will be easier for others to speak if they know they’re not alone.

Children do best when they’re raised in homes with a mother and a father who love one another, serve one another, sacrifice for one another and are mutually committed for life to one another in marriage.

Medical interventions intended to end human life don’t constitute “health care.”

No one is “born in the wrong body” – and pretending that someone is of the other sex when the DNA in every cell of their body says otherwise is a lie and represents a disservice to the person who is person who is suffering.

I’ve experienced stuff in my practice over the last few years that make me – an evangelical Presbyterian – wonder if this is what spiritual warfare is like? And at the risk of sounding like someone who should be talking to somebody like me, I wonder if what “cancel culture” is truly about is canceling the Gospel?

It’s no accident that you’re here this weekend. God has obviously put something upon your heart to minister with folks with disabilities. I hope He’s given you lots of new resources and relationships to accomplish that work this weekend. Where do you sense God’s calling you to be courageous? Where is he calling you to take some risks that may make you very uncomfortable? To say some difficult or uncomfortable things?

Is he wanting you to start a respite care ministry through your church? Expand your ministry offerings for kids on the high end of the spectrum in need of healthy peers? Taking in a foster child with behavioral challenges? Helping families find counselors who are thoughtful and conservative in their approach with kids who struggle with self-image and identity? Advocating before your local school board, hospital board or state legislature? Or simply speaking the truth in love and encouraging others to do the same?

I’d like us to leave here this weekend with the courage to do the hard and uncomfortable things the Holy Spirit nudges us to do and committed to encourage and support one another through the struggles. Our team at Key Ministry is honored we get to do ministry with all of you and privileged to support you in any way we can.

Posted in Advocacy, Autism, Controversies, Key Ministry, Mental Health, Training Events | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The church’s undiscovered treasure

Photo by David Bartus from Pexels

One of my favorite ministry-related tasks during the year is the process of selecting speakers and putting together the program for IFL, the big disability ministry conference we’ve usually hosted in the spring which will again take place on April 29th and 30th in Cleveland. The best part of the process involves coming to learn about the ministries of the speakers who are seeking to be part of our conference for the first time.

Unlike most large ministry conferences, ever since our first event eleven years ago we’ve always opened the ability to be a speaker to any Christian with new ideas or resources for doing disability ministry or growing the disability ministry movement. We want folks who are doing important work in relative obscurity to become known within the church and to build relationships with other leaders called to the disability ministry field. This year, we’re planning to feature nineteen new faces at our conference who have never presented at IFL before, many of whom have never had the opportunity to speak at a ministry conference that draws leaders from across North America and beyond.

Our team has been incredibly blessed by the leaders we met for the first time through the conference. Two members of the program committee (Tiffany Crow and Lamar Hardwick) responsible for selecting speakers and topics for our conference we first met through IFL, and Lamar recently joined Key Ministry’s Board of Directors. In the process of writing this post, we were trying to put together a list of all the people who either contribute content to our ministry or serve in other areas as valued colleagues who we first met in person through one of our conferences.

The process involved with putting together the program this year was at least as hard as it has ever been. We had far more speakers apply than we had slots on the program, and there are folks we had to turn down even though they’re excellent communicators doing very good and important work. I’m greatly encouraged to see how many highly gifted and talented Christians are out there with a passion for serving kids and adults with disabilities.

Together with Beth from our team, I recently sat down with the lead pastor from our church (Mark Tumney) as part of the planning process for our upcoming conference. Mark asked lots of questions about the origin of Key Ministry and the connections with the church’s early efforts to minister with kids with “hidden disabilities” and their families. I was reminded of how rare it is for churches to provide the degree of support our ministry received in our early days for a big idea that didn’t belong to someone with a seminary degree or a position on the church’s staff. Around the time our ministry began to blossom and grow, our church’s website contained a section dedicated to “entrepreneurs for Christ.” If there’s a part of our church’s DNA grafted into Key Ministry, it’s the idea described in this paragraph from that website.

Nearly 100 years after its founding, BPC remains a unified, energized and highly focused congregation. Unlike many large churches, BPC is rarely concerned with preserving its past or avoiding change. Instead, it has thrived year after year by teaching, equipping and inspiring highly qualified and visionary individuals among its staff and membership—people who have seen Christ at work first-hand within the church’s walls and who have responded in faith by initiating their own ministries both inside and outside BPC, often with the active support of the church itself. This is truly an empowered congregation.

When I see how many gifted and talented people are out there applying to speak at our conference who are doing great work our team hadn’t been aware of – exercising gifts and talents with the potential to greatly benefit the larger disability ministry movement I think that we’ve stumbled upon undiscovered treasure. And I can’t help but wonder how much undiscovered treasure the “Church” misses out upon when we fail to mine the gifts given to Christians called to vocations that don’t involve seminary degrees or serving on a church payroll.

This propensity to ignore or avoid Christians with a calling or gift set for disability ministry is a big issue for the church at the local level. More than ten years ago, I was blogging about all the contacts our ministry was having with families of kids with disabilities expressing frustration when approaching churches with ideas for starting ministries serving families like their own.

We regularly hear from parents or family members of kids interested in starting ministries in their churches and in their communities to serve kids with special needs. Sometimes, they call us looking for resources after finding others who want to help them in developing their vision for ministry. All too often, they’ve encountered pushback or resistance from leaders in paid ministry positions.

The number one goal in our current ministry plan is to “find, empower, and resource individuals with disabilities and families impacted by disability to do ministry.” We’re hopeful that our ministry and other like-minded ministries can come alongside these individuals and provide them with the necessary credibility and resources to earn the trust of church leaders, or the connections to develop ministry organizations to come alongside the local church.

If I hadn’t been a member of a very supportive church that recognized the need for ministry with kids with hidden disabilities and their families, there would be no Key Ministry and no #IFL. I can’t help but think of all the great ideas for every type of ministry imaginable that have died on the vine for the lack of supportive church leadership. If you’re a church leader who fears deep down that you’re putting your livelihood at risk by providing opportunity to and empowering passionate and gifted volunteers from within your congregation (and I’ve met more than a few who think this way), your fear is greatly undermining the potential scope and legacy of your career in ministry.

