Discovering God’s Purposes in Mental Illness

Here’s a transcript of Dr. Grcevich’s teaching from the Sunday worship services at Fredericktown United Methodist Church in Fredericktown, Ohio, October 21st, 2018.

Thanks to Mary and Pastor Hasley for their gracious invitation for me to join you today! It’s probably safe to say that prior to today, the prospect of a child and adolescent psychiatrist teaching at your Sunday morning worship service was only slightly less bizarre than the thought of rearranging your work schedule to attend a victory parade in Downtown Cleveland in early February on the Wednesday after the Super Bowl.

Allow me to explain a little of how God arranged for our paths to cross today. Twenty years ago, a number of well-established families from our church adopted kids with very complex emotional, behavioral and developmental issues from orphanages in Russia and Bulgaria. I was at an elder meeting where our children’s ministry director spoke of the steps the staff was taking to help the families affected stay connected with church. None of the kids being served had obvious, outward signs of disability, but the severity of their behavior had become a major obstacle to their families in maintaining their involvement with the church.

I went back to my practice and found that many of the families of kids we were treating at that time were also experiencing significant limitations in their ability to maintain an active role in their churches. This really bothered me. Over the next few years, God opened lots of doors for me. I was involved with research that provided me the opportunity to travel widely. Wherever I went, I talked about the work our church back home was doing…and our church started getting LOTS of requests for help and support. As more and more folks recognized the need to help connect churches with families of kids with what we referred to as “hidden disabilities”, Key Ministry was launched sixteen years ago. We provide training, consultation, resources and support to churches and lots of encouragement and support to families of kids with a full range of disabilities. Over 17,000 parents follow our blogs and family support sites through Facebook, and we’re responsible for an online forum serving approximately 1,400 pastors and church leaders involved with every aspect of disability ministry. We’ll be hosting a large conference in Cleveland this coming April 5th and 6th, Inclusion Fusion Live for disability ministry leaders and families affected by disability from across the country. I’d be thrilled if a large contingent from your church would come.

Leaders from your church have been involved with a study of a book our ministry authored – Mental Health and the Church. The book presents a ministry model for churches seeking to become more intentional about welcoming children, teens and adults with common mental health conditions and their families. I don’t see our role as the church as being the place folks turn to for a cure for their mental health conditions so much as that this church, and churches like yours everywhere would be places where we can help our friends and neighbors who are struggling to find friendship, encouragement and support while they come to know and experience Jesus.

What I sense God wants me to do today is to help those of you who have struggled personally as a result of a mental health condition… anxiety, depression, ADHD, a mood disorder, an eating disorder or some other condition to consider God’s purposes in allowing you or a loved one to experience that condition. For the rest of you without personal experience of mental illness, I’m going to challenge you to consider how God may want to use you to share his love and his Gospel with individuals and families who are affected by a mental health condition.

I want to begin with a brief passage of Scripture today that will lend much to our understanding of God’s purpose in allowing so many who he loves -both inside and outside of the church – to experience mental illness.  From John 9:1-3:

As he (Jesus) passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

In the First Century, the natural assumption of the typical Jewish person upon encountering someone with a significant disability would be that their disability was a direct consequence of personal sin. There are many Old Testament passages…and a couple of New Testament passages as well that can be easily interpreted to support that line of thinking. In that way, the attitudes and responses of many Christians in the 21st Century to persons with mental health conditions are strikingly similar to those of the residents of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time.

We as a church have a problem when it comes to mental illness. In 2018 it’s still very common in many Christian traditions for pastors and other church leaders to default to the assumption assume that mental illness is a direct result of personal sin. While there are situations in which mental health issues arise as a consequence of behavior the Bible labels as sinful – for example, it’s not uncommon for me to see teens in my practice become depressed or develop suicidal thinking or behavior after violating Biblical limits on sexual behavior – we need to be VERY careful before assuming that someone’s mental health struggles are a result of sinful behavior.

