Mental health inclusion…creating more welcoming ministry environments

shutterstock_2619595In the fourth installment of our series, Ten Strategies for Promoting Mental Health Inclusion at Church, Steve shares a number of ideas for churches seeking to create more welcoming ministry environments for kids, teens and adults with common mental health conditions.

Form follows function. That’s the extent of my knowledge about interior design.

When a church decides to build a new facility or renovate space used for ministry, form should follow function. Much as your local grocery store or clothing store are designed to draw shoppers is to merchandise the store wants to feature, many churches are designed to draw the attention of visitors and church members to information and experiences determined by leadership to be most important in helping people to come to faith and grow in faith.

IMG_0695Our ministry team had many “spirited” discussions in the past arising from my interest in serving “megachurches” with contemporary music, nonexistent dress codes, comfortable seating and openness to worshipers coming to church with coffee (or in one case, Diet Mountain Dew Code Red). What I had difficulty verbalizing at the time is that the environments these churches were creating might be more “friendly” to the families of kids with “hidden disabilities” we were seeking to serve. I remember coming away from a visit to one of the North Point Ministries campuses in Atlanta thinking that the place had been intentionally designed to welcome visitors with ADHD.

I’m not making a value judgment about one style of church design or worship center vs. another. The architecture and design of many churches reflects an conscious act of worship reflecting the congregation at the time of the church’s construction. Regardless of your church’s architecture and design, every church can make a conscious effort to make their ministry environments more friendly to kids and teens with common mental health conditions and their families.

If we use the Mayo Clinic definition of mental illness as mental health conditions — disorders that affect mood, thinking and behavior, let’s look at how children, teens and adults with mental illness might be challenged by your church’s ministry environments.

  • They may struggle more than your typical attendee to maintain appropriate focus and attention.
  • They may have more difficulty prioritizing the most important takeaways from teaching or instruction offered at church
  • They may have more difficulty processing and remembering sequences of directions.
  • They may process sensory differently than other attendees
  • Their capacity for self-control may be more easily compromised than same-age peers

Consider your church’s teaching environments where large and small groups gather…

Is there anything in that environment that distracts attendees from the teaching or content you’re wanting them to grasp?  Consider the following…

  • Windows (could curtains or blinds minimize distraction during teaching activities?)
  • Wall decorations/artwork… Check out this post describing a study on how wall decorations in a classroom for young children impact learning.
  • Objects in the pew/seating areas
  • Seating comfort (my church rearranged temporary seating in our contemporary worship space to increase the number of aisle seats by 50%)
  • Room temperature
  • Ambient sound

Before making changes in your ministry environments, consider who might be adversely affected by the change. Stained glass and artwork in the sanctuary might be essential for helping some people in your church to prepare their hearts and minds for worship, etc.

Many kids, teens and adults experience challenges with information processing and memory. As many parents of kids (and spouses of adults) with ADHD will attest, getting them to remember more than one thing at a time is a challenge! Pastors and teachers might consider the following…

  • How do we emphasize the single biggest point we want to communicate in any teaching or sermon?
  • How do our audiovisual materials support the message we want to communicate?
  • Would a study guide be helpful for accompanying the message/teaching?
  • Are the sermon notes/teaching/slides easily accessible following the event? Listening to the pastor/teacher while taking good notes is a challenge for many with mental health conditions.

SUopenhouse081Signage is an important component of any review of ministry environments. Are directions clear and simple? Do they avoid “insider lingo?” For example, a visitor to my church wouldn’t know that our large group children’s ministry is “Upstreet” or that “Circle of Friends” is our special needs ministry. Here’s a comment one of our blog readers shared recently addressing the importance of good signage…

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.

Sensory processing disorder is not currently recognized as a stand-alone medical condition, but sensory processing difficulties are common among children and teens with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD and anxiety disorders. Estimates suggest that 5% or more of children and teens in the U.S. experience significant functional impairment as a result of sensory processing.

shutterstock_151284752Kids with sensory processing differences are overly sensitive to sound, light, touch and taste than their same-age peers. They often experience difficulty with gross and fine motor coordination. They may be very particular about the feel of clothes against their skin, may overreact when touched by others, and often experience loud noise or potent smells (perfume or cologne) as noxious. They often experience more difficulties with sensory processing…and more distress in unfamiliar environments.

Consider the following ideas for making your church more “sensory-friendly”…

Entrances…Can you designate a “sensory-friendly” entrance/exit for families in which one or more members experience atypical sensory processing?

Lighting…Are there ministry areas in which fluorescent lighting can be replaced by incandescent or natural lighting? One small study demonstrated increases in stereotypic behavior in kids with autism spectrum disorders in the presence of fluorescent lighting.

shutterstock_173700593Sound…Is the decibel level at which your sound systems are programmed distressing to some visitors? Are there public environments where members and visitors can converse with less ambient noise before and after worship services? A person with ADHD may have more difficulty conversing with a member of your welcome team in an environment where several other conversations are taking place in close proximity.

Here’s a post we shared last year on how sensory processing may present a significant barrier to church attendance. We’d also like to share a great checklist for leaders serving in children’s ministry or youth ministry that’s helpful in resourcing your ministry environments for kids with sensory processing differences. This checklist includes sensory-friendly seating and other resources that may be helpful for children.

Finally, I’d encourage you to review your ministry environments to identify factors that might overstimulate kids who struggle with self-control.

Most kids who struggle with executive functioning are capable of controlling their behavior and managing the ways in which they express emotions but they need to expend more mental effort to do so than another child of the same age. In the presence of too much sensory stimulation, they expending mental resources processing the sensory content of their immediate environment and have less capacity for self-control.

f77fc902f0ffff8a9dc080bff842bdddLet’s apply this concept to ministry environments…For kids with executive functioning weaknesses, their risk for becoming aggressive will be reduced during predictable and familiar routines. As their environment becomes more chaotic, noisy, disorganized and unpredictable, their resources for maintaining self-control become more limited.

Here’s an earlier post we shared on when kids are at most risk of aggressive behavior at church. Your mental health inclusion team may want to look at…

  • Adult supervision in children’s/student ministry environments during transitions immediately before and after worship services.
  • Visual stimulation in children’s/student ministry areas. One church where our team consulted a number of years ago experienced a significant reduction in critical incidents after repainting the walls in their children’s ministry area, replacing vibrant, primary colors with jewel tones.
  • Alternative activities/environments for kids who struggle with self-control during high-energy activities.
  • Establishing an identified quiet place (if space is available) where kids and families can go when they struggle to control behavior or emotions.

This discussion is not meant to be all-inclusive. The more your team understands the day to day challenges of kids and adults with common mental health conditions, the more insightful you’ll become about challenges presented by the ministry environments offered by your church. Please make use of the “Past Blog Series” resources available in the right hand column of this blog for more specific ideas on environmental interventions for specific mental health conditions.


grcevichMissed the interview Vangie Rodenbeck did with Steve on Mental Illness and the Church? Check out their entire interview here. Vangie and Steve discussed…

  • The biggest obstacles children and adults with mental illness face in attending church
  • Why family ministry approaches make sense in implementing intentional mental health inclusion in your church
  • The available research on how churches are doing in supporting families impacted by mental illness
  • Helpful resources for those involved in children’s ministry, youth ministry and family ministry in better serving families in your church and your surrounding community impacted by mental illness.


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 Advocacy, Hidden Disabilities, Inclusion, Key Ministry, Mental Health, Ministry Environments, Strategies and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.