The propensity to overlook “buried treasure” is also an issue within the institutions of the church populated by influencers and thought leaders who have the attention of senior pastors and executive pastors. The second goal in our ministry plan includes the idea of intentionally networking outside disability ministry circles to increase awareness of the resources available within our movement. In my current role at Key Ministry, I’m on the mailing list for lots of big events and conferences attended by senior church leaders. The e-mails and brochures seem to include the same faces over and over again.

Our team was fortunate to have been given the opportunity to speak and coach at the Children’s Pastors Conference last month. One of my takeaways after the conference was that I wanted the pastors and ministry leaders who attended our sessions to get to meet and learn from our friends and colleagues who’ll be coming to Cleveland at the end of April for our conference.

We’re announcing the speaker lineup and opening registration for #IFL2022 in the next few days. I’d like to extend a special invitation to leaders from organizations responsible for planning and inviting speakers to conferences attracting large numbers of senior/lead pastors, or pastors and leaders from children’s ministry, student ministry and family ministry. If you’re willing to come to #IFL2022 and discover the “treasure trove” of organizations, leaders and resources for supporting persons with physical, developmental and mental health disabilities, I’ll personally donate the funds to cover the cost of your conference admission and a two-night stay at our official hotel.

Our team loves to create platforms to advance the cause of disability ministry through helping up and coming leaders to become better known. If you feel led to “be the church” for kids and adults with disabilities, we’d love for you to come to Cleveland at the end of April so we might explore together our most recently discovered “treasure trove” and help you build relationships by others who share the same calling.

The schedule of events, speaker lineup and registration info for #IFL2022 will be made available here on February 22, 2022.

Posted in Inclusion Fusion, Key Ministry, Training Events | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Encouraging Signs Regarding Mental Health and the Church

Our ministry team specifically and the disability ministry movement in general has raced no greater challenge in recent years than getting the attention of pastors and important church leaders. Addressing that challenge was one reason we partnered to develop an online pastors retreat with a focus on mental health last October. Two developments during this past week left me encouraged that key leaders and organizations with great influence among local pastors are starting to “get it” when it comes to the need for mental health inclusion and support in the church.

The first development involved the recent work of the Barna group on the mental health struggles of ministry. During Barna’s weekly ChurchPulse podcast, they reported data from a study of pastors conducted last Fall in which roughly three in five pastors (59%) reported struggles with depression during their time in ministry – a significant increase when compared to the 46% who answered similarly in their State of Pastors (2016) study. 

Here’s their entire podcast, including interviews with Kayla Stoecklein and Juli Wilson, wives of influential young pastors who lost their husbands to suicide.

The other development involves the composition of a free, online conference we’re honored to be taking part in this coming Friday and Saturday. May is Mental Health Month, and in honor of Church Mental Health Day on May 21 Church Communications is hosting the free, two-day Thrive and Cultivate Summit this coming Friday and Saturday. I’ll be discussing why churches need a mental health inclusion strategy and Catherine will be speaking on the topic How to Create Successful Mental Health Ministry in Any Sized Church.

In addition to friends and colleagues from the mental health ministry movement including Kay WarrenJermine AlbertyLaura HoweJeremy Smith and D.J. Chuang, one of the recently announced featured speakers is Carey Nieuwhof. In addition to hosting an extremely popular podcast, Carey is arguably the most influential pastor among his fellow pastors in the North American church. His willingness to draw attention to the issue of mental health and the church is huge for all of us working in this ministry field.

We’d like our readers to consider two action steps in response to this post. First, we’d love to have you join us this weekend for the Thrive and Cultivate Summit. You can use this link to register for free. The very presence of events such as this one is reason to be hopeful that the church is starting to “get it” when it comes to mental health. Second, we’d appreciate your help in getting the word out by forwarding this post to any pastors or church staff who need to know about events such as this.


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, Dr. Stephen Grcevich presents a simple and flexible model for mental health inclusion ministry for implementation by churches of all sizes, denominations, and organizational styles. The book is also designed to be a useful resource for parents, grandparents and spouses seeking to promote the spiritual growth of loved ones with mental illness. Available now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, ChristianBook and other fine retailers everywhere.

Posted in Key Ministry, Mental Health, Training Events | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Medical Mistrust in the Evangelical Community

The findings in this study from the Pew Research Foundation about evangelicals and their attitudes toward the COVID vaccine were stunning.

Among religious groups, atheists are the most likely to say they would get a vaccine or already received one dose, while White evangelical Protestants are the least likely. Nine-in-ten atheists said in February that they would definitely or probably get a vaccine or had already received one. Around eight-in-ten agnostics (80%) and Catholics (77%) said the same. The share was considerably smaller among Black Protestants (64%) and especially White evangelical Protestants (54%). Slightly under half of White evangelicals (45%) said they would definitely or probably not get a vaccine to prevent COVID-19. 

Religious affiliation often correlates with party affiliation, but even among Republicans, White evangelical Protestants stand out as less inclined to get a coronavirus vaccine.

Beliefs about the role of community health are strongly tied to intent to get a vaccine, including among religious groups. On balance, White evangelical Protestants are less inclined than people in other religious groups to think that community health effects should have a lot of sway in an individual’s decision to get a COVID-19 vaccine. More in this group say community health concerns should have only a little role or no role at all in individual decisions about getting a vaccine.


One contributing factor to attitudes in the evangelical community regarding the vaccine may be an association with a public health response that was arbitrarily harsh in restricting church attendance in many regions of the country. Several churches in California rebranded themselves as strip clubs after strip clubs were allowed to operate while indoor worship was banned. Others have based their resistance upon unfounded rumors that stem cells of aborted children were used to create the vaccine. The Southern Baptist Conventionprominent Baptist ethicists and the Roman Catholic Church have addressed these concerns, with Pope Francis suggesting Catholics have a moral obligation to receive the vaccine.

The concept of “medical mistrust” has been widely discussed of late, especially in the context of addressing healthcare disparities within historically marginalized populations, especially the Black community. Expressions of medical mistrust in the evangelical community appear very similar to those observed in other minority groups.

Some of the characteristics of medical mistrust include:

  • Historic events fuel current mistrust. Example: The Tuskegee Experiment is a major source of mistrust in the Black community.
  • Minority patients might miss out on advances in care
  • Mistrust and past experiences delay routine care
  • Biases can lead to populations mistrusting healthcare providers
  • Work has to be done to actively win back trust 

One additional characteristic of the medical mistrust research involves a focus on “conspiracy theories” – a common concern in the evangelical community addressed in this interview by Russell Moore of the ERLC.

