Disability ministry will become essential to the church’s witness in the 2020s

This post in the first in a series examining ten disability ministry trends to watch in the coming decade. Today Dr. Grcevich will explore the forces that will propel ministry with the vulnerable – highlighted by ministry with persons with disabilities – to the forefront of the church’s public witness.

Compared to a lot of my friends involved with ministry, I get to spend much of my time at work surrounded by colleagues who are either indifferent or openly hostile to the claims of Christianity. I’m a member of the least religious medical specialty. And let’s just say that academic medicine isn’t exactly enthusiastic about people like me. Over time, the one thing that I’ve found will make people in my workspace take notice of my faith in a positive light is the support provided to kids and families with disabilities passing through their clinics by churches Key Ministry works with. I’d argue that involvement with disability ministry is one of the most powerful witnesses churches can present to segments of society most likely to view Christianity with skepticism.

It’s been nearly five years since I wrote about my friend Ethan, an extraordinarily gifted child psychologist who died tragically in his late 30s of a ruptured aortic aneurysm. We became friends out of mutual respect for the care we provided to the patients we held in common. Otherwise, we had nothing in common. Ethan was passionately progressive in his politics, a graduate of the University of Michigan and a self-proclaimed atheist. We had two other Christian friends in common – one who started a ministry to incorporate the gospel message into free, evidence-based social skill training with kids with autism spectrum disorders and another serving as executive director of a faith-based international hosting program for orphaned children.

As Ethan became aware of our work through Key Ministry and the ministries of our two mutual friends, he clearly became more curious about Christianity. The concept of 200 churchgoers giving up a weekend night to care for kids with special emotional, behavioral and medical needs didn’t fit with his previous understanding of evangelicals. He offered to help our ministry with any training needs that might arise. He accepted an invitation to join the Board of the autism center. Our last conversation occurred when he was called in to help after kids on an outdoor camping experience sponsored by a Christian organization witnessed the death of a peer during a severe weather event. He wanted to better understand how Christians might process traumatic events like this one. I don’t know whether he made a profession of faith before he died, but the witness of our professional friends unquestionably impacted him.

Disability ministry also demonstrates the authenticity of our faith to children and youth currently attending church and represents one approach to recapturing influence among young adults who were raised in the church, but no longer attend. Early last year, LifeWay Research released results of a survey examining the reasons why two-thirds of teens raised in the church stop attending regularly as young adults.

An active and vital disability ministry directly addresses several common criticisms of young adults who have left the church – it demonstrates integrity with the Gospel message, provides opportunity for connection both with persons being served by the ministry along with others involved with serving and addresses unmet social needs.

This past weekend, I was involved as a volunteer as our church hosted our first ever Night to Shine prom for teens and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

When the video was shared during worship this morning, our pastor commented on how nice it was that the church was getting positive media coverage. I’d argue that the coverage for Night to Shine (with thirteen churches hosting in our region) represented the single most positive publicity for the evangelical church across Northeast Ohio of the entire year.

The church will be seeking to advance the Gospel in the presence of an increasingly hostile culture during the decade to come. If caring for individuals and families with disabilities can get people in my line of work to take notice, our witness will be impactful among those  more open to the claims of Christianity.


Inclusion Fusion Live (#IFL2020) is the largest disability ministry conference in the United States. Pastors, ministry leaders, families and caregivers from throughout the U.S. and beyond will gather in Cleveland on April 24-25 to share encouragement and ideas for welcoming and serving individuals with disabilities and their families. Ministry intensives offer in-depth training on special needs ministry, mental health ministry and trauma. Choose a MINISTRY TRACK or a FAMILY TRACK to select from over 50 workshops representing ministry-focused and family-focused topics. Either ticket will give you access to all main stage presentations including our featured speakers, numerous quick takes (TED Talk-style presentations), and worship. Early bird pricing is available. To learn more or to register, click here.

Posted in Key Ministry, Special Needs Ministry | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ten disability ministry trends to watch in the 2020s

When our team sat down in 2010 to engage in the planning process that led to the creation of this blog and all the other resources we make available to churches and families, we had some ideas about the direction disability ministry might take in the 2010s. In retrospect, God was clearly at work laying the foundation of a disability ministry movement with a scope and impact far greater than anything we could have imagined at the time. The last ten years have been characterized by:

  • A massive increase in the number of churches actively pursuing some type of intentional disability ministry.
  • Many large, influential churches embracing different types of disability ministry.
  • Disability ministry training is more available – Live training events are becoming far more numerous and accessible, while we have experienced a proliferation of online resources for pastors and other church leaders seeking to start or grow ministries.
  • Ministry leaders have become far more connected to one another and are making use of their connections for idea-sharing and support.
  • Widespread recognition of the need for ministry strategies for welcoming and including individuals and families impacted by mental illness and the growth of ministries helping churches provide Christian-based mental health education and support.
  • An explosion of Christian parents with books, blogs and social media presence offering encouragement and support while increasing awareness in the church of the needs of families impacted by disability.
  • Events such as Night to Shine that have engaged hundreds of churches and drawn attention to the ministry needs of adults with intellectual disabilities.
  • Substantial progress in inclusion of kids with intellectual disabilities and their families since the beginning of the decade so that their attendance at worship services is no longer statistically different than the general population.

The beginning of a new decade has provided our team with an impetus to brainstorm what the next ten years of disability ministry might look like as we develop a plan for 2020 and beyond. Today, I’ll share a non-exhaustive list of ten predictions for how the disability ministry field might evolve and grow over the next ten years. This list will serve as an introduction to a series of posts over the next few months in which we’ll do a deeper dive into each trend.

