The barriers to getting newcomers with mental illness connected at church…

AssimilationIn the second installment of our series, Ten Strategies for Promoting Mental Health Inclusion at Church, Steve looks at the challenges faced by families when visiting a church for the first time when one or more members of a family struggle with mental illness.

One challenge that my friends serving in staff positions at churches wrestle with on an ongoing basis is assimilation… helping newcomers and visitors to quickly become comfortable with and find their place in a local church. Helping people to get connected and to stay connected is vital if the church is to grow and, more importantly, is critical if the church is to serve as a catalyst to discipleship and spiritual growth.

For persons experiencing the effects of mental illness, the processes in place to facilitate assimilation may become insurmountable obstacles to church attendance, depending upon the nature or severity of their condition.

In an earlier post, we identified seven obstacles to church attendance when kids have mental illness. Those reasons are…

  • Social isolation
  • Capacity for social communication
  • Capacity for impulse control/emotional self-regulation
  • Sensory processing
  • Stigma
  • The fear of being singled out
  • Parents with mental illness

Let’s keep these challenges at the forefront of our minds as we start to consider all of the potential obstacles kids or their parents might experience at different points in your church’s assimilation process if they suffer from common mental health conditions.

I came across a great post from my Google search on assimilation in which David Zimmerman argued that the most pressing concern for a first time church visitor is that they do nothing to embarrass themselves during the service. How much more true would that be for an anxious parent? After all, people with anxiety are wired to overestimate the level of risk when entering a new situation. What concerns might a parent have if their child struggles with self-control or lacks good social skills?

Adults or kids with mental illness are more likely to experience distress from any component of your assimilation process that calls attention to them being different than everyone else in attendance. If members have name tags, do visitors have name tags? Are visitors singled out during the service?

Here’s an excellent resource on reaching and keeping church visitors from the folks at Fellowship One. They emphasize the role of greeters and the importance of making “real connections” with people. But what if a significant number of potential visitors have a condition resulting in intense distress at the prospect of interacting with unfamiliar people?

shutterstock_172332593Let’s say a single mom with social anxiety disorder wants to come to your church with her two school-age children. How many interactions will be required between the time she pulls into the church parking lot and when she sits down in her seat in your sanctuary or worship center? Depending upon the size of your church, she may encounter…

  • A parking lot attendant
  • A greeter (or greeters) upon entering the building
  • Someone at a kiosk or help center to find the children’s programming
  • A volunteer (or volunteers) at the children’s ministry registration/check-in area
  • A member of the children’s ministry staff
  • The ministry volunteer/leader responsible for each child’s class or breakout activity
  • The usher when she arrives at the sanctuary/worship center

None of this is bad…after all, many people come to church longing for relationship and human interaction and the model may work well for the vast majority of visitors. But what about the people for whom the prospect of running a social gauntlet is akin to pounding a square peg into a round hole? Is there a way of making available an alternative path…an accommodation available to those who need it?

shutterstock_118324816Let’s say that the single mom’s daughter struggles with separation anxiety, becoming very clingy and emotional during transitions when the child is required to leave her mother behind. Families in our practice have shared experiences of visiting churches where the pastor had a strong preference for school-age children to attend programming outside the worship center. How are your greeters, ushers and volunteers trained to respond when a parent seeks to enter the worship service with a visibly anxious child? When the child experiences acute distress at the prospect of leaving Mom behind for kids’ worship or Sunday school?

What about the family of a child who struggles with sensory processing? Is there a readily identifiable way to enter your church where they won’t be overwhelmed with sensory input? What will the child experience in terms of bright lights, loud music or visual stimulation in the environments in which you do children’s ministry. Persons with ADHD often experience distress in environments where multiple conversations are taking place in close proximity with lots of background noise…like church foyers or lobbies. We’ll talk more about sensory processing and ministry environments in a future post.

I threw out the examples above to illustrate a few of the challenges families face. What’s the next step for your church’s mental health inclusion team?

Each member of the team should review the seven obstacles to church attendance listed above and consider how key obstacles to engagement can be minimized or overcome for families of kids with common mental health concerns.

Could an anxious mother meet with ONE person prior to her initial visit who could handle children’s ministry registration and accompany her from the front door to a seat in the worship center?

f77fc902f0ffff8a9dc080bff842bdddHow can the children’s ministry team or student ministry team modify the environments in which they do ministry to be more sensory-friendly for a neurodiverse population? How do you include kids who have difficulty sitting still or controlling their temper?

What service activities might be a good fit for people who are uncomfortable in social situations? What’s the easiest way for them to register?

How do you include teens and adults who are shy or socially awkward into small groups if small groups are central to your church’s discipleship strategy?

How can your church introduce itself to people in your community more likely to be socially isolated and less likely to be connected to those who already attend your church?

As a help to your team, 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.

Next: Assessing your church’s web presence

shutterstock_24510829Key Ministry is pleased to make available our FREE consultation service to pastors, church leaders and ministry volunteers. Got questions about launching a ministry that you can’t answer…here we are! Have a kid you’re struggling to serve? Contact us! Want to kick around a problem with someone who’s “been there and done that?” Click here to submit a request!

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, Hidden Disabilities, Inclusion, Key Ministry, Mental Health, Resources and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The barriers to getting newcomers with mental illness connected at church…

  1. MaryB says:

    As someone with ADD and a history of anxiety/depression, I wish I could impress how simple and effective it is to clearly communicate traffic patterns, church campus and parking entrances and parking directions with signage–even mapped on websites. I’ve had this discussion with many friends and was relieved to learn I wasn’t alone but surprised that churches generally know about the issues but fail to address. I’ve visited churches and left before reaching the parking lot if the traffic was overly stimulating and the parking lot was confusing and poorly marked. I’ve turned around in a parking lot if I couldn’t find the correct entrance after parking and leaving my car. Imagine having a panic attack with a car of family, forcing yourself to go in while wanting to cry in the bathroom–avoidable with clear signs and a good map on a website. I’ve prioritized visiting churches over others because their websites and info provided clear campus maps for first-timers. I’ve found I’m not the only one–and I’m a committed, life-long church attendee who prioritizes the community component. I couldn’t imagine being new to the church experience–it almost wouldn’t be worth attending church in person.


    • drgrcevich says:

      Hi Mary,

      Thanks so much for your comments. I’m using your comments in an upcoming blog post that addresses the importance of signage at churches.


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