Evangelicals have been more skeptical than their fellow Americans of medicine and the medical community for a long time. This phenomenon is clearly present when Christians have mental health concerns. Christians with mental illness are more likely to seek help from a pastor than a psychiatrist. In the one study I found comparing medical mistrust in different Christian traditions, distrust of physicians was greater among evangelicals when compared to mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews. 

Findings reveal that religiously active individuals have higher levels of trust in physicians. For example, individuals who attend religious services frequently (42% of the sample) are significantly more likely to trust their own physician (p < .05) and have higher levels of confidence in physicians in general (p < .01), compared to individuals who never attend. In addition, levels of trust vary by religious denomination with Mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Jews reporting more trust than Evangelical Protestants. For example, Mainline Protestants have more personal trust in their physicians (p < .01), general confidence in physicians (p <.05), and trust in the health care system (p < .05), compared to Evangelical Protestants.

One factor may be that Protestants are significantly underrepresented among the ranks of American physicians compared to their percentages in the general population. We know that patients treated by physicians from their ethnic or cultural background achieve better outcomes. In my broad specialty, Jewish psychiatrists outnumber Protestants, even though there were thirty times more Protestants than Jews in the U.S. population at the time of the study. 

In a New York Times article examining resistance to vaccination among evangelicals, Dr. Elaine Ecklund, Director of the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University speculated on the role the exclusion of Christians from the medical and scientific communities has played in resistance to vaccination.

There are two parts to the problem, she said: The scientific community has not been as friendly toward evangelicals, and the religious community has not encouraged followers to pursue careers in science.

Distrust of scientists has become part of cultural identity, of what it means to be white and evangelical in America, she said.

For slightly different reasons, the distrust is sometimes shared by Asian, Hispanic and Black Christians, who are skeptical that hospitals and medical professionals will be sensitive to their concerns, Dr. Ecklund said.

“We are seeing some of the implications of the inequalities in science,” she said. “This is an enormous warning of the fact that we do not have a more diverse scientific work force, religiously and racially.”

The one study examining medical mistrust in the Christian community specifically focused on churchgoing Latinos. Increased participation in groups or ministries was associated with higher medical mistrust (the higher the number of groups or ministries, the higher the mistrust), even after adjusting for other religiosity variables and health care and sociodemographic covariates. In other words, attendees who did not participate in any groups or ministries mistrusted the health care system less than those that participated at any level. 

Medical mistrust within the evangelical community is only likely to grow going forward. The growing propensity of the medical profession to embrace causes antithetical to common evangelical beliefs is likely to deter young Christians from entering the field. The American Association of Medical Colleges is openly hostile to conscience rights for healthcare professionals. While medical schools (appropriately) recognize the need for patients from ethnic and sexual minorities to have physicians from their cultural background, the likelihood they’ll recognize the same need for evangelicals is nonexistent. The one paper on the impact of religious beliefs on medical school admission (published 25 years ago) described flagrant discrimination.

The perception of medical mistrust is already widespread in the disability community. Mistrust is only amplified when patients identify with two or more groups with substandard experiences of the medical profession. The individuals and families served by our ministries experience an enhanced risk of having treatment needs that are overlooked or ignored. Their experiences may be magnified by their identification with the Christian subculture.

From a disability ministry perspective, attitudes among churchgoers toward the vaccine are a big problem. Adults impacted by disability are three times more likely to have chronic medical conditions that increase vulnerability for serious medical complications from COVID-19. When large numbers of churchgoers choose not to vaccinate themselves, the fear and apprehension of returning to church among the most vulnerable is likely to persist. The failure of churchgoers to vaccinate and take other recommended precautions to reduce the risk of spreading virus contributes to the marginalization of persons with disabilities and their families. 

Posted in Controversies, COVID-19 | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Live and IN PERSON – announcing #IFL2021

On behalf of our entire Key Ministry team, I’m delighted to announce that Inclusion Fusion Live, the disability ministry conference we’ve hosted annually is currently scheduled to take place as a live and “in person” event on Saturday, April 17th, originating from Bay Presbyterian Church in suburban Cleveland. The theme of this year’s conference is doing ministry together after the pandemic.

Over the past year, some of our friends and colleagues in ministry put forth heroic efforts in producing very comprehensive online conferences with some of the best teaching on disability ministry we’ve seen anywhere. We were honored as a team to have participated in the Wonderfully Made and All Access conferences, as well as an Online Pastors Retreat loaded with mental health ministry resources. We don’t need to replicate their efforts – churches and ministry leaders interested in that training can readily access it by reaching out to the organizers of those events. Our team senses that the moment calls for something different.

Our understanding and experience of “church” has been shaken to an extent unlike any of us have experienced in our lifetimes. Months after most churches reopened for in-person worship, attendance at two-thirds of churches in the U.S. is down at least 30%, at least 50% in three churches out of ten and over 70% in one church in ten. Individuals and families served by our ministries have been among those most impacted by social isolation and their medical vulnerabilities will cause them to be among the last to return to church.   

We think it’s important at this moment for as many of us as possible to gather together in the physical presence of others (with appropriate health and safety precautions and social distancing) who share our love for Jesus and passion for including families impacted by disability in the church. We need to be with one another! It’s only through tapping the collective gifts we’ve received through the Spirit that we’ll be effective in our calling and help lead the larger church as it seeks to recapture the people and cultural influence lost in recent years – losses greatly accelerated by the pandemic.  

Some things about #IFL2021 will be as they have in the past – we’re gathering in Cleveland during spring to share ideas, hang out with one another and prepare for a new season of ministry. As with so many things in life this past year, much will be different.

In order to minimize risks associated with travel and promote a sense of connection and community between disability ministry leaders within cities and regions, #IFL2021 will be a live, multisite event. We’re expecting between 10-25 attendees at each site, possibly more at sites with the ability to host larger numbers safely.

This year’s conference will be one day as opposed to two to minimize the COVID – related burdens on our host sites.

Unlike past conferences that sought to provide education and resources on a broad variety of ministry topics, #IFL2021 will be organized around ONE theme. Disability ministry in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Because we’re seeking to tap into collective wisdom, there are no individual talks or presentations this year. #IFL2021 will be organized around seven conversations. Everyone attending in person will participate actively in these conversations. We’ll have familiar faces on our stage in Cleveland kicking off each conversation, which will be shared via webcast to each host site. Host sites will have one or more facilitators who will continue the conversations with attendees at their sites, emphasizing idea-sharing and development of local collaborations and solutions. We’ll have a livestreaming option for participants unable to attend an in-person event at this time. They will be placed in video discussion groups organized by region.