  1. The church’s care for vulnerable people will grow in importance as a strategy for gospel witness in a culture becoming increasingly hostile and skeptical to traditional Christianity.
  2. Disability ministry will be less ’siloed” – less of a stand-alone ministry and more of a collaboration with all of the essential ministries within the church.
  3. Live disability ministry training will become much more available – through seminaries, churches and parachurch organizations.
  4. Radical expansion of ministry with individuals and families impacted by “hidden disabilities” – this expansion will include mental health ministry and will ultimately encompass senior adults with memory loss and persons of all ages experiencing consequences related to trauma.
  5. The terms “special needs ministry” and “inclusion ministry” will slowly fall out of use.
  6. Ministry in the 2020s will be characterized by an expanded focus on care and support of families impacted by disability.
  7. Euthanasia of the disabled will become the pro-life cause of the mid 21st century.
  8. Disability inclusion in Christian schools will become much more common.
  9. The historically African-American church will play an increasingly prominent role in advancing the disability ministry movement.
  10. More ministry will take place by the end of 2030 with less funding available than exists in 2020.

What trends would you add to this list? Any items on the list that you disagree with? Feel free to engage with us and one another in the comments section below, on Facebook or Twitter or in the Special Needs and Disability Ministry Leaders group that we moderate on Facebook.


Consider joining us in Cleveland on April 24th and 25th for Inclusion Fusion Live, Key Ministry’s national disability ministry conference. Pastors, ministry leaders and families from around the country are coming together to be encouraged and equipped to better serve families affected by disability who attend their churches. Ministry intensives are offered on starting a special needs ministry, developing a mental health inclusion ministry and ministering with persons with a history of trauma. Choose a MINISTRY TRACK or a FAMILY TRACK to select from over 50 workshops representing ministry-focused and family-focused topics. Either ticket will give you access to all main stage presentations including our featured speakers, numerous quick takes (TED Talk-style presentations), and worship. Early bird pricing is available. To learn more or to register, click here.


Posted in Hidden Disabilities, Key Ministry, Mental Health, Special Needs Ministry | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

My day at the White House

It was a delight to run into Janet Parshall – a true champion for persons impacted by mental illness in the church – at the White House Summit

I was honored to have been invited this past Thursday to participate in the White House’s Mental Health Summit. I suspect the invitation resulted from our ministry’s involvement in a unique project intended to help churches and other places of worship better care for and support individuals and families impacted by mental illness.

For the past two years we’ve had the opportunity to participate (together with faith leaders and mental heath professionals from a broad array of religious traditions) in an advisory group established by the Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives (The Partnership Center) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

This group is a small component of a much larger effort initiated by a law passed at the end of the previous administration – The 21st Century Cures Act. Through this Act (Public Law 114-255), the Interdepartmental Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee (ISMICC) was established to make recommendations for actions that federal departments can take to better coordinate the administration of mental health services for adults with a serious mental illness or children with a serious emotional disturbance.

The leaders serving on ISMICC had come to recognize the large body of evidence supporting the idea that religious belief is associated with significantly better mental health outcomes. From a 2015 review article on the subject:

In general, studies of subjects in different settings (such as medical, psychiatric, and the general population), from different ethnic backgrounds (such as Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, and Native American), in different age groups (young, middle-aged, and elderly), and in different locations (such as the United States and Canada, Europe, and countries in the East) find that religious involvement is related to better coping with stress and less depression, suicide, anxiety, and substance abuse.

The Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives established the advisory group in part to help government officials better understand the role faith-based groups and leaders assume in the continuum of care for persons struggling with, and in recovery from severe mental illness and how the faith community can play a greater role in supporting affected children, adults and their families. The group has also been charged with developing a nationwide learning community of faith-based leaders to share the work being done in mental health ministry. What I’ve found most valuable are the incredible opportunities to network with other ministry leaders (especially within the African-American community) doing great work that our team wasn’t aware of.

Our group was also set up to help churches and other places of worship access available grants and resources for mental health education and support. One focus is on helping churches and other places of worship obtain training in Mental Health First Aid and Trauma-Informed Care. The Partnership is in the process of developing a Mental Health Resource list across different denominations and faith traditions. They are also hosting monthly webinars addressing mental health in partnership with faith communities. I had the opportunity to participate in a November webinar with Jolene Philo and Katie DonahueNavigating the Holiday Season: A Roadmap for Supporting Families Experiencing Mental Illness.

The Summit itself was a great networking opportunity. I made new friends who will help support the work of our ministry in the year ahead. I was also impressed by the number of senior government officials who took part. Two cabinet secretaries (Alex Azar and Ben Carson) took part in the meeting, along with the Counselor to the President (Kellyanne Conway). We also had an unexpected visitor. I can’t help but think their participation is an indication of the importance the U.S. government is placing on supporting individuals and families impacted by mental illness.

My biggest takeaways… regardless of your view of the President, there are a lot of very good people at all levels of government who are highly committed to supporting children and adults with mental illness and their families. I found the government’s interest in partnering with churches, other places of worship and the law enforcement and judicial systems to find solutions quite remarkable. I’m grateful to the team at the Partnership Center and the White House staff responsible for the Summit for extending me an invitation.


Key Ministry’s work is accomplished on a very modest budget. Additional funding in 2020 is necessary for our ministry staff and volunteers to travel to more ministry conferences and training events and to ensure that our educational resources to get into the hands of more pastors and church leaders and provide Biblically-based encouragement and support to more families impacted by disabilities. Your prayers and financial support are much appreciated. You can click here to provide a secure donation to our ministry or contribute surcharge-free by making a gift to Dr. Grcevich’s Facebook fundraiser on behalf of Key Ministry.

