The elephant in the living room…Sin, mental illness and the church

The_Elephant_in_the_Room_Banksy-Barely_legal-2006When I was going through the family therapy component of my general psychiatry training and child psychiatry fellowship, one of the most commonly used metaphors in supervision was the “elephant in the living room.” We use this expression in reference to an obvious or overwhelming problem of which everyone is aware that is ignored or unaddressed.

We’ve seen an explosion in the development of “special needs ministry” in the last ten years…a awesome development that we as an organization are delighted to promote and support. But the development of disability ministry has focused almost exclusively on kids and adults with physical or intellectual disabilities…and the elephant in the living room for the church is that we appear to be far more interested in (and comfortable with) outreach to kids, teens and adults who we view as having little or no moral culpability for their disabilities and persons with emotional or behavioral problems are viewed differently as a result of the widely held perception among prominent church leaders that sin is the predominant cause of mental illness.

If we’re going to get serious about outreach to and inclusion of families impacted by mental illness, we can’t continue to ignore the elephant. We’ll be wrestling with the elephant on the blog this winter…and making available opportunities for you to come alongside us.

MartindaleOn Sunday, January 25, I’ll be teaching during the morning service at Martindale Christian Fellowship Church in Canton, OH on the topic… Is it a Sin to be Anxious? Our friends in Northeast Ohio and beyond are more than welcome to attend. We’ll find some way…either through text or video to make the content from that service available to our readers.

On that same day, we’re going to be launching a group study on Facebook that will expand upon the content discussed on the blog and promote online discussion and interaction. We’ll be diving into Scripture to see what we might learn through the experiences of key figures throughout the Bible who manifested signs or symptoms associated with common mental health conditions, supplemented by other readings and resources. If enough folks are interested, we’ll offer the opportunity to get together online for a video chat. Watch for registration information on our Facebook Page and our Front Door Online Church Facebook Page in the next few days. The group itself will be a PRIVATE group to facilitate authentic discussion/interaction, but participation is open to anyone who has “liked” either our Key Ministry or Front Door page.

danvp_avatarRunning parallel to this series will be another blog series authored by Dan Vander Plaats of Elim Christian Services. Dan spearheaded the development of a tool for Elim…The 5 Stages to help people, churches, and communities assess their own attitudes toward persons with disabilities using a simple diagnostic tool (the 5 Stages document) and to foster the full inclusion of people with disabilities into our churches and communities and to thereby support the Kingdom-building work of God. Dan is going to introduce us to and expand upon the 5 Stages in his blog series and I’ll be doing some commentary in which I’ll relate the 5 Stages to kids with mental illness, trauma and/or developmental disabilities and their families.

We’re looking forward to some thought-provoking study and conversation in the coming weeks! Hope you’ll join us.

Photo: By Bit Boy (Flickr: The Elephant in the Room) via Wikimedia Commons


KM Logo UpdatedKey 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!

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.
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6 Responses to The elephant in the living room…Sin, mental illness and the church

  1. Dianne says:

    This is so wrong. You just can’t go blaming every illness on the individual’s sin. Jesus Himself proved this in John 9 when the disciples ask why the man was sick – from his sin or the parents’ sin. Jesus answered neither. As someone who has dealt with my share of sickness, I have been blamed for contributing to it many times.

    Sugar causes cancer, deodorant causes cancer, bras cause cancer. Some of these are really ridiculous and if they were true, EVERYone would have cancer. Nope! It’s cells duplicating out of control.

    The same is true of mental illness. It’s the sin of anxiety. It’s the sin of selfishness. It’s not trusting enough. NOPE! It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain. Ask anyone with mental illness. If it could only be confessed away wouldn’t you think that would happen? If repenting would make it leave don’t you think we would all repent?

    The real sin here is not caring for those who are ill. The real sin is judging a brother or sister who is already suffering. It’s been said that Christianity is the only religion who shoots their wounded. Here we go again. Instead of placing blame on one’s illness shouldn’t we just care for him? Shouldn’t we extend mercy? Shouldn’t we give love? Show me an example of Jesus blaming anyone for their illness.