Out of the seven conversations, one – our “featured conversation” will be prerecorded. We wanted our friend and colleague Lamar Hardwick to facilitate the conversation sparked by his new book on the central role disability – and ministry leaders with disabilities should play in the dialogue around diversity in the church but thought it unwise to ask him to travel while he’s undergoing treatment for colon cancer. The disability and diversity conversation will kick off the conference in the Eastern and Central time zones and conclude the day in the Mountain and Western time zones.

Other topics of conversation we’ll likely address include…

How might our churches best address the need for Christian community among families impacted by disability already marginalized before the pandemic? 

How might innovative practices resulting from COVID shape disability ministry going forward? 

How can we preserve and support ministries struggling from a lack of funding or volunteers?

How might we promote collaboration within regions between churches and organizations engaged in disability ministry?

How might we best address the training needs of church staff, disability ministry leaders and volunteers going forward? 

How can we help the church minister with the rapidly growing population impacted by mental health issues? 

To make #IFL2021 a reality, we’re going to need help from lots of friends. Would your church consider serving as a host site for the conference? Click here if you’re interested in learning more about hosting. After you provide us with some basic information, a member of our team will be in touch shortly to discuss hosting requirements and the services and supports we provide. We’re hoping to open individual registration for #IFL2021 by March 21st. We understand the timeline is tight, but we quickly learned while refunding registrations for last year’s conference that advance planning during COVID is often futile.

We miss our friends and colleagues. We’re looking forward to seeing members of our “tribe” and affording friends here in Cleveland and around the country with opportunities to reconnect for the purpose of identifying collective solutions to the ministry challenges we’re facing in the months and years to come.

We encourage everyone to follow Key Ministry’s Facebook page, our family support page or contact us to receive updates on #IFL2021 and other ministry programming and activities.

Posted in COVID-19, Inclusion Fusion, Key Ministry | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A manifesto for the disability ministry movement

Lamar Hardwick is positioned to be the most impactful advocate for disability inclusion in the American church for many years to come. He is at the forefront of a new generation of ministry leaders with disabilities drawing upon their lived experience to guide the church. His recently released book, Disability and the Church: A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion represents a must-read for Christians interested in welcoming, living with and serving alongside persons with disabilities.

Lamar’s work is extraordinary timely. The primary theme of the book is to “re-envision the role of church growth, evangelism and discipleship from a new lens that places disability at the heart of he diversity conversation.” He makes an effective and compelling argument for why the church must take the lead in the discussion of diversity – and ultimately, disability. He champions the need for identifying and resourcing persons with disabilities for positions of leadership and influence in the church. He does so while articulating a clear and concise theology of disability church leaders can readily embrace in the context of our society’s preoccupation with diversity, equity and inclusion. 

In his book, Lamar presents a vision for community characterized by Biblical diversity in contrast to ideas championed by proponents of Critical Theory. Key components of Biblical diversity are peace between people groups otherwise in competition with one another, unity in Christ derived from the recognition people with all conditions and from all races, ethnicities and cultures are equal at the foot of the cross, individuality, reconciliation and sacrifice. Biblical diversity reflects an appreciation for everyone’s true value and worth in the eyes of God and acknowledgment that the power necessary to achieve true diversity does not reside with humanity but with our creator.

The diversity dilemma for Christians in the West must begin with a critical question: Who’s missing? When we answer the question, Who’s missing? we find our mission.

Lamar Hardwick

If we are called to pursue Biblical diversity, central to that discussion is a pursuit of those who are missing from the community. Quoting from Lamar’s book, “every sheep matters.” He references the parable of the lost sheep to demonstrate the value of each and every person to the community overseen by the ultimate shepherd. He ties disability into the diversity conversation through pointing out that people with disabilities are the largest minority group in the world and the singularly most missed voice in the church. Authentic Gospel witness requires the church to “dive headfirst into the responsibility of creating communities where missing sheep are valued and pursued” with the same passion and persistence as Christ demonstrated during his earthly ministry. 

Deliberate inclusion of individuals and families impacted by disability is absolutely essential to aligning our priorities in a manner more consistent with those of the early church if we are to pursue diversity. Lamar points out that the early church didn’t view this as inclusion, instead seeing it as an obedient response to the teachings of Jesus. He powerfully contrasts the efforts to make church accessible during the early weeks of COVID-related social distancing with the church’s lukewarm (at best) response to including people with disabilities.

A second theme running throughout the book is the importance of elevating disabled voices into positions of leadership within the church. Lamar observes that one of the best ways to measure an organization’s commitment to diversity is by examining who it allows to lead. Having persons with disabilities in positions of leadership ensures the church remains intimately involved with the type of ministry that expresses the heart of God’s kingdom.

Another advantage to elevating persons with disabilities into positions of leadership is that they might help address the church’s obliviousness as to how church is perceived and experienced by outsiders, especially outsiders with disabilities. The greatest example of the disconnect might be illustrated by a 2020 LifeWay Research study (discussed here) in which 99% of Protestant pastors reported their churches are welcoming to individuals and families impacted by disability. A similar disconnect was reported in earlier LifeWay research noting differences between pastors and families in the preparedness of the church to provide mental health support.

Lamar has been uniquely positioned for a prominent role in the disability ministry movement. When our ministry team was planning for 2021, we reflected that our greatest challenge was gaining traction and influence with pastors. While our writing team and leaders from other like-minded ministries generate lots of useful content, Lamar’s seminary degrees and ministry experience, especially his ongoing experience as lead pastor in an ethnically diverse church situated in one of America’s major cities affords him a degree of credibility with pastors that most of us will never have. He recognizes that support from pastors is absolutely critical if things are going to change. His experiences as a person with autism lends him unique insight into the struggles persons might experience at church who struggle with social communication and processing sensory input. He also has the ability to initiate disability ministry collaborations with historically Black churches when it would be presumptuous and inappropriate for leaders from the predominant ethnic group to do so.

