Mar 07

More reflections on Troubled Minds, a GREAT book by Amy Simpson

About a month ago I introduced you to a resource I believe every church leader should read. It is Amy Simpson’s book Troubled Minds (http://www.amazon.com/Troubled-Minds-Illness-Churchs-Mission/dp/0830843043 ). The book chronicles not only her own journey of faith and her church’s reaction to mental illness in her immediate family, but also gives fascinating insight into the mindset of most churches when it comes to addressing the issues of mental illness in their communities and congregations. As I wrote last time (http://www.intermountainministry.org/troubled-minds-by-amy-simpson-a-book-every-church-leader-should-read-part-1/) there is simply WAY too much good information in her book to digest in one sitting, so I intend to break up my reflections into numerous blog posts. This month, I’d like to visit a few of the statistics that are reported in Amy’s book. The data that Amy draws upon for her book is derived from a Leadership Journal survey on mental illness in churches conducted in 2010. Here’s what the survey reported:

  • More than 40 percent of church leaders have never reached out to and ministered to a family within their congregation with someone who has mental illness.
  • Nearly 5% (4.8) of church leaders have asked someone with mental illness to leave the church temporarily; 3.2 percent have asked that they leave permanently; 3.4 percent have sought a restraining order against the person.
  • 53.2 percent of church leaders indicated they feel “somewhat equipped” to minister to people suffering from mental illness; 16.1 percent feel “not equipped at all” to minister to those with mental illness or severe emotional disturbance.

Now, of course the connection to my work here at Intermountain is that most, if not all, of the children in my care as part of the Chaplain’s program have been or could be diagnosed or perceived to have some form of mental illness. This can be anything from a mood disorder to PTSD as a result of prior abuse or neglect. My hope is to help these children and their families connect to a faith community once they are no longer in our care. However, when large numbers of clergy and church leadership feels ill-equipped and uncomfortable addressing the needs of mental illness in their OWN church family, how many more might we assume would be reluctant to reach out to a hurting and vulnerable family that would very much like to be a part of their congregation, but is still on the outside looking in.

Deciding to become a church or ministry that would welcome families who are living and working through the effects of mental illness is not something to be entered into lightly. But, it does start with some principles that should apply to all who might come through our doors at church. I know that most of what you’ll read here won’t be new information, because you love God and work hard at showing God’s love to others in tangible ways. Here are my “gentle reminders,” then:

  1. SPEAK LESS, LISTEN MORE. Ask respectful questions and do a LOT of listening. Then, after asking something such as “How can we best minister to you and your family?” be willing to actually take some action to meet those needs. Most parents of children with mental illness or emotional disturbance are expected to always be present with their children at church functions. They have a difficult time being ministered to if they are always asked to attend to their children’s needs because no one else is willing! Schools have para-educators that serve the special needs of many of their students… what might it look like if your church had a team of “paras” willing to come alongside those families and children with special emotional needs?
  2. BE TEACHABLE AND HUMBLE. Admit what you don’t know and be teachable. Most families or individuals with mental illness or emotional disturbance have spent a great deal of time having to educate and advocate for themselves and their families. It’s exhausting to try and explain something to someone who already thinks they have it figured out. For instance, if you have a predisposition to think of depression as a character weakness rather than an illness or believe a behavioral disorder is just another name for misbehavior that is easily corrected with a little discipline… well, you need to repent! Then, in humility, admit that you are still learning how to minister better to this family’s needs and want to do what you can to show them God’s love and acceptance.
  3. KNOW YOUR ROLE. As you know from your work providing ministry to people from a variety of situations, we are there to serve as guides. At our best, we lead people to the source of healing… we don’t do the healing ourselves! You need to maintain your own spiritual, emotional, and physical health and that includes knowing what you can provide and what you can’t provide for a hurting family. Most individuals and families are just looking for a safe spiritual home that will deal with their messiness without getting judgmental or reactive. Be a friend and an advocate and watch what a difference it makes!
  4. BE PREPARED TO GROW IN GRACE. Be patient with yourself and with this experiment in grace. Walking alongside an individual or a family that has mental illness as part of their reality is something that will help you grow into a greater understanding of God’s love and grace. It’s a long walk. Be persistent and caring. Just because a “problem” can’t be fixed with a series of seven sermons or a really good Bible study doesn’t mean it’s not worth addressing. We don’t stop ministering to someone when they have a physical impairment or chronic illness that we don’t expect will get better, but can simply be “managed.” So, don’t give up on a family or a child that might be in a struggle to manage their mental illness or emotional disturbance. You have the unique ability to exhibit the love and grace of God in a difficult situation, and as a result… you just might grow in your appreciation of the love, grace, and patient understanding of God for all of us!