Best Wishes to all of our ministry followers for a Merry Christmas and a Blessed and Joyous New Year!


Posted in Advocacy, Key Ministry, Mental Health | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Giving thanks for Key Ministry’s most impactful year to date


JanetI think my favorite part of my job with Key Ministry is affording other people opportunities to use their gifts and talents to honor and serve God.

That’s a lot of what we do – giving pastors, ministry leaders and volunteers the tools, resources, relationships and platforms to connect churches and families impacted by disability for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ. In 2019, we enjoyed  unprecedented opportunities to advance the cause of disability ministry.

Here are some highlights from this past year…

We’ve seen churches successfully implement mental health inclusion strategies following training and consultation we’ve provided. It’s been especially gratifying to see churches take concrete steps to reach out to and include families in their local communities impacted by mental illness. Our training has been especially well-received. Over 200 staff and volunteers turned out at Lakewood Church in Houston on a Saturday morning for an event this past March.


In May, we were honored to be part of a meeting at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington with approximately 50 faith leaders advising Federal officials on resources the government might provide to churches and other houses of worship seeking to support individuals and families impacted by mental illness. Great relationships were formed! We were part of a nationwide webcast on navigating the holiday season sponsored by the HHS Office of Faith-Based Partnerships on November 12th.


We had unprecedented opportunities to educate pastors, church leaders, volunteers and professionals in 2019. Members of our staff traveled to seven different states (Georgia, Florida, Kansas, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia) for conferences and other training events. Beth Golik represented the ministry well at the Wonderfully Made Conference in Overland Park, KS this past October.


We were invited for the first time to present at the American Association of Christian Counselors World Conference this past October in Nashville. It was certainly our first opportunity to speak on the same program as the U.S. Secretary of State!


I had the opportunity to serve as the keynote speaker at Mental Health and the Church, a half-day conference hosted by Winebrenner Theological Seminary on the campus of the University of Findlay. our first-ever training event hosted by a seminary. We’d love to be part of more events in the future. The turnout was double what the organizers hoped for, and a reflection of the interest in mental health ministry. Looks like this conference will be an annual event!


November also marked our first ever training on a college campus held expressly for students in the doctoral program in psychology at Regent University in Virginia Beach. A visit to the CBN campus was an added benefit to the visit where we had the opportunity to shoot some video for future CBN News broadcasts highlighting the struggles of persons with disabilities in the church.


We had many opportunities in this past year to increase awareness about the needs of persons with disabilities in the church. Our interview on In the Market with Janet Parshall was heard on over 500 stations nationwide. Segments on Washington Watch were broadcast to listeners of over 300 stations. We contributed to regular features on the Moody Radio affiliate in Cleveland. We were also honored to serve as regular contributors to the website of the ERLC (Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) of the Southern Baptist Convention, offering us an opportunity to distribute resources and content to the churches of America’s second largest denomination.


Tens of thousands of families have been encouraged by the resources created by our team of 30 volunteer authors and writers. Our online groups serve over 1,800 disability and mental health ministry leaders. Our staff has responded to 185 requests thus far in 2019 for consultation, resources or training. We’ve had 143,000 unique visitors to our website this year, and we’re approaching 4,000,000 views of our ministry and special needs parenting blogs.


Our single most impactful event in 2019 was Inclusion Fusion Live, a national disability ministry conference we hosted that was attended by over 300 pastors, ministry leaders, volunteers and family members from 25 different states in Cleveland this past April. All-day ministry intensives were offered to provide churches with all the necessary training and resources to launch a special needs ministry or mental health ministry. Catherine Boyle from our team is pictured here discussing strategies for including teens and young adults of high intelligence with autism at church.


In addition to the 300+ persons attending Inclusion Fusion Live in-person, videos of main stage presentations at the conference have received over 200,000 views to date. The most  frequently viewed presentation was this incredibly powerful keynote presentation by Janet Parshall. In her presentation, Janet issued a powerful call to the church to minister more effectively to persons with mental illness. She identified key biblical figures who experienced symptoms of mental illness, challenged church leaders to end stigmatization of persons with mental health issues and encouraged pastors to begin addressing mental illness in the course of their preaching.

Interested in being part of next year’s Inclusion Fusion Live? Registration opens on December 1. Here’s a preview of some of the content in store for #IFL2020.

I’m also thankful for all of the people who make our ministry possible through sharing of their time, talent and treasure. We did our work on a budget of approximately $60,000 in 2019. We could very much use additional funding in 2020 allowing us to travel to more training events, increase awareness of our resources and services among pastors and other church leaders and provide for additional staff support to manage the rapidly expanding volume of requests for training or consultation.

Your prayers and financial support are much appreciated. You can click here to provide a secure donation to our ministry or contribute surcharge-free by making a gift to my Facebook fundraiser on behalf of Key Ministry.

On behalf of the staff and Board of Key Ministry, I would like to extend our Best Wishes to all of our followers for a Blessed and Joyous Christmas season!


Posted in Key Ministry, Training Events | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A church that truly gets mental health ministry


Late this past summer, I received a call from Denise Petek, an experienced and highly regarded leader in the local special needs ministry community, currently serving as children’s ministry director at Cuyahoga Valley Church (CVC). She was extending an invitation to meet with CVC’s leadership team to talk about mental health inclusion. I put together a very abbreviated version of the training we typically offer to churches, in which we highlight the extent to which mental health disabilities reduce the likelihood that families are able to attend church, introduce our model for mental health inclusion and talk about the process involved in developing an inclusion plan.

Did the staff and volunteers of CVC ever pick up the ball and run with it!

We don’t expect that a mental health inclusion plan is going to look exactly alike in any two churches. With that said, there are five marks of a mental health-informed church we would look for if a friend or family member in another city searching for a church they could attend with a loved one with a significant mental health condition.