We’re buying copies of Lamar’s book for every one of our ministry staff and Board members. Disability and the Church will likely be the most impactful book written in our field of ministry for many years to come. I also find Lamar to be “pitch-perfect” in the language he uses to speak into difficult issues with the grace and truth reflective of our faith, and we’ll be using his words as a model for how we communicate in the months and years ahead.

Disability and the Church: A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion by Lamar Hardwick is available through InterVarsity Press, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, ChristianBook and other fine retailers.



We invite you to be join us for a wonderful disability ministry conference originating from South Texas this coming weekend. Sandra Peoples and Tiffany Crow are hosting this virtual event under very adverse conditions in their home state. The content is excellent and it’s affordable for churches on tight budgets. Check out  — and use promo code “Key” to reduce your registration fee to $15.00. And…Pastor Lamar Hardwick is serving as the keynote speaker!

Posted in Inclusion, Leadership | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Recognizing a modern-day Daniel

Then this Daniel became distinguished above all the other high officials and satraps, because an excellent spirit was in him. And the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom. Then the high officials and the satraps sought to find a ground for complaint against Daniel with regard to the kingdom, but they could find no ground for complaint or any fault, because he was faithful, and no error or fault was found in him. Then these men said, “We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God.”

Daniel 6:3-5 (ESV)

Ten or so years ago, I was introduced to Shannon Royce while at McLean Bible Church presenting at one of their Accessibility Summits. At the time, Shannon was serving as President of Chosen Families, a non-profit ministry for families living with hidden disabilities, with a focus on autism and mental health concerns. She was one of the first leaders I met in the disability ministry community with an appreciation and awareness of challenges families impacted by mental illness face in being part of church. She was quite gracious and humble, and it was some time until I fully appreciated her accomplishments as a champion for families in our nation’s Capital. 

Shannon is an attorney by training who worked as an advocate for parents in conflicts with school systems after having served on the staff of Senator Charles Grassley. She was the Director of the Washington office of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission while serving as an early champion of mental health ministry within her denomination. Four years ago, she was appointed Director of the Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, responsible for building partnerships with community and faith-based organizations, which help HHS serve individuals, families, and communities in need.

One of the tasks HHS became engaged in was implementation of the 21st Century Cures Act – a law passed during the final weeks of President Obama’s administration to accelerate medical innovation and spur cooperation among different agencies of the Federal government in addressing major disease states, one of which is mental illness. Shannon’s office became engaged with the interagency coordinating committee addressing mental illness because of the abundant evidence that participation in religious activities and communities has profound impacts upon mental well-being.

One manifestation of Shannon’s giftedness is her ability to recognize how complex systems and organizations might be leveraged in order to do good. A little over three years ago, I found myself sitting in my car in a parking lot outside Akron Children’s Hospital on a conference call Shannon had organized with a number of other faith leaders wondering where her efforts were leading. I came to discover she’s a true practitioner of three-dimensional chess as I witnessed her plans unfold. 

One of the byproducts of Shannon and her team bringing together faith leaders and mental health professionals from a broad array of religious traditions was the opportunity for Christians engaged in mental health ministry from different cultures, ethnic groups and denominational traditions to be introduced to and connect with one another. Before Shannon used her connections and resources to bring people together for these larger government initiatives, our team was connected to a handful of other churches and leaders actively seeking to advance mental health inclusion and ministry in the church. After taking part in her efforts, those connections probably increased by a factor of ten. We met folks from historically Black churches and folks from the Hispanic community doing great work who we may never have otherwise come across and gained a better understanding of the possibilities for mental health ministry.

One of the people I met in-person for the first time as a result of Shannon’s work was Janet Parshall. Without that introduction, I doubt Janet would have served as the featured speaker at our disability ministry conference two years ago and shared this incredible talk that’s now been viewed over 21,000 times. I met Kay Warren for the first time at the same meeting in Washington. Kay and her husband have probably done as much to advance the cause of mental health ministry in the church as anyone. But I’d put Shannon right up there with them. Collaboration between mental health ministry leaders is at least five years ahead of where it would have otherwise been without her efforts. There’s no way we’d have been able to pull together the resources for our online pastors’ retreat without the folks we met through her.

I consider myself blessed to have had the opportunity to observe the grace, maturity and self-control Shannon displayed in living out her faith and leading with excellence in the midst of a city where intense hostility to her values is a daily reality among those seeking power and influence. In that way, I consider her to be a modern-day Daniel. We need more people like her willing to enter into the centers of political and cultural power if we are to stem the steep decline in Christianity’s reputation and influence in America. I would aspire to conduct myself in the medical profession as well as Shannon has while serving in government.  

Shannon’s last day in her position was this past Friday. We should hope and pray that the new administration in Washington would appoint someone like her to assume her responsibilities. I’m interested in what God has next in store for her as our faith enters into a modern-day form of cultural exile, not dissimilar to the exile that Daniel was part of during the sixth century B.C. 

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Jeremiah 29:5-7 (ESV)

I suspect Shannon would be pleased if the fruits of her work continue to be disseminated. Here’s a link to Compassion in Action: A Guide for Faith Communities Serving People Experiencing Mental Illness. In searching for video of events our ministry took part in through Shannon’s office, I came across this conversation featuring her, Rick Warren and Dr. Frances Collins (Director of the National Institute of Health) on practical ways Christians and other members of faith communities can demonstrate concern and hospitality to their neighbors during COVID-19.

On behalf of our entire ministry team, I’d like to extend our thanks and congratulations to Shannon for the work she and her team accomplished during her time at HHS and for the excellence she demonstrated in living out our faith during her time in Washington. We pray that God will bless you and your family abundantly!  

Posted in Advocacy, Key Ministry, Mental Health | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

More evidence churches are ESSENTIAL to mental health during COVID-19

Photo by   Daniel Borges   from   Pexels
Photo by Daniel Borges from Pexels

One of the most puzzling aspects of the government’s responses to COVID-19 has been their failure to recognize the importance of churches in mitigating the mental health impacts of the pandemic. The evidence base for the mental health benefits of worship service attendance is overwhelming. Over 3,000 peer-reviewed studies have been published examining the health benefits of religious or spiritual practices on health, with the vast majority of studies pointing specifically to the mental health benefits of religion.

