1. Read and Research for Understanding.
The Lord gives wisdom, but sometimes we must search out the knowledge we need (Proverbs 2:6; 18:15). It’s helpful for church leaders to read books and compile research on basic mental health issues for themselves, because people struggling with mental health often reach out to church leaders first.
Reading and research can also help church leaders and members acknowledge their fears about the mentally ill so they become less nervous or uneasy about conversations with them.
2. Recognize the Congregation’s Role.
The church is a unique place to allow people to learn they are valuable because they are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).
Mental illness is complex, affecting different areas of a person’s life. Because of this complexity, church members with different skill sets and spiritual gifts (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:11-13; 1 Peter 4:10-11) can play helpful roles and come alongside the suffering. It’s beneficial for numerous people to reach out to befriend them so no one church member carries an exhausting weight of support.
Practical ministry to the mentally ill might include caring for their children, supplying meals, or visiting them in the hospital or their homes (if welcome).
Mental illness is often chronic. Support may be needed on an ongoing basis, so Christians need to have proper expectations and be patient. Church leaders can foster a compassionate culture toward the mentally ill by educating members through various venues: sermon illustrations, blogs, classes, conferences, and support groups.
3. Relate with Wisdom and Love.
Unfortunately, mental illness is often stigmatized by the church. Well-intentioned comments like “You just need more faith” or “You just need to pray more” can be hurtful.
Strugglers often feel judged or isolated. They may pull away from church if the congregation seems shocked by their presence. Church members should be encouraged to show acceptance, listen with compassion, respond with biblical wisdom when asked questions, and offer genuine love.
Mental illness may be caused by biology, environment, or personal choices. Caring believers might attend a counseling session with a hurting friend—with their and the counselor’s permission—to get a better understanding of a person’s unique struggle.
Church-based relationships with the mentally ill should go beyond their illness to offer genuine friendship and interest in their lives, because a friend loves at all times (Proverbs 17:17).
4. Reach Out to the “Inner Circle.”
The pain of a person’s mental illness often spreads to family and friends, impacting relationships. The church can reach out to a sufferer’s inner circle by offering helpful counsel, encouragement, and support. But care must be taken in what is said to friends and family. Certainly, gossip or judgmentalism are never appropriate (Proverbs 11:13; 16:28; Ephesians 4:29; James 4:11-12).
Christians might offer to pray with loved ones or answer their questions, if possible; and especially when loved ones may be part of the solution for a mentally-ill relative, family members might be included in ongoing discussions.
5. Recommend and Refer.
Church leadership may want to provide information about community resources that can help those suffering with mental health issues, their family members, or those who minister to them. Recommended resources might be listed in the church bulletin, offered at a special display, or set aside in a special place in the church library.
The church can also be prepared with professional referrals or contact numbers for biblical counselors, Christian psychologists, and medical doctors, whether they are members of the church or trusted referrals outside the church.
6. Remember Self-Care.
It’s difficult to give what we do not possess, and that includes supportive strength. Those in ministry must understand that growing signs of physical, emotional, or mental collapse can make it difficult to help someone with mental health issues.
Taking time for self-care—for relaxation, recuperation and restoration—is a necessary part of healthy ministry. Jesus saw His disciples’ stress in ministry. He beckoned them to “come apart … and get some rest” (Mark 6:31). God wants His children to rest and get sleep (Psalm 127:2). Church leaders must never be afraid to seek help themselves if they are overwhelmed by too much work.
As someone wisely said: “Come apart before you fall apart!”
Dawn Wilson and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn assists author and radio host Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with research and works with various departments at Revive Our Hearts. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, publishes Upgrade with Dawn, and writes for Crosswalk.com and Christianity.com. Dawn also travels with her husband in ministry with Pacesetter Global Outreach.
Photo Credit: Getty/Sam Thomas