“I really love my church, but they don’t really understand mental illness … how can I help them start understanding and even provide more support?”
Many incredible church leaders get nervous about the topic of mental illness—not because they don’t want to help, they just lack real understanding. However, due to this lack of understanding, they draw conclusions rooted in stigma.
When these pastors start to understand, and when they “get it,” you will see their church changes lives and influences culture.
Coming from years of ministry myself, I will tell you that the majority of church leaders really do want to help. The problem is training.
Most seminaries and Bible schools provide no training for mental illness … and even fewer know how to recognize or respond to it. At one of our first seminars in Florida, a Baptist pastor said, “I have pastored for over 30 years and I have never known what to do when it comes to mental illness, I’m excited to have this resource.”
They simply were never taught anything about mental illness and therefore many pastors and ministries feel ill equipped. With simple understanding and support, your pastor will welcome ways that can provide better support for those in need.
Let's look at the process to get your church involved.
The Vision: Simple Support vs. Big Ministry
If you approach your pastor by saying you want to “start a ministry for mental illness," you pretty much have overwhelmed your pastor and might be a little defensive. It's language and how they define "ministry." This term for them means a new department of ministry within the church involving a lot of money, people (leaders) to train, church building space, etc. Then, with no real mental illness understanding they are naturally flooded with “stigma” concerns regarding liability.
You are basically asking the pastor to discuss looking at some simple and affordable options to provide effective support within the church - not a ministry.
We need to take an approach that doesn’t overwhelm the pastoral leadership. Let’s look at 4 ways to prepare and then some strategies to help your church build more support.
The Process: Keys to Consider
1) Taking the Lead: Being an Advocate Catalyst.
A good pastor is always looking for a catalyst leader to help serve, lead, and build within their church. So, you will need to decide if you want to be one of the key leaders to help provide the support in your church. This will mean that you will take the responsibility for recruiting and handling the communication with others who want to be involved. You don't have to do it all, recruit other interested people.
2) The Paradigm Patient Process: Invite them to Understand
Expect to have several meetings to develop a process of understanding. BOTTOM LINE … Don’t be PUSHY or DEMANDING! You are more or less submitting a proposal for something new for the church to consider. For many pastoral leaders this will be a paradigm shift, so give them time. This will then take the pressure off of you trying to make them understand. So, take the attitude to invite them into the journey to understand and see a way to help. Keep your focus on God, and allow Him to give everyone wisdom or insight needed to move forward.
3) Focus on a Process that Blesses the Church
Again, don’t push for a ministry; it is more about having a system of support in place. Invite the pastoral staff to look into strategic steps and a process to build a healthy church response (below) when mental health difficulties are encountered. Remember, the pastor has to lead the church and elders into accepting this too – so your pastor is usually thinking of the whole body, not just a few members.
4) Story vs. Business
Help them connect to your story, but then look at the “business” steps. Pastors like to see a practical plan, not just a great idea with no practical process in place.
The Meeting: Pitching to your pastoral leaders
Now, how should you introduce this to your pastor? Here are some suggested steps:
General Introductions and an Invitation: Set-up a meeting with the pastor or leaders and be clear stating that you would like to discuss mental illness and to simply discuss some encouraging information that could help the church.
Share your story: keep it brief, but revealing how this led you to discover more ideas that could provide more support for others in the church.
Share statistics: how prevalent it is in our society and in the church (1 in 4 adults, 1 in 5 adolescents, 27% of congregants on Sunday are dealing with mental illness / family or themselves).
Share the process: see below – education interest, recruit people to lead, get simple training for support groups, and then launch the support groups and/or education classes (NAMI Family to Family). You can review our costs for groups, however NAMI provides their resources for free.
Share how this could benefit the church: you can share how other churches across the nation have started supporting mental illness, it relieves pastoral dependency, and our support groups have empirical data showing overall improvement.
Answer concerns over liability: the truth is that people with mental illness are no more likely to commit crimes than regular population. Media only reports the extreme cases that implies a label of fear on anyone with a mental illness. The fact is that people with mental illness are already attending the church for other ministry meetings (church dinners, church, small groups and special meetings such as celebrate recovery or AA). A church approved “ministry” is usually covered in the insurance policy. They can consult other churches that have started one of our support group (Grace Groups).
Submit/propose the following process:
1. Education Interest: A workshop meeting for those in the church interested. Share your story, general statistics information, and then explain different ideas what you and the leaders are looking to do. Have a sign-up sheet to follow-up with individuals.
2. Training: Core group of leaders 2-6 or more can receive training to start our Family and Peer Support Groups. In addition, NAMI can offer volunteers or train your team to run their education classes.
3. Start Groups or Education class and let it grow over time: You might see high number at first and then it can drop off. When you offer something consistently despite the numbers it allows for others in the community to know that your group exist ... there is always a need.
*Cost is only for training of group leaders and materials, church can provide some or all the funds for training and a room for group meetings.
Just give it time and follow up with the pastor to see about further meetings with other leaders and or elders.
But what about a mental health ministry?
We want to start with simple and affordable support without overwhelming the current church system. A ministry will grow naturally over time as momentum builds on it's own. Get comfortable with the Grace groups or education classes you develop, and then see how you and your church support can grow into more opportunities. Keep it simple.
If you have any questions or need help, we are here to help you along the way.
CEO & C/Founder - The Grace Alliance