I receive a lot of inquiries from people asking for advice about living with mental illness, loving someone with a mental disorder, and doing ministry among people with mental illness and their families. I can’t offer the kind of advice and help a mental health professional can give, but I can point people in the direction of resources that might help them. Sometimes it’s a matter of just introducing people to resources that are available. Sometimes it’s a matter of sharing my own personal experience and my own perspective.
Occasionally I share some of these interactions* here, for the benefit of others who may have similar questions.
Question: My family has lived with mental illness and suffered because of it. After reading your book, I feel called to start something at my church, specifically aimed at ministering to people affected by mental illness. But my church’s leaders don’t seem very interested. Where would you advise us to start, and how can I approach them?
Answer: I’ve talked to many others who are fighting the same battle, under the same conditions you are. The good news is, there are many of us willing to fight. None of us have to tackle this alone. We can each take a small portion of the task, bringing change to our little corners.
In my experience, most churches (and church leaders) who seem apathetic or resistant either don’t understand (and need to hear stories from people like you and me) or are motivated by fear–fear of mental illness, fear of getting in too deep, fear of having to take on one more thing when they are barely keeping their heads above water with all the responsibilities and expectations that threaten their own mental health. So I think the most effective approach, in most settings, may be to start small and let it build as people start to see successful ministry happening, begin to overcome their fears, and want to get involved. It’s important to show church leaders that others (like you and me) are willing to carry much of the burden for this kind of ministry and don’t expect them to do it all–we just need their support.
I encourage you to look for other people in the church who have some special expertise to offer. It might be a mental health professional. It might be a person who has struggled with mental illness and is managing it well. It might be another family member of someone with mental illness, who has done a lot of healing and is ready to reach out to others. Get those people together and start praying about what God wants you to do.
Look to see what is already out there. There’s a great support group ministry called Fresh Hope that you could use in your church. There’s a great ministry called Mental Health Grace Alliance that can help. There are resources available through your local chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), which should be eager to help you get something started. My book tells you how you can get in touch with the people whose ministries I profiled. You can pay a local counselor for an hour of their time to get some ideas on how to reach out and offer effective ministry to people with mental illness. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. So look for what’s out there and look for what God has already provided within your own congregation–people who have been there and who have compassionate hearts.
You might have to start small. Don’t expect people to come in droves to talk about their mental health problems–especially within your church. People might be more likely to come from your surrounding community. Because mental illness is so stigmatized, many are afraid of the consequences if they speak up and tell someone they have a disorder. But eventually, as you show that you’re serious about offering support and a safe place for people to find help, more will come.
If you can start a group, even if you don’t have enthusiastic buy-in, I’d say go for it! Even if you reach only a few people, it’s worth doing–it can make an enormous difference in an individual’s or family’s life. And who knows what God may do with it? These grassroots efforts may turn into something big as people in various places see the power of hope-filled ministry to people who are short on hope. Tell your story, find a place where you can start your group, minister to a few, and see where it goes.
God bless you as you seek to share his incredible love and hope with others. May he redeem your family’s suffering and turn it into light in someone else’s life.
*Questions have been modified to protect privacy.