In the fifth segment in our series… Ten Things I Wish Church Leaders Knew About Families and Mental Illness, we’ll look at an all-too common experience among families in which an adult or child is seeking to overcome mental illness…relational hurts from previous church experiences that result in parents with an overwhelming reticence to return to church.
We like to share success stories. Pastors, church staff and volunteers work very hard, often with limited recognition, resources and support. We hope that demonstrations of what’s working right as Jesus reestablishes His Kingdom here on Earth will motivate and inspire.
Unfortunately, there’s another set of stories we hear all too often…stories that led a group of leaders from my church to launch Key Ministry eleven-plus years ago. I’ve heard several of these “un-success” stories from families in the last week. I’ll share one that’s typical that a mom posting to our blog for the first time left yesterday in response to an older piece…
Thank you for this post. Twenty years ago I was told repeatedly by many people that I just needed to pray harder and that if my relationship with Jesus was better, my severe depression would be healed. I bought into that for awhile and did everything humanly possible to pray, study the Bible, go to church and so on. But my depression was not healed. I left the church for several years, but returned hoping that not all Cheistians thought that way. Of course, I also didn’t tell too many church friends about my mental illness.
Fast forward to the present. I now have 2 children with severe mental illness. Last year, my daughter was forced to join a Sunday School class in which she knew no other child. I tried in vain to explain that she had severe social anxiety and needed to be in a class where she had a friend. Because of that, she wasn’t happy in Sunday School and ended up quitting the children’s choir too. We hardly ever go to church any more. I write this with tears in my eyes because I want to find a church where my kids and I are accepted, and yes, even given “special” treatment from time to time. (One of the reasons the church wouldn’t let my daughter switch classes was that it wouldn’t be fair to other kids who want to be with their friends.) I am so close to just giving up on church.
I guess I got off topic of your blog post, but the idea of mental illness or any illness being caused by sin is still very prevalent in out churches, as is the idea that we should be able to pray it away.
The experiences our ministry team encounters that are the most difficult to overcome involve parents of children in distress who made reasonably modest suggestions to church staff or volunteers out of a desire to see their son or daughter included in age-appropriate church programming, only to encounter an inflexible or insensitive staff member, volunteer or church policy.
Obviously, churches need processes and procedures to keep weekend worship, Christian education and special events from descending into chaos. Church staff have a responsibility for maintaining ministry environments that are safe and welcoming to all children, but a little intentionality and thoughtfulness is generally sufficient for identifying the least restrictive, most appropriate ministry environment for a child or teen with need.
The accounts of Christ’s ministry from the Gospels demonstrate His intentionality in engaging with people around their deepest need and to craft a unique response in meeting their needs. There are lots of examples in Scripture, but consider Jesus’ encounter with Peter after the resurrection when Peter was still broken as a result of denying Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. There wasn’t going to be a “one size fits all” policy for the eleven remaining apostles…Peter would have a different path than John, consistent with his gifts and unique calling.
Here are three take-home points for our church friends in pastoral or leadership roles to consider…
- We need to be extremely cautious before suggesting to anyone that their (or their child’s) mental health condition is a result of sin, disobedience or a lack of faith. (Editor’s note: I do see situations in which patterns of sinful behavior precipitate or exacerbate symptoms associated with mental illness. With that said, we can’t presume to fully comprehend the mind of God in allowing specific people to experience suffering. We must also appreciate the severity of consequences if our assumptions are incorrect.)
- Policies and procedures are important, but senior leaders need to be empowered to exercise their judgment in accommodating kids and families when doing so doesn’t compromise the safety of other participants.
- Cultivating a culture of inclusion greatly reduces the pushback from church members and attendees when accommodations need to be made. Adults who value the imperative of including everyone with gifts and talents to contribute to the mission of the church can use the questions kids ask when peers are treated differently as “teachable moments.”
Key Ministry has assembled resources to help churches more effectively minister to children and adults with ADHD, anxiety disorders, Asperger’s Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, depression and trauma. Please share our resources with any pastors, church staff, volunteers or families looking to learn more about the influence these conditions can exert upon spiritual development in kids, and what churches can do to help!