Dr. Harold Koenig of Duke University authored a comprehensive review of the research linking religious practices with mental and physical health. Some of the mental health benefits of religion or spirituality include:

  • Lower levels of depression or faster remission from depression.
  • Fewer suicide attempts and fewer deaths as a result of suicide
  • Reduced levels of anxiety
  • Higher frequency of religious service attendance is linked to a lower risk of bipolar disorder.
  • Lower risk of personality disorders.
  • An inverse relationship between religious participation and substance use disorders

A survey was released this past week by the Gallup organization dramatizing just how essential churches have been over the last nine months.

For the past twenty years, Gallup has done an annual survey each November of health and healthcare in which they’ve asked Americans to rate their mental or emotional well-being. This year’s survey incorporated a random sampling of 1,018 adults from all 50 states conducted between and November 5th and November 19th. Here are some highlights from the study.

Americans’ latest assessment of their mental health is worse than it has been at any point in the last two decades. Seventy-six percent of U.S. adults rate their mental health positively, representing a nine-point decline from 2019.

Each year since 2001, Gallup has asked Americans as part of its November Health and Healthcare survey to say whether their own mental or emotional wellbeing is excellent, good, only fair or poor. The reading for those rating their mental health as excellent or good ranged from 81% to 89% until this year’s 76%.

Although the majority of U.S. adults continue to rate their mental health as excellent (34%) or good (42%), and far fewer say it is only fair (18%) or poor (5%), the latest excellent ratings are eight points lower than Gallup has measured in any prior year.

The latest weakening in positive ratings, from a Nov. 5-19 poll, are undoubtedly influenced by the coronavirus pandemic, which continues to profoundly disrupt people’s lives, but may also reflect views of the election and the state of race relations, both of which were on Americans’ minds this year.

Self-ratings of mental health declined in every demographic Gallup measured – age, race, gender, income, marital status, political affiliation except for one – weekly church attenders


In some ways, I can understand the public policy decisions that led some states to order churches closed while keeping liquor stores, strip clubs and marijuana dispensaries open. After all, Christians are enormously underrepresented in psychiatry, and likely underrepresented in public health. Church attendees are probably less likely to be in the meetings where public health responses to COVID are being debated. Many states that have cracked down most harshly against churches during COVID-19 are led by politicians less inclined to view church attendees as key supporters.

What I don’t understand is why so many of our churches have failed to recognize their importance in mitigating the mental health impacts of COVID. Persons with mental health concerns are more likely to turn to clergy for help than a psychiatrist or their primary care physician. Many historically Black churches have been at the forefront in supporting the mental health needs of the communities they serve during COVID. If I were a social media manager at a church, I’d be telling the world about the Gallup study through my Facebook and Twitter posts.

How might churches most effectively support the mental health of their members and attendees during this time? This post considers mental health support during #CovidChristmas, while this one outlines a broader range of support strategies during COVID-19. Here are a few thoughts for churches to consider during the long, dark winter ahead.

Keep the church open for worship services if at all possible. At a time when the only people whose mental health is improving are regular church attendees, worship is more important than ever to those in your church with mental health vulnerabilities.

Make sure individuals and families who have stopped attending church know they haven’t been forgotten. It’s likely given the large increases in anxiety and depression during COVID that many who attended church last year but are now absent from worship services (in-person attendance is down 64% since the beginning of COVID) are hurting. A study published earlier this week reported that people without depression or anxiety have experienced the greatest increase in mental health symptoms during COVID. Consider how the people of the church might mobilize to look after one another.

Don’t miss the opportunity to invite folks to Christmas services who don’t regularly go to church or don’t have a church to attend this year. Given what we learned from the Gallup study, there may be far more people open to the Gospel during this season than in years past. Even with social distancing, many churches will have seats available this Christmas that they haven’t had before. What better time than now to invite someone in need of the hope we have in Christ?



Our ministry team very much appreciates your prayers and financial support as 2020 comes to a close. Families of kids with disabilities have had an incredibly difficult time over the last nine months. Churches have struggled with all the changes resulting from social distancing. Our staff has done an incredible job in helping churches help families this year while controlling costs, but we’re currently running about $15,000 behind our expenses from having to cancel our national ministry conference, Inclusion Fusion Live. If you’ve taken care of your responsibilities to your local church, we’d appreciate any donation you might provide. Would you consider starting a Facebook Fundraiser on behalf of our ministry? Online gifts have become an increasingly important source of support.

If you’re unable to give, but have been encouraged or supported by our ministry this year, we’d love to hear from you. The encouragement at this point in the pandemic might be more impactful than the money.

From our Key Ministry team we extend our Best Wishes for a Blessed and Joyous Christmas!

Posted in Key Ministry, Mental Health | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Twenty ways our ministry made a difference in 2020


Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:11-13 (ESV)

I’d like to express my heartfelt thanks and admiration for the magnificent work accomplished by our ministry staff, volunteers, writing team and the pastors, staff and volunteers of the churches we serve over the last twelve months through some of the most unusual and trying circumstances the small “c” church has experienced in our lifetimes.

Our ministry plans for 2020 went out the window when church doors closed across the country as we learned the meaning of social distancing. But in reviewing the accomplishments of the team in 2020, it’s hard not to argue that Beth, Catherine, and the rest of the team had their most impactful year of ministry ever.

Here are 20 ways in which our team made significant impact for the cause of including families of kids with disabilities and children and adults with mental health concerns in this most challenging of years.

1. The team quickly mobilized to provide training, connection and support to ministry leaders related to impacts of COVID-19. All of our coronavirus-related resources may be found here. We launched weekly “Idea Share” videoconferences including church staff and volunteers from across the country to facilitate brainstorming of ideas for serving kids and families during #COVID19. Other sessions provided encouragement and support to parents of kids with disabilities who suddenly found themselves without many of their usual support services for their children. One of our most popular video roundtables featured the author, pastor and biblical counselor Jonathan Holmes discussing the use of Scripture to help manage and support emotional health during COVID-19.

2. Together with members of our writing team and leaders of other like-minded disability ministries, we produced and hosted a special Easter Sunday worship service for families impacted by disability. The service received over 31,000 views on our Facebook page. The service may be viewed here in its entirety.


3. Our team, in partnership with Amplify Social Media produced on Online Pastors Retreat in response to the dramatic increase in mental health struggles among clergy and the population at large during the pandemic. Nearly 200 pastors and church staff to date have registered for this remarkable resource, addressing key topics in self-care, church care and steps for becoming a mental-health friendly church. We were honored to have been joined by many prominent church leaders in this effort, including Kay Warren, William Vanderbloemen, Pete Scazzaro and Brad Hambrick. Click here to learn more about the retreat, or here to register.