We’re also pretty inept at supporting our brothers and sisters in Christ with the encouragement and support they need when they experience a mental health condition that causes them to question the depth of their faith. I’ve found the Christian who finds himself or herself unable to pray away their depression or the person who concludes that their anxiety is a direct consequence of the insufficiency of their trust in God often experience a sense of pain and despair far beyond that of the non-believers who experience similar conditions.

We know that statistically speaking, many persons suffering from common mental health conditions turn first to their pastors and to their churches in search of help. Dr. Matthew Stanford of Baylor University published a study demonstrating that for too many individuals, those experiences become more of a hindrance than a help.  30% of attendees who sought help from their church for themselves or a family member because of a mental health condition reported negative interactions counterproductive to treatment. Many people – especially women are told they don’t have a mental health disorder or discouraged from taking medication prescribed for their mental health condition. Study participants described feeling abandoned by their churches. One in seven said their faith was weaker after approaching their church. One in eight quit attending church completely!

A recent study conducted by Lifeway Research and Focus on the Family reported that 55% of adults surveyed who don’t regularly attend church DISAGREED with the statement “If I had a mental health issue, I believe most churches would welcome me.”

As I shared earlier, I got involved with this ministry because of my concern that the families served by my practice like were much less likely to attend church because of the problems resulting from their child’s mental health condition. Dr. Andrew Whitehead from Clemson University published a study several months ago looking at the impact of disability upon church attendance from the National Survey of Children’s Health. He noted that kids with the following conditions were significantly more likely to report never having attended church…

  • Children with autism spectrum disorders are 1.84 times more likely to never attend church.
  • Children with depression are 1.73 times more likely to never attend church.
  • Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder are 1.48 times more likely to never attend church.
  • Children with anxiety are 1.45 times more likely to never attend church.
  • Kids with ADD/ADHD were 1.19 times more likely to never attend church.

When it comes to kids and mental health, we’re often quick to assume that kids who struggle to control their emotions or behavior have parents who lack the dedication or commitment to discipline their children appropriately.

Many years ago, the church my home church hosted a special Disability Sunday service in which a couple came forward to share their experiences in looking for a church in suburban Cleveland for their family when their two young sons who had pretty severe ADHD. She summarized their experience with the following observation…

“People in the church think they can tell when a disability ends, and bad parenting begins.”

One of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard in my thirty-odd years of practice involved a family who came from out of state after their primary care physician paid their travel expenses. The parents had recently adopted a five-year-old boy with severe ADHD and an extensive trauma history. The father was fired from his job as the senior pastor of their church after their newly adopted son punched the son of an elder and the church’s board concluded the child’s behavior disqualified the pastor for his role.

Why is it so difficult for individuals and families affected by mental illness to attend worship services and other common church activities? I’d argue that there are certain attributes associated with common mental health conditions that make it difficult for persons affected to meet the expectations in a typical church culture for conduct and social interaction. I’ll give you an example…

We know that many persons with anxiety are predisposed to greatly overestimate the risks of entering into new or unfamiliar situations. One in fifteen adults experience Social Anxiety Disorder, a condition characterized by persistent fear of embarrassing and humiliating themselves in social situations in which they are exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. Think about all the challenges that a mother of a child with an anxiety disorder who herself experiences social anxiety might encounter if they decide to come here to church for the first time some Sunday morning!

There are other barriers that individuals and families with mental illness are likely to face in attending church. We’ve already touched on stigma. Social communication can be a struggle for many. Churches are intensely social places. Someone with a condition that causes them to struggle to process body language as well as voice tone and inflection is at a distinct disadvantage. The level of sensory stimulation may be overwhelming for some persons with common mental health conditions. Mental illness produces social isolation. Some people isolate themselves as a result of their condition. Persons with depression may fall away from church, Bible study or small groups. Families of kids with serious emotional or behavioral disturbances may not have relationships with other families to invite them to church.

Mental illness runs in families. If a parent can’t attend church as a result of mental illness, all of their kids will likely miss out on the experience of church. The likelihood a young adult will be a regular church attender if they don’t attend regularly as a teenager is 3% If we don’t act to include children and adults with mental health issues at church, multiple generations will likely be lost!

