I could tell that this woman, who had just “confessed” to me that she faced a serious struggle with depression, was regretting her disclosure. When she’d realized I was a safe person to talk with, she had told me about her mental health problem. Now she was begging me to keep my mouth shut about it because she was pretty sure her church’s pastoral staff was not so safe.
The thing that scared her was not that she would be ostracized or publicly humiliated or condemned. It was that she would have her ministry position taken away. And that role was one of the things that was keeping her alive.
Every week she knew people would be counting on her to be prepared for her Sunday morning responsibilities. And every Sunday, even on those weeks when getting out of bed required an excruciating act of determination, she knew that it would matter to people if she didn’t show up at church. She loved the people she led, and she felt God’s pleasure as she used her gifts in service to him. The weekly rhythm of responsibility, service, and a job well done was a critical piece of what kept her from giving in to the darkness that pulled at her every day.
I did keep my mouth shut—I would have done that anyway. But I wanted to tell her not to worry, that it would be good for her to talk to her pastor about her struggle, that her church would love and support her. I couldn’t say that with confidence, though. She was sure that if her leaders knew about her depression, she would be told to step down. And she may have been right.
After all, I have heard countless stories of exactly that. From Bible study leaders to Sunday school teachers to ministry coordinators to senior pastors, people have been asked to step away from ministry because they face mental health challenges.
I love what Pastor Chris Miller said about the battles he and his wife have fought with anxiety and bipolar II disorder: “In our 10 years of marriage, there have been some long, difficult nights. But if you were to question me or my wife or our ability to lead based on those nights, you would be an idiot. Those nights didn’t break us, they made us.”
Indeed. The people in your church who live with emotional pain and mental strain are not weaker than the rest of the congregation; they are stronger for the battles they have won. And your church needs them in ministry.
It is tragic to think how many people have been stripped of ministry opportunities because they have depression, anxiety sometimes overwhelms them, or occasionally they aren’t sure what’s real. Essentially, churches find people among them who need the structure and purpose of serving in ministry and immediately take it away. Then we ask people to get better without one of the most helpful things they could have in their lives.
Perhaps among the cruelest ways we regularly respond to mental illness is by implying that people with mental illness have no purpose in the church or God’s kingdom. It’s as if we believe mental illness cancels a person’s spiritual gifts, overpowers the Spirit of God, destroys God’s work in and through them. It’s almost as if we believe brain cells are more powerful, and more important, than the one who made them.
But you will never talk me out of this belief: God always has a purpose for everyone. And God’s purposes are never thwarted by our limitations. (Try this quick search on Bible Gateway to see how serious God is about his own purposes.)
Mental illness may alter the course of a person’s life, and managing it may come with limitations, but it doesn’t mean that person’s life is no good anymore. It doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t learn from that person. And it doesn’t mean that person has nothing to contribute to the church.
If your church has no room for learning from people who know a lot about suffering, there is something wrong with your church. If you can’t be taught, led, or served by someone who is willing to admit he or she needs help, there is something wrong with your heart.
Psalm 139 is a beautiful reminder of our value to God and his attention to the details of our lives. Verse 16 celebrates, “You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.” God is not surprised by our suffering, and he wants to use all of us, regardless of our afflictions!
I’m not talking about asking a person with active psychosis to take over your children’s ministry. And I’m not asking you to give carte blanche to people who are at real risk for becoming incapacitated or experiencing serious interference from a cognitive or mood disorder. But for the majority of people with mental health struggles, symptoms never cause this kind of danger. And for the rest, sensible boundaries are all we need. We can ask them to receive the treatment they need and stick with it. We can ask them to be honest when they aren’t up to fulfilling their responsibilities. We can allow them to take on tasks they can realistically handle, surround them with teams who are loving and willing to share the load, and give them gracious permission to take a step back when they need to, just as we would with any other chronic health issue.
Ministry opportunities can be tremendously therapeutic for people. By offering them, we can affirm people’s importance to God and the body of Christ. We can agree with the image of God and gifts of the Spirit in them. We can open the way for them to serve as an inspiration to others, displaying God’s strength and power at work in and through them. We can provide a much-needed structured environment for people, an important emotional and creative outlet, and motivation to take care of themselves. We can help them take their eyes off themselves and get out of their heads and see that their sometimes painful lives really do matter as much as everyone else’s.
I think that ought to be enough to convince us to stop withholding the joys of ministry from those most acquainted with sorrow. But the benefits aren’t all for them. Allowing people with mental illness to serve also engages the gifts of people in your church, people who have something to contribute—something given to them by God. Can your church afford to overlook people in your midst and their capabilities? Can anyone really justify rejecting what God has placed among them? Can anyone honestly claim you serve in your own strength? If so, you need to get to know some of the people I know. You can learn from their example.