The third of the five marks is that churches develop a mental health communication strategy. A LifeWay research study demonstrated a majority of unchurched adults disagreed with the opinion that churches would welcome them if they had a mental health issue. In our trainings, we often talk about the importance of changing perceptions of the church in the communities they serve with respect to mental illness. An especially powerful tool is for churches to create social media content for members and attendees to share with their friends and neighbors who might be struggling with mental illness.

This is a video that CVC shared last month during mental health awareness week. It’s the single best mental health-related post I’ve ever come across from a church. In the video, Rick Duncan (the founding pastor of CVC) extended a powerful welcome to individuals and families impacted by mental illness, addressed many of the hurtful comments they may have experienced at church, and spoke about the impact mental illness had upon his family. CVC’s media team shared this through Facebook and promoted the post to ensure it would be seen by as large an audience as possible.

As part of the inclusion planning process, I had been invited out to CVC this past Sunday by Denise to do a training for the church’s staff and volunteers in children’s and student ministry following their second service focused on helping them better serve kids with common mental health conditions. I headed out to the church early and was able to check out most of a worship service.

A related LifeWay study to the one I shared previously noted that families of adults with serious mental illness reported one of the most valuable supports their church could provide was for pastors and other leaders to talk regularly about mental illness so that existing stigma is diminished. A few minutes after I settled in, they shared this video with Chris Matetic (a graphic designer on staff at the church) in which he spoke of his experience with an anxiety disorder.

Chad Allen serves as the lead pastor at CVC. I happened to come on a Sunday when he was preaching the second message in a five-part series on what the Bible teaches about anxiety and the peace of God. In this message, Chad is on Matthew 6:25-34, addressing specifically our fears that our needs won’t be met.

I had learned from the church bulletin that CVC serves as a host site for mental health education and support groups offered by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and also hosts Celebrate Recovery. They also have a full-time Pastor of Care and Connections on staff who is a trained Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor. They also announced several church meetings hosted by Dr. Walt Broadbent to talk about mental health-related issues and shared a Facebook video featuring Dr. Broadbent discussing the role of therapy and medication.

I found it most remarkable that over 75 staff and volunteers took the time on a Sunday afternoon while the Browns were playing at home 15 minutes down the road to come learn about including and supporting kids in their ministry with emotional and behavioral challenges.

I met with the leadership team on September 19th. The service I attended took place on November 10th. When I think about our five marks of a mental health-informed church and apply them to CVC…

  1. An intentional mental health inclusion planning process. Check.
  2. Educating staff, volunteers and members about the impact of mental illness. Check.
  3. Implementing a mental health communication strategy. Check. Check. Gold Star!
  4. Offering practical help to individuals and families impacted by mental illness. Check. 
  5. Hosting mental health education and support groups. Check.

I think I left feeling more encouraged than anyone else in the worship service.  I don’t often get the opportunity to attend worship services at churches where our ministry has offered consultation or training. I wrote a book describing a model for doing mental health ministry without having ever truly seen what it looks like. God gave me the privilege of seeing it in action last Sunday at CVC.

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.

Posted in Inclusion, Key Ministry, Mental Health, Stories | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Call for Speakers to “Illuminate” – Inclusion Fusion Live 2020


On behalf of our team at Key Ministry, I’d like to extend an invitation to pastors, ministry leaders, volunteers and individuals interested in ministry with children, adults and families impacted by disability to join us in Cleveland on April 24-25 for Inclusion Fusion Live 2020 (#IFL2020), our third national conference designed to bring church leaders and families together to share ideas to advance the disability ministry movement taking root throughout the worldwide church.

Last year’s conference was a huge success. We welcomed well in excess of 300 attendees from 25 of the 50 states. We had in excess of 100,000 views of our main stage presentations during the livestream and following the conference on our Facebook or Vimeo pages. Our day-long intensives on starting a special needs ministry and launching a mental health inclusion strategy were very well-attended. New relationships and collaborations were formed and a great time of worship and fellowship was had by both Christians serving in disability ministry and families affected by disability.

Our team began praying about and planning for #IFL2020 soon after IFL 2019 was complete. Around the same time, we were invited by the Tim Tebow Foundation to become one of nine recommended organizations to help churches build upon their Night To Shine events through expanding ministries to children and adults with special needs throughout the year. Our staff was drawn to the idea of serving as a light to draw attention to the urgent need for more churches to become intentional in their ministry with children and adults with disabilities. We were led to select Illuminate as the theme of our 2020 conference. We’re hopeful #IFL2020 will reflect the spirit of Ephesian 5:13-14:

But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light.

We want people who take the time to attend our conference to come away with something new they can use to advance ministry in their church or to promote spiritual growth – new ideas, new resources and new relationships. That’s where you come in!

Our Program Committee is seeking knowledgable and dynamic speakers to offer workshops (75 minute, in depth presentations on topics of interest to either ministry leaders or families, featuring one or two presenters) and briefer “Quick Takes” – 15 minute TED Talk – type presentations livestreamed from our main stage that introduce new ideas or inspire churches and individual Christians to grow their ministries.

We’re especially interested in extending the invitation to speak to ministry leaders with great ideas or experience laboring in relative obscurity who long for the opportunity to share with a larger audience. Our team knows what it’s like to feel like the outsiders looking in at ministry world. Nobody who’s part of our larger family in Christ should feel like an outsider. Ever.