I hope that we can all agree that this is not part of God’s plan. Scripture is clear that God’s intent is for all to be saved and for all to be part of a local gathering of believers. Scripture is also clear that everyone is given gifts from God intended for the benefit of the church as a whole. When anyone with gifts intended for the body is excluded, the church is less than God created it to be.

So…what is God’s purpose in allowing mental illness, and why might God choose not to affirmatively respond to the sincere prayers of someone who is hurting and in need of healing?

Here are four ideas…

  1. God uses the discomfort and distress associated with our experience of mental illness to draw us into a closer relationship with him.

Rhett Smith is a pastor and counselor who wrote a book titled – The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? The central hypothesis of the book is that if our anxiety becomes an impetus for us to turn to God, to deepen our relationship with God or to become more dependent upon God, then God’s purposes are fulfilled.

Go back through Scripture and take a look at what godly people do in response to the distress. In Psalm 102, the psalmist (possibly David) cries out to God when afflicted with symptoms consistent with depression. When the Prophet Elijah was filled with fear, fleeing from Jezebel after destroying the prophets of Baal, he turned to God in prayer (1 Kings 19) and God responded by comforting him and ushering him into an extended time of communion in preparation for the next phase of his ministry. What did Jesus do in his greatest moments of distress? He turned to his father in prayer!

If God valued being in relationship with each of us so much that sent his son to suffer horribly and to die to make that relationship possible, God’s likely to place a greater priority upon that relationship than upon our immediate comfort. If our experience of mental illness or our experience of a loved one with mental illness drives us into a deeper relationship with God, that’s a good thing from God’s perspective.

  1. God may use the experience of mental illness to cultivate within us a greater awareness of his sovereignty and an ability to manifest contentment in the midst of our distress that presents an unmistakable witness to his power and character.

John Piper has said that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Is it possible that God may choose not to relieve our suffering associated with mental illness because our ability to demonstrate contentment and joy in the face of suffering is when the works of God are most on display in us?

You’ve probably come across this verse before from Philippians 4:6-7

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Paul was writing this letter to the church at Philippi while he was under house arrest, most likely chained to a Roman soldier. The theme that runs throughout the entire letter is Paul’s overwhelming sense of contentment in the knowledge that God was in control of his circumstances. This was written by the same guy who five to seven years before when he was writing to the Corinthians spoke of burdens so severe that he “despaired of life itself.” Paul never promises that the anxiety described in Philippians 4 will be taken away. What he is promising through our prayers is the sense of peace that comes from the recognition that God is in control of all things and submitting to his will.

  1. God may use people with firsthand experience of mental illness to comfort and minister to others who are affected. Check out 2 Corinthians 1:3-7:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.[a] If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

I had an opportunity last month to meet Kay Warren for the first time. Talk about a family with a devastating experience! I can’t imagine the pain Kay and Rick experienced after losing their young adult son Matthew to suicide after many years of therapy and multiple hospitalizations for mental health concerns. But God has seen fit to use them to launch a mental health ministry through Saddleback Church with the potential to impact untold numbers of families affected by mental illness. Almost everyone I know in mental health ministry has had some personal or family experience with mental illness that guides and shapes the ministry they offer to others.

Finally, is it possible that God might be using mental health concerns as an instrument for bringing about the salvation of those affected? What if God plans to use someone’s mental health condition…or the condition of a loved one as the means of connecting them with individuals and churches positioned to introduce them to the Gospel?

What might that mean for your church?

It might mean developing an overarching strategy for welcoming and including individuals and families affected by mental illness into all of your church’s ministries.

It might mean considering how the new spaces for ministry being created through your construction project might be sensory-friendly. Sensory processing differences are common in persons with anxiety disorders and ADHD in addition to being an issue for many persons with autism.

It will likely lead to a plan to include them in your small groups, and to ensure there are small group leaders trained to disciple and support them.

It will involve giving folks permission to talk about mental illness…and letting families affected by mental illness in the surrounding community know they’re welcome here. You’re off to a great start by inviting me! In the study referenced earlier from Lifeway Research and Focus on the Family, the most frequently expressed desire of church members with mental illness and their family members was to hear their pastors preach more frequently on mental health-related concerns.

