Elements of Mental Health Ministry
We hope you find this overview of mental health ministry useful as a tool to help you plan your ministry strategies. This is not meant as a comprehensive framework as there are many possible ways to structure and implement mental health ministry. Our focus at LifeSupport is to develop resources that use personal STORY as a way to equip people to support the mental health needs of others. As we create or find new resources that will help you, we’ll add them here so make a note to check back.
Table of Contents
Understand and Communicate The Need
You’ve probably heard the statistics by now. Roughly 20% of the U.S. population is struggling with their mental health right now. Sadly the number of people who bring their mental health struggles to the church are far fewer. According to the 2011 Baylor University Religion Survey, only 15% of depressed people reported attending religious services weekly and 39% of depressed did not attend services at all. Similar numbers are expressed for people who describe themselves as worriers. There is a corresponding lack of reliance on scripture for these groups. An obvious conclusion is that people who are struggling don’t see the church (or scripture) as an effective answer for their problems. It is critically important for the church to address this image so that people see that God has answers for life’s most difficult problems. Life is hard for all of us sometimes. But, there are many people in our communities (and sitting in our churches) who feel alone in their pain. When the church fails to acknowledge mental health struggles, some people will get the message that the problem they have is not something the church wants to hear about.
When a church is educated, and talks about the real problems that people are facing, members are much more willing to share their struggles and to reach out for help. One of the reasons LifeSupport exists is to help facilitate these difficult conversations.
Sadly, many churches still have a limited response to mental health needs. Often the response takes the form of counsel to seek answers in scripture, to pray more, or to simply refer out to a mental health professional. These kind of responses perpetuate stigma and communicates that the church isn’t really the place to bring that part of yourself, and/or we don’t really think that’s a significant problem.
Transparency in leadership can go a long way to changing attitudes around mental health. We know from personal experience that sharing stories of personal struggle, and Christ-centered transformation will have significant positive influence on church culture.
Nothing about the mission of the church can happen without relationship. Human beings were designed for relationship. But it can seem like some people are afraid of the very thing their nature demands. Churches create experiences, schedules, facilities, and entire ministry strategies all with the aim of cultivating Christian relationships. Mental health ministry presents an ideal opportunity to cultivate a deeper level of relationship for your people. It may help your church to look at mental health ministry as a way to mimic our triune God. In the struggle we face to balance our mental health against the pressures of the world, it might help to think of the three relationships common to us all; our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with others. Each of those three relationships deserves our attention. Most people are deficient in one or more of those relationships. Consider how your church can help people balance and strengthen these three relationships in terms of the following areas of their church life:
- Serving Opportunities
- Spiritual Growth/Education
- Small Group Experiences
- One-on-one care/Staff Interaction
- Christian Community
Shed Light on Suffering
When someone walks into a hospital they expect to encounter suffering, healing, and healers. Hospitals are built to respond to the physical suffering that is part of life. When it comes to mental health suffering, churches are the primary physical location of God’s caregivers. The reality is that walking into a church in the United States evokes many expectations. It would be helpful to ask if those expectations include the presence of suffering, healing, and healers.
Asking a church family to take an active role in suffering is a big ask. Prior to bringing your church members into the strategy, it’s important to engage in some serious self-awareness among your board, leadership, and staff. Here are a few question to ask yourselves:
- How often do you hear or see suffering at your church?
- Does your church have a shared theology of suffering? How is that theology communicated?
- If you were an attendee at your church who is overwhelmed by something in life, would you know how to ask for support at your church?
- How often, and in what ways does your church acknowledge suffering as part of God’s plan?
- Do you have a strategy for your ministry leadership team to talk about and support each other’s suffering?
Understanding Roles And Partnerships
One of the most common objections we hear to churches becoming involved with mental health ministry is that people who are unqualified may overstep their knowledge, authority, or simply do harm because they lack experience or training. This discomfort in understanding roles is understandable and can even be seen as a positive tension. Nobody will be well served by individuals or organizations who over-reach their gifting, experience, or relationships. However, non-professional care-givers can provide effective and necessary support (sometimes, in ways professionals can’t). The local church is ideally placed to help equip and encourage this type of care-giving through healthy Christian relationship.
For all parties, care should be taken in establishing guardrails around responsibilities for supporting mental health needs of people in the church. Each church should have a well communicated plan for areas of responsibility and limitations for support activities. Consider creating limits of responsibility based on the following categories:
- Christian mental health professionals outside of the congregation
- Christian mental health professional who are part of the congregation
- Staff/Ministry Leaders
- Lay Leaders
- Those in Relationship with the Person in Need
- The Congregation/Christian Community
Ministry Strategy Areas
Even though you may not be ready to integrate mental health into all ministry areas, it’s a good exercise to explore the ways mental health can be influenced through all aspects of your church’s activities. We’ll be adding future articles to cover mental health strategies for each of the following areas:
- Care Ministry
- One-to-one Care
- Care Groups
- Group Ministry
- Student Ministry
- Organizational/Leadership Development
Why Mental Health Ministry Belongs in The Church
People need to hear, over and over that God has a solution to the problems of our world. The local church is in the best position to help people see that God cares about their mental health suffering, and that he has an answer for those problems too.
If people are receiving exclusively secular help for their mental health needs, the church is failing to fully share the way God’s word speaks to all of the problems of the world. Every time a person doesn’t receive help that is directly tied to scripture, or God’s plan for us, that person may hear that God doesn’t have an answer for their struggle, or that he doesn’t care.