With that said, the application process is competitive. Submission of a proposal is not a guarantee of acceptance.We typically receive significantly more proposals than we can accept. We have a program committee that reviews all submissions for quality, interest and relevance. Proposals from first-time speakers are more likely to be accepted if accompanied by video for our committee to review. Workshops featuring two presenters from different organizations who present complimentary or divergent views on topics of interest to our audience are encouraged. In addition to our traditional areas of focus on special needs and mental health ministry, we hope to offer more sessions this year on trauma, adoption and foster care ministry.

While we are unavailable at this time to pay honoraria to speakers or cover their travel expenses (we seek to keep registration fees as low as possible for churches and families in order to maximize attendance), speakers will receive free admission to all conference events, including any ministry intensives for which additional charges apply along with free space among our vendor tables to share products and resources with the entire audience of #IFL2020.

Want to speak at our upcoming conference, or know someone who would like to? Click here to submit your proposal electronically. All submissions need to be received by 11:59 PM Eastern Standard time on Thursday, November 14. Notices of acceptance will be sent to speakers by Monday, November 18th, and speakers need to notify us of their participation by Friday, November 22nd. The timeline has been accelerated so that we can begin to promote the conference by December 1st with a complete list of speakers.

We’re looking forward to seeing many old friends – and meeting lots of new ones at #IFL2020 -Friday, April 24th and Saturday, April 25th at Bay Presbyterian Church in Bay Village (Cleveland) Ohio! If you missed last year’s conference, here’s a video of Janet Parshall’s featured presentation.


Interested in learning more about how the church can do more to welcome, care for and support families impacted by mental illness? Come join Dr. Grcevich and a great lineup of speakers on Saturday, November 9th at Winebrenner Theological Seminary for Mental Health and the Church, a half-day conference to learn how to better understand, embrace and respond to the uniqueness and gifts of those of us with mental health concerns. Registration is available here.

Posted in Inclusion Fusion, Key Ministry, Training Events | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why are suicide rates up 56% among youth in this past decade?

While I was away this week at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s (AACAP) Annual Meeting, a report was issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control describing a 56% increase in the suicide rate over the last ten years among Americans between the ages of 10 and 24. Among the “highlights” of the report…

  • The pace of increase for suicide was greater from 2013 to 2017 (7% annually, on average) than from 2007 to 2013 (3% annually).
  • The suicide rate for persons aged 10–14 declined from 2000 (1.5) to 2007 (0.9), and then nearly tripled from 2007 to 2017. It was reported at the AACAP meeting that suicide is now the leading cause of death among 10-14 year-olds.
  • The suicide rate for persons aged 15–19 was stable from 2000 to 2007, and then increased 76% from 2007 (6.7) to 2017 (11.8) (Figure 3). The pace of increase was greater from 2014 to 2017 (10% annually, on average) than from 2007 to 2014 (3% annually)

I was honored this past Friday to have been invited to join guest host Sarah Parshall Perry on Washington Watch with Tony Perkins to discuss the implications of the study. While it’s impossible to respond with certainty to the question “Why?” from looking at this type of study and the answers are undoubtedly complex, I shared several hypotheses with Sarah to explain the rapidly increasing rates of suicide in older children and teens.

The impact of smartphones and social media. The escalation in suicide rates in youth correspond closely to increased access to smartphones. The percentage of U.S. teens with access to smartphones increased from 41% in 2012 to 89% in 2018. In one study presented at the AACAP meeting, the authors reported that kids who spend more than three hours each day on their portable devices were 60% more likely to develop depression than kids who used them for an hour a day or less. the propensity for kids to negatively compare themselves to others is greater. We know victims of cyberbullying are twice as likely to engage in suicidal behavior compared to peers, and the perpetrators of cyberbullying are also at elevated risk of suicidal behavior.

The culture’s preoccupation with sexual expression and focus on sexual orientation and gender as the defining elements of identity in teens and young adults. In an earlier post, we explored a relationship between sexual activity and suicidal behavior in examining data from the 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (NYRBS).  We know that rates of suicidal thinking and behavior increase dramatically when teens become sexually active – especially when they engage in same-sex sexual behavior.

Overall, students who experienced sexual contact with the same or both sexes were over three times more likely to have been seen by a doctor or nurse following a suicide attempt compared to students who had sexual contact with the opposite sex only and over twelve times more likely to have been seen by a doctor or nurse following a suicide attempt than students with no sexual contact.

Boys who experienced sexual contact with the opposite sex only were seven times more likely to have been seen by a doctor or nurse following a suicide attempt compared to those with no sexual contact.

Girls who experienced sexual contact with the opposite sex only were greater than three times more likely to have been seen by a doctor or nurse following a suicide attempt than those with no sexual contact.

While I was at the AACAP meeting, a study was reported from the University of Kentucky examining changes in the sexual orientation of kids admitted to their psychiatric hospital during this past decade. In 2012, 76% of youth admitted to the psychiatric unit identified as heterosexual, 14% as gay and 10% bisexual. In 2018, 50% of teens admitted identified as heterosexual, 42% as bisexual, 6% as gay and 2% as transgender. There were no significant correlations between sexual orientation and substance use, psychiatric diagnosis or previous history of trauma in the study from Kentucky.

While overall rates of sexual activity among teens are decreasing, the number of teens identifying as gay or bisexual has increased dramatically in recent years. The 2017 NYRBS reports percentages of students identifying as sexual minorities at approximately twice the rates described between 2001 and 2009. Gay, lesbian and bisexual teens are significantly more likely to have been sexually active than their straight peers. and girls who identify as gay or bisexual have significantly more sexual partners at an earlier age compared to heterosexual teens.

The diminishing role of religion in the lives of teens. Religiosity has been shown to have important protective effects against suicide. This metanalysis of studies examining the relationship between religion and suicide estimates that suicide is approximately 38% less likely among persons for whom religion is important. A study published last year from Columbia University reported a lower risk for suicide among young people whose parents considered religion important. I’m sharing these observations in the context of a new Pew Foundation study describing the decline of Christianity in American life. The study notes there are seven million fewer adult Christians in the U.S. compared to 10 years ago, even though there are now 25 million more adults in America. The millennials are the first generation of Americans in which Christians are in the minority. I don’t doubt the situation is even worse for Generation Z. Fewer people of faith = more suicide.

So…what do we do with this?

First – our girls are now in med school and college, respectively but there is no way my wife and I would get them smartphones until the middle of high school (at the very least) and only under close parental supervision.

Next – we need to be at least as concerned, if not more concerned about our teens crossing boundaries and engaging in sexual activity as we are (appropriately so) about teens and vaping.

Finally, one of the best ways parents can protect their kids against suicide is to practice and live out their faith, communicating their to their children in a manner that facilitates the internalization of faith.


Interested in learning more about how the church can do more to welcome, care for and support families impacted by mental illness? Come join Dr. Grcevich and a great lineup of speakers on Saturday, November 9th at Winebrenner Theological Seminary for Mental Health and the Church, a half-day conference to learn how to better understand, embrace and respond to the uniqueness and gifts of those of us with mental health concerns. Registration is available here.

Posted in Key Ministry, Mental Health | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A proliferation of disability ministry training

We initiated a conversation this past March about making high quality disability ministry training available within a half-day drive of every church in the U.S. The conversation stimulated lots of interest in the Special Needs and Disability Ministry Leaders group we help to facilitate on Facebook, and many in the group volunteered trainings and events sponsored by the the churches and ministries where they serve.

This past weekend alone, we’re aware of three significant ministry conferences involving national speakers that took place in three different time zones – the Accessible Gospel Conference in Chattanooga, TN, the Embrace Fall conference in Little Rock, AR and the Northern California Disability Ministry conference in Mountain View.

Our staff has developed a page on our website listing disability ministry and mental health ministry training opportunities throughout the Continental United States. Feel free to check the list for disability ministry events in your region and send our team a message if you’re planning a training event and would like us to help get the word out!

Our team is going to be very busy providing a variety of training opportunities throughout the last three months of 2019. Here’s a sampling of what we’ll be offering and where we’ll be through the remainder of this calendar year…

American Associations of Christian Counselors, Nashville, TN, October 9th-12th. I’ll be presenting on Friday, October 11 on Why Families of Kids With Mental Illness Don’t Attend Church – And How Counselors Can Help. Amy Simpson and Dr. Matthew Stanford will also be presenting.

Wonderfully Made Conference, Grace Church, Overland Park, KS, October 24th-25th, pre-conference events on October 22nd-23rd. The initial Wonderfully Made conference drew over 300 attendees from across the U.S. in October 2018, and in size and spirit, our team considers this as the “sister” conference of Inclusion Fusion Live. Included among the conference keynote speakers are Sandra Peoples and Colleen Swindoll-Thompson. Many Key Ministry writers will be presenting, including Sarah Broady, John Felagellar, Melanie Gomez, Dr. Lamar Hardwick, Lisa Jamieson, Jonathan McGuire, Sarah McGuire, Jolene Philo, Shelly Roberts and Evana Sandusky.

Beth Golik will be leading a workshop on Hidden Disabilities in Your Sunday School Classroom and will be participating on a panel of disability ministry leaders taking questions from the audience. I’ll be leading a two-part, three hour workshop on Mental Health Inclusion Ministry any Church can Do, a second workshop on The Many Impacts of ADHD Upon Spiritual Development and a “Ted-type” talk on Five Attributes of the Mental Health-Literate Church.

HHS Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives Webinar, Tuesday, November 5th, 12:00 PM Eastern (registration info pending). I’ll be participating in a webinar discussing how churches and other houses of worship can support families impacted by mental illness. Co-presenter to be announced.

Mental Health and the Church, Winebrenner Theological Seminary, Findlay OH, Saturday, November 9th. I’ll be serving as the keynote speaker for this half-day event sponsored by Winebrenner Seminary invites you to help pastors and church leaders better understand, embrace and respond to the uniqueness and gifts of those of us with mental health concerns.

Cuyahoga Valley Church, Broadview Heights, OH, Sunday, November 10th. I’ll be training on Supporting children and teens who struggle with self-control at church. Registration info pending.

I’m also scheduled to be in the Atlanta area for meetings with church leaders on November 18th and November 20th, and in Destin, FL for a private ministry training event on November 19th. Looking ahead to 2020, we’ll be in Houston for a private training event on the weekend of March 27th-29th. We’re also planning a little event for Cleveland on April 24th and 25th in Cleveland. Sign up here if you’d like updates on Inclusion Fusion Live 2020, including the Call for Speakers that will be issued inn October.

If you’d like someone from our team to meet with your church’s leadership when we’re in your neighborhood, reach out and we’ll make something happen if schedules permit.

We’re very thankful – and very encouraged that so many new disability ministry training opportunities as a result of churches recognizing the need!

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.

Posted in Key Ministry, Resources, Training Events | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A psychiatrist’s thoughts on pastors and suicide

The most encouraging ministry development I’ve witnessed in 2019 is the way God is calling so many of his people to transform ministry with individuals and families struggling with mental illness. I’m probably aware of five times as many leaders serving in mental health ministry compared to this time last year. The interest is reflected in the volume of requests our ministry team receives for training, resources and support.

One organization I hadn’t been aware of until this past week is Anthem of Hope, a faith-based non-profit “dedicated to amplifying hope for those battling brokenness, depression, anxiety, self-harm, addiction and suicide.” I suspect many in the church discovered Anthem of Hope in the same way I did – through the media coverage of the suicide of Jarrid Wilson, a young, influential pastor from Southern California who co-founded the organization with his wife, Juli.