It will mean providing tangible and practical help to address the needs of children and adults with common mental health conditions who are already part of your church and those without a church but are living in the surrounding community. That help might include…

  • Taking a casserole to a family when their child or their mother or father is admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
  • Having different couples in your small group take turns providing in home respite care and support to a family of a child with serious emotional or behavioral challenges who can’t find babysitters or appropriate child care so that the parents might enjoy an evening out or some quiet time together…or supporting families serving in foster care or families who have adopted children who struggle with emotions or self-control in the aftermath of significant trauma or neglect.
  • Maintaining an up to date list of mental health service providers to families in need or providing short-term financial assistance to individuals and families unable to access mental health care.
  • Offering someone who understands education law to attend school meetings with parents of children with mental health conditions to help them get the necessary accommodations and supports necessary to learn to their level of ability.

It may mean that your church begins to host educational or support groups for individuals and families in your area affected by mental illness. We work with a couple of awesome ministries…Mental Health Grace Alliance and Fresh Hope – that offer a variety of group models for churches seeking to care for and support persons in their communities with common mental health conditions or past experiences of trauma.

It may mean someone in your church volunteers to serve as a mental health liaison… a point person for including an individual or family into the life of the church who needs a little extra help in joining activities designed to help them grow in faith.

It also means that many of you are going to need to step up and embrace a role in ministry with persons with mental illness. Your pastor and church staff likely have more on their plates already than they can reasonably be expected to handle. Are you ready to “be the church” as opposed to being someone who goes to church?

Let me ask you some uncomfortable questions! It’s what I do at my “day” job.

How important is your faith in Jesus to you? Important enough for you to NEED to share it with someone else?

How important has your church been in helping you to come to faith and grow in your faith? Important enough that you want other people you know…friends, neighbors, people you know from work or school, extended family – to have a similar experience?

Important enough that you’re prepared to take seriously the Great Commission to go and make disciples? To not be content with simply putting your tithe or offering in the collection plate and paying the staff of your church, or supporting some individuals or ministries to do it?

So, if your relationship with Jesus is important enough to you that you want others to experience the peace, comfort and joy that you have experienced, how might you allow God to use you so that the works of God might be displayed through you – and through the people who come to experience Christ through you?

Consider who God has placed in your life who is affected by mental illness who needs to know Jesus and needs the care and support of a loving church family. Consider how you might help them to experience the love of Christ. Consider how you might welcome them into the ministries of your church.

When I wrote the book on mental health inclusion with the help and support of our ministry team that some of you have been studying in recent weeks, I listed seven broad strategies for welcoming children and adults with mental illness and their families into the church. If I had a “do-over,” I’d include an eighth strategy. The eighth strategy would sound something like this…

Most children and adults with common mental health conditions can participate in most activities at church if they’re accompanied by a trusted person to help them know what to expect and help them to fit in without drawing attention to themselves.

Invite them to church. Make introductions. Be their friend in youth group. Offer to babysit their kid when you know their child is too much for the typical teenager to handle. Take them a casserole when their child gets admitted to the hospital or when they’re busy transporting a family member to outpatient treatment several days a week.

Who do you know who is affected by mental illness and doesn’t yet know Jesus? Here’s my challenge to you. Reach out to at least one person or one family this week and invite them to church or do something for them as a tangible expression of Jesus’ love.

Small things done with great love will change the world. And allow the works of God to be placed on display!

If you’d like to learn more about our ministry, or if you know of churches and families who might benefit from what we offer, please, don’t be strangers and check us out! Can I close by praying for you guys and for your church?

In Mental Health and the Church: A Ministry Handbook for Including Children and Adults with ADHD, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, and Other Common Mental Health Conditions, Dr. Stephen Grcevich presents a simple and flexible model for mental health inclusion ministry for implementation by churches of all sizes, denominations, and organizational styles. The book is also designed to be a useful resource for parents, grandparents and spouses seeking to promote the spiritual growth of loved ones with mental illness. Available now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, ChristianBook and other fine retailers everywhere.

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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