A CHURCH-INITIATED MENTAL HEALTH STRATEGY
Saddleback has created a Church-Initiated Mental Health Strategy that can be built over time, adapted, and implemented into all areas of ministries in any church. Start small and gradually expand. This strategy is built on the C.H.U.R.C.H. acrostic.
Every church, no matter the size or location, can make an intentional and deliberate decision to become a caring and compassionate sanctuary for people with mental illness and their families. Often people with mental illness feel excluded from their biological family for a variety of reasons; their suffering is compounded when they are also excluded from the warmth of the fellowship of the Body of Christ – sometimes overtly, but more often than not, by unawareness or neglect. Frequently the excuse, “But we’re not a large church; we don’t have a lot of resources” is used to justify a lack of care and support for the mentally ill. However, no money, resources or training are required to have a heart of compassion like our Savior. Yes, there is a cost to caring – it requires us to let go of self-centeredness, ignorance, fear and apathy and move towards our brothers and sisters with arms extended in radical friendship and love.
Because we have a mandate from God to care for the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of people, every church must become intentional about ministering to people with mental illness in tangible ways. Mental illness is often referred to the “no casserole” illness. Most congregations provide for the practical needs of individuals and families who have ongoing medical issues or who are experiencing life transitions such as moving, a job loss, or pregnancy or death of a loved one. In a similar way, church volunteers can show up in the lives of people with mental illness by providing meals, helping with household chores, and offering rides to doctor’s appointments. Meeting practical needs does not need to cost money. By offering a little spare time, and commitment, these actions speak volumes to those who often feel lonely and forgotten.
According to the Bible every church member is a minister. Jesus calls each of His followers to care for the sick. This includes people with mental illness. Every church can train and mobilize members to become safe people who effectively care for and help people with mental illness. There will never be enough mental health professionals in the world to offer care, treatment and support to those who need it. Churches have the largest built-in volunteer base on the planet—more than two billion members. What an impact we can make if this enormous pool of unengaged talent, energy, and compassion can be mobilized to support people with mental illness and their families!
The stigma surrounding mental illness is profound and deeply ingrained in the culture and even the church. People with severe mental illness often bear the brunt of society’s stigmatizing attitude of exclusion, fear, and disgust. Not only is that unbiblical and unkind––it can be lethal. When people with mental illness believe they have to hide their illness from their loved ones or church family for fear of being ostracized or abandoned, it can keep them from seeking the treatment they need, leading to a worsening of their symptoms, and even to despair. One of the most powerful gifts the church can give to individuals is acceptance as equal members of Christ’s Body, worthy of respect and honored as fully integrated contributors to the life of the church. How much money does it require to eliminate stigma? None. How many paid staff members does it take to remove the barriers to acceptance? Perhaps just one––the pastor who decides to knock down the wall of stigma one sermon at a time. It is not a sin to be sick.
Because we are whole beings, a person with mental illness needs therapeutic, emotional, physical, relational and spiritual support in order to adequately manage their illness. You can’t approach mental illness from only one dimension. Seeing a psychiatrist without also receiving spiritual support can leave some problems unaddressed. Trying to faithfully take medication while homeless on the street will probably not be very successful. Being in a support group without also attempting to reconcile broken family relationships can hinder growth. People with mental illness need assistance on every level.
The church is a necessary part of holistic care, but it can’t do it all. Churches CAN build a resource list of mental health professionals, treatment programs, food banks, housing referrals, hospitals, and job training to help people in time of crisis or a mental health emergency. Churches can easily point people to outside organizations, such as NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illness), who have free or low cost mental health programs if the church does not yet have a robust mental health ministry. Another avenue of collaboration is to invite mental health professionals and mental health organizations to inform and educate your congregation about mental illness. Holistic mental health care requires partnerships in order to meet the needs of individuals in a comprehensive way.
With Jesus Christ as our Wounded Healer, the church can offer something that no one else can: HOPE. It’s not necessarily the responsibility of the government or even the medical community to offer hope, but it is the responsibility of the church of Jesus Christ. Often people with severe mental illness end up alienated from their family and friends, leaving them vulnerable to homelessness, substance abuse, crime, and suicide. Anyone with mental illness may feel like there is truly nowhere left to go, no one who cares whether they live or die. For many, the church is their last hope. And even though we as the church stumble and fail to live up to our good intentions at times, this is where we can excel. Through the promises of God, we know how to offer hope not only for this life, but for the life to come. We know how to share these foundational truths that can lead hurting people towards hope: you are loved, you have a purpose, you belong, you have a choice, and you are needed.