4. We continued our work with the Office of Faith-Based Partnerships of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and their efforts in helping congregations from all faith traditions improve their capacity for supporting individuals and families with mental illness. On April 28th, Steve had the opportunity to take part in a nationwide videoconference hosted by the Partnership Center on Mental Health in the Time of COVID, together with Kay Warren and psychologist and former Pennsylvania congressman Tim Murphy. Several thousand had registered for the webinar and many more have viewed it since then through YouTube.

5. Speaking of the Office of Faith-Based Partnerships, we were honored to contribute to Compassion in Action: A Guide for Faith Communities Serving People Experiencing Mental Illness, available as a free download through the HHS website. The guide is organized around seven key principles applicable in all faith traditions that offer a way for spiritual leaders to address mental illness in the communities they serve. The guide also identifies concrete houses of worship might take to “put their compassion into action.”

6. Our team played a significant role in Wonderfully Made, the “sister” conference of Inclusion Fusion Live, which was held virtually this past October. All of our core team served as presenters, with Steve doing one of the keynotes. Wonderfully Made featured a number of our writers and represented the largest disability ministry conference of 2020.


7. We were able to take part in four live, in-person training events before the COVID shutdowns – training for the children’s ministry team on mental health inclusion at Bay Presbyterian Church, two additional local trainings in Northeast Ohio, and the Together Conference at Mount Paran Church in Atlanta on the first weekend of March.

Mount Paran.jpg

8. Steve was invited to speak as part of the Church Mental Health Summit, sponsored by Hope Made Strong on October 10. 1,785 attendees registered for his talk on Why Attending Church is Difficult for Families Impacted by Mental Illness.


9. We continued to grow the disability ministry field. The Special Needs and Disability Ministry Leaders group we facilitate. 235 new members have joined the group this year, currently standing at 2048. 950 members have been added since November, 2018.

10. We continue to find new avenues to educate the church about mental health ministry. This article from Steve was featured in the Fall 2020 issue of Evangelicals magazine, produced by the National Association of Evangelicals. The Brink magazine, produced as a a devotional magazine for twentysomethings, featured an interview with Steve as the cover story for their Fall issue.

11. We continued to produce content that ministry leaders and families seek to access. Our website has had over 125,000 unique visitors this year through mid-November. Between our Church4Every Child and Special Needs Parenting blog, we’re approaching 4 million page views. Nearly 5,000 people subscribe to our blog posts. Over 22,000 follow our content on Twitter, with nearly 16,000 following our Facebook page for churches and 18,000 our Facebook page for parents.

12. We continued to build upon our relationship with the disability ministry team of the South Atlantic Conference of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. They’ve sponsored a broad range of trainings for their pastors and membership on mental health ministry and they report sixteen pastors have begun mental health initiatives in their churches this past year.

13. We’re honored to have been selected as one of nine ministry organizations to have been invited to partner with the Tim Tebow Foundation for Shine On, a ministry of the foundation dedicated to connecting new and growing special needs programs within local churches to world-class faith-based resources that train, guide, and support churches as they serve their local community of people with special needs. Formed by an ongoing desire to see churches worldwide extend their individual Night to Shine proms into year-round ministries, Shine On is an initiative several years in the making. When a church is simply looking to refine an existing ministry for those with special needs, or looking to build one from the ground up, we’re available along with the other eight organizations to offer both inspiration and assistance.

Shine On.jpg

14. We continued to field lots of consultation requests from churches, despite closures related to the pandemic. Beth received 81 consultation requests for general disability ministry issues and Catherine responded to 42 consultation requests for mental health ministry to this point in 2020.

15. We were invited to contribute to many podcasts in 2020. Beth and Catherine joined Tom Bump from the Kids Ministry Collective on special needs ministry during COVID-19. Beth addressed worship service inclusion in this podcast with Stephanie Holmes for Springbrook’s Converge Autism Radio podcast. Steve did this video podcast with Tony Kummer from Ministry to Children on disability ministry lessons the church might learn during the pandemic. Beth also took part in this video podcast sponsored by SOAR Special Needs Ministry on disability ministry in the new normal.

16. Beth has been active in development of a collaborative in Northeast Ohio of churches participating in Night to Shine events. The collaborative may serve as a model for church-based disability ministries to provide mutual support in other cities and regions.


17. We’ve met with the producers of Unseen, a documentary intended to give an unfiltered, honest glimpse into the mental and physical struggles of special needs caregivers. The filmmakers seek to demonstrate how the exhaustion and isolation of special needs caregivers represent a public health crisis.


18. Catherine was invited to serve as a contributor to the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission website. Her first post offered four suggestions for shepherding pastors during the coronavirus. Steve contributed posts on how churches might support mental health during the pandemic and Churches, Holidays, Pandemics and Mental Health, scheduled for publication during the coming week.

19. We’ve recently met with the Lutheran Foundation to plan mental health ministry education activities for 2021 and 2022. We’ve scheduled a webinar for March of 2021 on the barriers individuals and families face in being part of church.

20. Steve has continued to serve as a regular contributor to the Brian and Jannelle morning show on Moody Radio Cleveland. This segment on flattening the mental health curve during the pandemic was featured on Moody Radio last March. He also appeared on Mornings with Carmen LaBerge and The Ride Home with John and Kathy’s afternoon show on 101.5 The Word in Pittsburgh.

Brian and Jannelle (with a special appearance from Kathleen) at Moody Radio Cleveland
Brian and Jannelle (with a special appearance from Kathleen) at Moody Radio Cleveland

I’m tired from listing all the stuff our ministry did this year. But the need for the support our ministry provides isn’t going away and will only intensify as the calendar turns to 2021.

Our ministry team would very much appreciate your prayers and financial support as 2020 comes to a close. Families of kids with emotional, behavioral, developmental and physical difficulties have had an incredibly difficult time over the last eight months. Churches have struggled with all the changes resulting from social distancing. Our team has done an incredible job in helping churches help families this year while controlling costs as much as possible, but we’re currently running about $15,000 behind our expenses this year as a result of having to cancel our national ministry conference, Inclusion Fusion Live, after reducing our spending by approximately 30% from what was budgeted at the beginning of the year.