While the suicides of other pastors have received considerable media coverage in recent years (here, here and here), the reaction to Jarrid’s death throughout the church has been qualitatively different. Perhaps the church where he served and the influence he gathered through his speaking and writing gave him a higher profile than other pastors who have died from suicide. The tragedy of his death is magnified by he and his wife having created an organization to provide hope and encouragement to people who suffered as Jarrid did. Anthem of Hope operates a 24 hour help line, and lists the National Suicide Crisis Line – (800) 273-8255 – at the top of their home page. In describing the purposes of their ministry, Jarrid and Juli state the following on their website

Through unique content creation, hope journals, workbooks and online courses, Anthem of Hope will provide the tools needed for every individual to discover that life is worth living, and that everyone has a purpose in this world.

The suddenness of Jarrid’s death and the extent to which he was able to carry out his ministry without others appreciating the intensity of mental anguish and distress he experienced at the end of his life is very unsettling. It feels like it could happen at any time to anyone wrestling with hopelessness or suicidal thinking. On the day of his death, Jarrid was officiating at the funeral of another church member who had committed suicide. Below is a photo of Jarrid posted by Greg Laurie, the senior pastor of Harvest Fellowship (the church where Jarrid served on staff) from a baptism service he took part in one week ago Saturday.

Just about everything I’ve read on Jarrid’s death has been written from from the perspective of other pastors. Ed Stetzer and Russell Moore shared excellent blog posts this past week. I thought a psychiatrist’s perspective of the struggles that contribute to suicide risk among pastors might help the leaders the church and the people of the church to better understand the care for and support needs of those who are called to shepherd us. Here are a few of my observations…

Lots of pastors have no idea where to go for help if they find themselves struggling with suicidal thoughts. Less than 30% of Christians with a family member affected by major mental illness report their churches maintain a current list of mental health professionals to share with attendees in crisis, according to a study by LifeWay Research. If pastors turn to a trusted physician within their churches for advice, they’re significantly less likely to be referred to a psychiatrist than if they approached a non-Christian physician.

Pastors in need of mental health care are all too often unable to afford it. Congregations owe it to their pastors to provide them with health insurance necessary to access care without having to worry about how they might feed and clothe their families. Pastors are less likely to have insurance to offset the cost of their mental health care. Check out this survey from LifeWay reporting nearly half of Southern Baptist pastors of churches with weekly attendance of > 100 receive no health insurance. Pastors who obtain less expensive coverage through cost-sharing ministries typically receive no mental health benefits through such ministries. One such organization, Christian Healthcare Ministries (CHC) serves as a sponsor for the American Association of Christian Counselors, despite refusing to pay for services offered by any of their members. Here’s an article from CHC’s blog pertaining to mental illness written by an OB/GYN.

When facing challenges like fear, bitterness, poor self-image, lust, money troubles, grief, worry, marriage conflict or any other issue, delving into what the Bible has to say about a specific struggle will change you. Soak in God’s word. Spend time reading and contemplating it. Let the power of Scripture penetrate your soul, wash out the junk and fill you to overflowing with God’s truth and grace.

Not that I would disagree with any of that, but it appears they believe (as 48% of evangelical Christians reported in the Lifeway study) that serious mental illness may be overcome by Bible study and prayer alone.

A pastor may know where to go for help and have the resources to pay for help, but they’re sufficiently worried about the stigma of seeking help that they may go to great lengths to avoid being seen seeking help by someone from their church . In the early days of my practice, I’d occasionally see a few adults. I regularly saw one pastor on Saturday mornings at 7:00 AM because there was NOBODY in our office building at that time on Saturdays. I’ve had other ministry families come in at 7:00 PM on Sunday nights so their kids wouldn’t run into other kids from the church.

For many of the pastors I’ve come across in my professional life and ministry life, working in the church depletes their emotional resources. One explanation for research showing churchgoers experience better mental health is that they have larger social networks. That’s a good thing unless most of your social network is either demanding something from you or complaining about their experience at your workplace.

I’ve had a taste of this experience at church as a result of my day job. Because attending our home church involves a 37 mile, one way trip, our family regularly worshiped at a church down the road from my office while our girls were growing up. At one point I had about forty kids from that church as patients. I began to dread church because I’d struggle to get in and out without being bombarded by questions from families in our practice. I found having to be “on” professionally for maybe 5-10% of the families at church exhausting. Imagine having to be on for ALL of them! I wonder if pastors and their families might be healthier if they were to attend a different church than the one where they serve.

Like doctors, pastors often feel trapped in their careers. Lots of parallels exist between the medical profession (notable for the highest suicide rate of any profession) and the ministry. Both pastors and doctors are vulnerable to burnout, deal with constant criticism (patient satisfaction ratings for employed physicians, anonymous letters and e-mails for pastors), struggle to maintain excellence during a time of diminished resources and both lack the ability to leave their jobs when depleted or burdened without catastrophic consequences to their standard of living.

Joe Boyd is a former megachurch pastor who left the ministry to start his own business. He posted around this time last year on Facebook about his experience – and the experience of many of his colleagues – on being a pastor with depression and anxiety.

Some pastors (not all, but most) have no training or experience in anything other than ministry. They know that they are burnt out (or were never really a good fit) and they want to do something else, but they stay in for economic reasons. They have a family to support. When and if this fact is discovered they are shamed for it by their congregation. They also feel deep shame that they couldn’t just be faithful and make it work.