    • Sarah Broady says:

      Knowing the wonderful people behind this ministry, and based on other blog posts and conversations, I believe it’s safe to say that they are NOT saying mental illness IS caused by sin (necessarily.) They are saying that the “widely held perception among prominent church leaders that sin is the predominant cause of mental illness.” That is true. So many families have left church – and have led to this exact ministry because of it – because they were bullied in previous churches or by those who claimed to be Christians (who may be Christians, but very ignorant ones) who tried blaming their physical and/or mental suffering on sin, or not enough faith. But I don’t see that this is the perspective that Key Ministry has on mental illness at all. I know the people and I know about their families, and this is not something that they automatically blame on sin or lack of faith. I do think there MAY be certain circumstances that perhaps lead to or exacerbate illness, but those are very rare instances and definitely not the norm in the mental illness realm. I myself have chronic depression and major anxiety. Never once in my conversations with Key Ministry volunteers have I ever been accused of suffering due the consequences of my own sin. This is what they are trying to tackle with the “elephant in the room”. Mental illness as a sin consequence is still a huge issue in MANY churches, and disability ministries such as this one are working very hard to change those perspectives and help people truly understand disability and mental illness for what it really is – NOT simply a lack of faith.


  2. Jessica Hauf says:

    I truly believe that each circumstances is different. I believe sin was the cause in some situations in the bible…remember David? As with everything, we need to examine each situation and get to the root. And God can use it all for His glory. As believers we need to support each other and bring sin to light and allow God to work in every area of our lives. What is required is His spirit of discernment.


  3. Asandy says:

    My son was hit by a car when his grandmother was babysitting him…Because he suffered traumatic brain injuries and physical problems and was never “fully healed”, I took him to every prayer line for years and I heard so many “reasons” on why perhaps he isn’t healed even “God is probably allowing this because your husband isn’t save”. The last resort for me came when my pastor’s wife told me perhaps God allowed this to happen to my 2 year old is perhaps he would grow up to be bad, drunk and on drugs–Funny thing is my daughter was a straight A student and graduated college and that was due to the morals and strictness I raised her with and my son would have been a massive sinner that God would destroy his life, my life, and also I wonder since all three of her kids ended up on drugs and drunks they all live “disability free”. My last night of attending the church I grew up in was when a new couple with a older daughter in a wheel chair who was non-verbal mentally handicap, the parents went up for prayers and the daughter was making noise, not loud, plus there was music playing and she was nowhere near distracting, and the pastor went behind her and started rebuking the devil, they never returned. I am beyond distraught on the whole church thing and their views especially when they are allowed to make fun of the “short bus” and being retarded. I am angry in the sense that they don’t take the time to see a need that people are hurting, I am angry of those who pretend all is well and will ask my son how many girlfriends he has or just their ignorance in everything. I decided it was time to leave and search for God, to go back to the love and the fire I once had for him and seek him without the hindrance of opinions of people who have no business preaching and often times being left out because when I was asked what MY HEARTS DESIRES were was that I want to live longer than my son so I know he is safe in heaven and not left here on earth with savages and people who will take advantage. Its a sad, sad day when they claim the love of Jesus but act as nastier than the “unsaved”.


    • onemorewithus says:

      I am so, so sorry you had to endure such situation… Wow… Not in a million years + was any of that right. What a horrible thing to suggest to you (I speak of that pastor’s wife).
      I am so glad that Jesus is above her mistake towards you.
      His love for you, your son, your family is far deeper than words could express. That’s what should have been said to you. But you survived that terrible experience and today you are here, and His love for you continues to be enormous. I bet your son is a channel for Jesus glory, is what I think. And I bet Jesus holds him near His heart, is what I think. And I bet his prayers are sweet to His ears, is what I think 😉 Maybe he can pray for that woman? Job ended up praying for those who insulted him. How cool is that?


  4. Autism Mom says:

    I really wished that people that have no experience with disabilities, physical or intellectual, that have never been impacted would not throw rocks at us impacted by all the works of God.
    You are disqualified to comment unless you lived it or are living it…..
    God help those who judge without knowing


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