If you’ve taken care of your responsibilities to your local church, we’d appreciate any donation you’re able to provide. Would you consider starting a Facebook Fundraiser on behalf of our ministry? Online gifts have become an increasingly important source of support.

If you’re unable to give, but have been encouraged or supported by our ministry this year, we’d love to hear from you. The encouragement at this point in the pandemic is at least as impactful as the money.

From our Key Ministry team we extend our Best Wishes for a Blessed and Joyous Thanksgiving, looking forward to the time when we can all be together again with our families again.

Posted in Key Ministry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A plan to help hurting churches help hurting families

With all the upheaval we’ve all experienced over the past eight months, the most unsettled I’ve felt was the first Sunday my family and I attended a worship service inside our church’s building. I’d never seen the church so empty. I’d been worried about not having a place to sit thanks to the distancing requirements if we arrived a little late. I’d guess our main sanctuary was maybe 10-15% full when we could comfortably host 40% of our normal capacity with all the restrictions. This after two services (traditional and contemporary) customarily held during that hour were combined in one space.

I’ve heard similar stories from friends at other churches. The general consensus in our area is that attendance at worship services is around 30-40% of what it was before the pandemic. That’s consistent with these statistics from a prominent church consultant (Tony Morgan), reporting attendance nationwide of 36% of pre-pandemic levels. Obviously, lots of people will come back when the need for social distancing ends. But lots of people won’t. I’ll be taking a closer look at this podcast in a future post in which Thom Rainer (former President of LifeWay) predicts the typical church will lose 30-40% of its people as a result of the current disruption. In that same podcast, Rainer noted that 80% of 1,000+ pastors who responded to an online survey said they’re contemplating quitting. Our churches are in distress.

David Kinnamon of the Barna Group estimates 20% of churches will be closed within the next eighteen months. Fewer than 50% of regular church attenders ages 55 and under reported a preference for primarily “physical” church gatherings. While we’re likely to lose less committed people, the impact on church finances is inevitable. The larger issue for disability ministry centered around weekend worship will be the impact on the volunteer pool upon which these ministries depend.

Credit: Barna Group
Credit: Barna Group

We’ve been thrust into the most radical change in the way “church” is conducted since the Protestant Reformation. The future is very unclear. But God’s at work in the process. The statistics above suggest we haven’t exactly been successful as of late in discipling people if so many have left. A surprising number of church attendees aren’t interested in getting back to “normal” in attendance at weekend worship services.

Our team is wrestling with planning ministry for next year when nobody really knows for sure what church is going to look like twelve months from now or how much more of a hit churches will take from additional steps to control the pandemic over the next 6-9 months. It’s like the challenges a quarterback faces in throwing the ball to a spot where he anticipates his receiver will be based upon the receiver’s reaction to the defense being played.

This article from Tony Morgan was very helpful in helping me to understand how churches will operate after COVID. Here’s a photo from his post with a summary of his key points.

From Tony Morgan: Seven shifts I foresee churches will need to make as a result of this crisis:
From Tony Morgan: Seven shifts I foresee churches will need to make as a result of this crisis:

While we’re likely to find ourselves making stuff up on the fly again this year in response to need, these are some of our guiding principles for expanding disability ministry in a shrinking church in the years ahead.  

We’re preparing for a paradigm shift in which less and less ministry will be done by paid professionals. Pastors and church staff will transition from doing ministry to resourcing volunteers to do ministry. Established disability ministries that survive are more likely to do be led by highly motivated volunteers and new disability ministries will be established by volunteers. We need to give church leaders the resources they need to keep ministries going in the absence of funding and train leaders to launch ministries in churches that have the heart but are low on resources.

We need to empower the people of the church to identify and respond to ministry opportunities without expecting leaders to start a program. When Morgan refers to “simplicity” in his model, he means churches focusing on doing a few things with excellence versus operating lots of programs that compete for shrinking pools of money or volunteers. Churches won’t be starting many new programs. That means someone who sees the need for a Christian-based mental health support group needs connections with organizations to help them start a group, support their group and promote their group.. How might the people of the church provide respite care in their neighborhoods when a church doesn’t have the facilities or volunteers to support respite events? What does disability ministry look like for “microchurches?” How might we empower individuals with disabilities to start microchurches to reach their friends and neighbors who don’t have a church?

I’d argue that doing ministry is a much-underutilized strategy for churches struggling with discipleship. The model of coming to church to be “taught” by the professionals has clearly lost favor with generations younger than mine. People grow by doing. Encountering pushback in ministry forces people to pray, to turn to Scripture and to seek wise counsel – in other words, to grow spiritually. We can support churches as they pursue outwardly-focused disability ministry. How might we point churches to opportunities to share the love of Christ with members of the disability community who would never otherwise enter their buildings?

Promoting connectedness – This may be the most important component of our ministry plan going forward. We’re experiencing a mental health crisis along with a medical crisis in large part due to the disruption in relationships caused by the pandemic. How can we encourage and support one another in ministry? How do we support pastors and church staff who are experiencing enormous disruption in their work lives? That’s how we ended up partnering with another organization to host an Online Pastors’ Retreat accessed thus far by over 180 church leaders.

How can churches across a city or a region support one another in doing ministry? That’s a hot topic in our home region at the moment. How might churches pool their resources to support one another’s disability ministry initiatives? How might local ministry leaders support one another? Pastors and church leaders need to be better connected with disability ministry leaders. The people of the church need more connection with one another. If church were more like a family, far fewer people would be leaving.

Making high quality, live disability ministry training is at the top of our “to-do” list when the pandemic is over. If we do #IFL2021, it will look different than in the past and be designed as an “in-person” event. The small “c” church is doing a pretty good job of disability ministry on Sunday. How might we help churches see what it means to be connected to families from Monday to Saturday?

That’s what the churches and families we serve and the generous people who pray for and fund our ministry can expect in the year ahead.


Speaking of the year ahead, our team would very much appreciate your prayers and financial support. Inclusion Fusion Live represented approximately a third of our ministry’s annual budget. That disappeared when everything closed down last Spring. Our team has done an incredible job in responding to needs this year, while controlling costs, but we’re currently running about $15,000 behind our expenses this year. Please consider a gift to our ministry after meeting your responsibilities to your local church.

Posted in Key Ministry, Leadership, Strategies | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment