Common mental health conditions can be MAJOR barriers to church involvement

shutterstock_104388902We’re starting a new series for Mental Health Month… Ten things I wish church leaders knew about families and mental illness. Today, we’ll look at how mental health conditions commonly occurring in children and adults can present substantial obstacles to church attendance and participation. 

I’ve observed that folks who regularly attend church…and especially folks who serve in church staff positions struggle to conceptualize why attending worship services and actively engaging in church programs and activities is difficult for families impacted by mental illness. It’s particularly difficult to understand why parents who might be able to maintain a job and a household or kids who are able to school without one-on-one aides or lots of support services aren’t able to attend church. I’ll try to explain why in today’s post…and give churches a conceptual framework for anticipating the obstacles kids and adults might experience in attending church and addressing them so they no longer remain obstacles.

The key to eliminating as many obstacles to attendance and participation as possible is to understand the attributes and skills required to have a great experience in the environments in which we “do church.”

ADHD Series LogoFor example, adults who continue to require treatment for ADHD are often very creative, entrepreneurial, competitive and thrive in jobs that don’t require them to be tied to a desk…they’re the sales guys who earn large commissions and are selected for the year-end President’s Club trips. On the other hand, their carelessness, disorganization, lack of careful attention to detail and propensity to procrastinate are likely to become major problems if they’re working in an accounting firm and responsible for doing my taxes. In the right situation with performance expectations matching their strengths…no problem.

The same is true of church! We make lots of assumptions about the ability of kids and adults to thrive in our environments because we see them navigate other common environments on a daily basis…but there may be subtle differences in expectations between church and other environments that make a BIG difference.

Here’s a chart I put together for a ministry training event listing some of the different environments kids or parents with common mental illnesses are likely to experience at church…

Church Environments

Let’s walk through this model with a hypothetical family that lives near your church…

Mrs. X is a divorced mom in her early 40’s who works from home for a company providing an electronic billing service for small medical practices. She lives down the street from your church with her 14 year-old son Bradley, who has a superior IQ but extremely limited social skills (and is on an IEP at school for support related to his diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder), her 11 year-old daughter Lauren, who is being treated for separation anxiety disorder, and her 9 year-old son Adam (entirely neurotypical). Adam is invited to Vacation Bible School over the summer by a friend, has a great time, and begins to ask his mother if they can come to church every Sunday. Mrs X has tried several different medications for social anxiety disorder, achieving only a partial response and is predisposed to panic attacks in noisy, crowded places.

What are all the potential barriers Mrs. X and her two older children would face in attending worship services and becoming engaged in activities seen as critical to spiritual growth by your church?

Let’s start with Mrs. X…

  • Is she less likely because of her social anxiety to know someone at the church who could accompany her on her first few visits?
  • How busy or crowded is your church? Is she likely to become anxious in the rush before or after services, or if she can’t find an aisle seat near an exit?
  • Is she likely to experience conflict with her middle daughter when she suggests going to church?
  • How easy will it be for her to navigate all the interactions required to get herself and each of her kids registered and where they need to be on the first few visits?
  • If your church encourages adults to be in small groups, how will she get connected to a group, and how uncomfortable might she be if expected to self-disclose in a group?

With Bradley…

  • How comfortable is he likely to be coming to a large room filled with kids he doesn’t know who already know one another when he doesn’t intuitively process social cues?
  • How will he interact with other kids who don’t share the same interests as his?
  • Will he become resistant to attending if he sees kids at church who made fun of him at school?

With Lauren…

  • What happens when she arrives the first day and encounters the expectation that she leave her mom to join her age-appropriate group in a different part of the campus?
  • How likely is it that she’ll participate in an overnight retreat or short-term mission trip with other middle school kids?

shutterstock_145410157Everyone in this family is likely to function fairly well with some bumps in the road in their day-to-day roles and expectations. Mrs. X probably interfaces by phone with a relatively small number of office staff and insurance company support staff by phone and can handle most of her work by computer with little social interaction. Bradley may get reasonably good grades and have a few kids he’s comfortable with on the robotics team, the Science Olympiad team or computer club. Lauren may miss more school or end up in the nurses’ office more than other kids her age, but she likely has some good friends and may have very good grades. Nevertheless, three people in this family may struggle to adapt to a relatively unfamiliar environment for several hours each week. Church leaders can help to minimize potential obstacles by anticipating the struggles kids and adults with common mental health conditions are likely to experience at each step in the engagement process.

What if Mom could e-mail a “concierge” from the welcome team prior to the family’s first visit to church to arrange for all the necessary registrations, greeted the family at the main entrance and helped everyone in the family to get to the right place?

What if your website made clear that Mrs. X and Lauren could visit in advance of their first visit to become familiar with where one another will be when they attend?

What if Bradley had the opportunity by two or three men on the media/tech team as an alternative to attending a small group in an unfamiliar home with 8-12 other teens?

Every church can do something to make it easier for families impacted by mental illness to attend church once the potential pitfalls are understood.


shutterstock_80344798Confused about all the changes in diagnostic terminology for kids with mental heath disorders? Key Ministry has a resource page summarizing our recent blog series examining the impact of changes in the DSM-5 on kidsClick this link for summary articles describing the changes in diagnostic criteria for conditions common among children and teens, along with links to other helpful resources!

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
This entry was posted in Anxiety Disorders, Autism, Families, Hidden Disabilities, Inclusion, Key Ministry, Mental Health, Ministry Environments, Strategies and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Common mental health conditions can be MAJOR barriers to church involvement

  1. Ann Holmes says:

    Thanks, Steve!!! So practical and clear!


  2. Pingback: Community Outreach Illness Scenarios Teaching Tool

  3. Ann Holmes says:

    Reading this again, I’m wondering if your suggestions related to entering and participating in a large church would be the same or different in small and/or medium-sized churches. One thing we do at A Restoration Church which would definitely be in the small church category is to tell a family (either through internet contact at the website to or on the phone or in a visit prior to the first visit or even in contact during or after the initial visit) that we may not have a lot of experience with their particular needs, that we really want them to be comfortable at A Restoration Church, and ask that they be willing to work with us and give us some time (1 month to 6 weeks) working with them to figure out how we can optimize their A Restoration Church Pittsburgh experience. Thanks!


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