If denominations, seminaries or church boards were interested in what I had to say about pastors and suicide, here’s what I’d want them to think about…

  • Every time a prominent pastor or church leader publicly speaks about their own experience with mental illness or suicidal thoughts, it makes it easier for a struggling colleague to reach out for help.
  • Elders and church board members should ensure that pastors and their families have healthcare benefits that allow them to access counseling, medication and a continuum of mental health care without having to worry about putting food on the table.
  • Seminaries and denominations would develop services to help pastors who are unable to bear the burdens of full-time ministry to develop the skills necessary to find other means of employment.
  • In lieu of building another building, some very wealthy Christian might make a sizable gift to the establishment of a world-class mental health treatment facility for pastors and ministry families.
  • Finally…I’d want the people of the church to love, care for and support their pastors in the same way that we want them to demonstrate the love of Christ to us.

That would be a nice way to honor Jarrid’s memory.

Are you a pastor or ministry leader searching for resources to better understand how to support children, adults or families affected by mental illness in your church or in your community? Check out Key Ministry’s Mental Health Resources page, containing links to video, articles and topical blog series designed to help you minister with persons with common mental health conditions. Also available through the website are a free, downloadable mental health ministry planning tool designed to accompany Mental Health and the Church, along with links to recommended books, like-minded mental health ministry organizations, relevant research, sermons addressing mental illness, social media resources and a compilation of stories from families affected by mental illness.

Posted in Advocacy, Hidden Disabilities, Key Ministry, Mental Health | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Derek and his mom can teach the church about inclusion

Numerous friends had been badgering me to check out a restaurant located near my office with a national reputation for preparing young adults with developmental disabilities to enter the workplace. I didn’t get to visit the Two Cafe and Boutique until our daughter from med school was in town and she and my wife were in search of something healthy for lunch. I’d been told by folks involved with our ministry that I needed to meet Shari Hunter, the founder of the Two Cafe and Foundation. I had some time this past week to hang out with Shari at the Cafe. She has lots of very relevant ideas and experience to share with the disability ministry community.

I didn’t know about Shari’s connections with the church until our recent conversation. She’s a graduate of Cedarville University. Her husband (Nate) served as a pastor at several churches in our immediate area. Her current mission began when their youngest child (Derek) was identified at birth with Down Syndrome.

The cafe and foundation derive their names from Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 (ESV).

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!

Shari discussed her parenting approach with Derek when the Today Show sent a crew to do a feature on the cafe.

“I was so concerned for Derek and for his future,” Hunter said. “And mostly because I was afraid of what society thought, and I felt society didn’t really provide equal opportunities and acceptance.”

She made a promise to herself then: “I will never label him and I will never limit him,” she recalled. “I’m going to raise him just like I’m raising (my other children) Christian and Tiffany. We’re just going to see what happens. We’re going to see what he can do.”

Her approach to parenting ultimately led to a vision for a different employment model for young adults with what she describes as “exceptionalities.”

Hunter is particularly interested in hiring individuals who recently graduated from high school or from sheltered workshops, government-run programs in which people with disabilities (or exceptionalities, as she calls them) work, often for less than minimum wage.

“It’s so important because right now, individuals that are transitioning out really don’t have a lot of good options,” Hunter said. “And so they are sitting at home. They’re bored. They’re depressed.”

But she doesn’t believe segregated work sites are the solution. The world needs community-based employment. In other words, more places like Two Cafe.

“We have to have higher expectations, not lower,” Hunter said. “We need to provide more opportunities, not less. We need to have clearer, firmer discipline with love, not less. And I want young parents to know those things.”

Even if, as Hunter has learned, that means letting them figure some things out on their own.

“I tell parents all the time, ‘Yeah, we love to put them in a bubble and protect them,'” she said. “But that is the worst thing we can do. Just let them go and make their choices and sometimes make their own mistakes. That’s what it’s about. That’s life. That’s parenting.”

The Today Show segment captures Shari’s vision of the Two Cafe.

I got to meet Derek when I came by to visit. He’s far more optimistic than I am about the Browns this season. He’s “launched” from his home more successfully than most young adults I know. Derek is married to Lauren (who he met through work). They have their own home in a nearby community. Lauren owns her own gift basket business. Derek and Lauren both drive. They also go to a different church than the one Derek’s parents attend.

The Two Cafe approach is based upon a peer buddy model. They train employees to assume the role of a job coach and provide support to students working in the cafe. The principles of their training don’t necessarily need to be applied in a food service business. Two Cafe has relationships with approximately 20 businesses in the greater Cleveland area that provide permanent employment to individuals who train in the restaurant.

Shari and I got into a conversation about how the values that shape Two Cafe might be applied in the church. These are some thoughts on what a “Two Cafe” approach to ministry  might look like with kids and adults with exceptionalities.

Names, not labels. We would look at each person as an image bearer with unique gifts and talents to contribute to the church. No one would be described as having “special needs.”

Excellence in all we do. We would expect them to serve, and to do so with the same standard of excellence as everyone else representing the church in an area of ministry.

Celebrate strengths and diversity. We would spend more time identifying what our attendees can do and building upon their strengths as opposed to conceptualizing them by what they can’t do.

We are all better when we do life together. We wouldn’t have “siloed” ministries for persons with disabilities. We’d be looking to include them in worship services and all the other ministries and activities charged with making disciples.

Shari’s goal is to launch 100 sites around the country offering the type of work experience currently provided in the cafe in Chagrin Falls. Could there possibly be a better place to host this type of job training than a church, a Christian school or university or a Christian-owned business?

Interested in bringing Two Cafe to your community? Click here if you’re interested in learning more from Shari’s team.





Posted in Intellectual Disabilities, Special Needs Ministry, Strategies | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment