Far too many families from my work work find themselves unable to enter my church world. That’s tragic!
Much of what we do in mental health ministry can be characterized as care and support for adults who are already in a church. But what if we saw mental health ministry as evangelism and outreach to families that struggle to be part of church?
The Phillips family lives down the street from your church. Tammy (a single parent) is raising her son Josh (age 9) and daughter Jennifer (age 6). Josh was invited to VBS by his friend (Matt)…Josh had a great time and wants to come to church every Sunday and to Awana on Wednesday night.
Josh is on medication for ADHD and receivers special education services for dyslexia. Jennifer struggles with separation anxiety Tammy has social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia (predisposed to anxiety attacks in noisy, crowded environments) What are some of the potential barriers they would face in regularly attending your church and participating in your Awana activities?
Tammy: What would she be afraid of prior to her first visit to church? What would she need to do that would be hard for her to do? What might cause her distress at church?
Jennifer: What happens when she learns she’s supposed to go to a different area of the building with her same-age peers?
Josh: What happens if kids are asked to read Scripture in their group? What problems might you anticipate in following through with assigned Scripture memorization during the week? What challenges might he experience at a Wednesday evening Awana group that he wouldn’t experience at church on Sunday morning?
We have very different levels of understanding of mental illness among pastors and senior church leaders.
Who needs to be involved in the development of a mental health ministry? Emphasize role of the senior leader and their endorsement.
Why Church is Difficult for Families Affected by Mental Illness
Why Church is Difficult for
Families Affected by Mental
Stephen Grcevich, MD
Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
President and Founder, Key Ministry
Presented at Wonderfully Made Conference
Grace Church, Overland Park, Kansas
October 26, 2018
Who’s missing from your church?
• Children with depression are 1.73 times more
likely to never attend church.
• Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder are
1.48 times more likely to never attend church.
• Children with anxiety are 1.45 times more likely to
never attend church.
• Children with learning disabilities are 1.36 times
more likely to never attend church.
• Kids with ADD/ADHD are 1.19 times more likely to
never attend church.
Whitehead AL. J Scientific Study Religion 2018;57(2)377-395.
A perception we need to overcome
A different way of thinking about mental
How do we connect churches and
families impacted by mental
illness for the purpose of making
disciples of Jesus Christ?
• Why mental illness is different
from other disabilities
• Why church participation is
• What would a mental health
inclusion model for churches
How is mental illness different from other
• Often episodic
Can someone be “disabled” at church and function
well in other life activities?
Why is church involvement so difficult?
• Attributes of common
• Church culture – our
expectations for how
people should act
when we gather
Meet the Phillips Family…
How would your church serve them?
• Josh is “neurotypical.” His friend from school
invited him to your VBS. Josh had a great time
and wants to come every Sunday.
• Jennifer (daughter) struggles with separation
• Tammy (mother) has social anxiety disorder
What challenges might they face the first
time they attend a weekend worship
service at your church?
Why hasn’t the church embraced mental health
• Failure to recognize how the presence of
common mental health conditions might limit
• Variable levels of understanding of mental
illness among pastors, church leaders
• We don’t have a ministry model
What might an effective
mental health inclusion
strategy look like?
A foundation for a mental health inclusion
• Recognition of how non-essential attributes of our ministry
environments and practices interfere with participation for
children and adults with common mental health conditions
• Implementing a set of strategies across your ministry
environments to help individuals and families join activities most
critical for spiritual growth.
What gets in the way of church
participation for families affected
by mental illness?
Seven barriers to including
families impacted by mental illness
• Capacity for self-
• Sensory processing
• Necessary social
• Social isolation
• Past experiences of
Stigma as a
WHAT THEN IS WRONG
WITH THE “MENTALLY
ILL?” THEIR PROBLEM
IS AUTOGENIC; IT IS
• Mental illness defined
as sin or a parenting
• If it’s not a disability,
why would disability
ministry serve them?
• Widespread perception
they’re not welcome at
Anxiety as a
PEOPLE WITH ANXIETY
MISPERCEIVE RISK IN
• Social anxiety
• Separation anxiety
Fears specific to church:
• Fear of scrutiny
• Performance worries
• Anxiety results from
lack of faith
as a barrier…
COGNITIVE ABILITIES INVOLVED
IN MODULATING OTHER
ABILITIES AND BEHAVIORS
• Behavioral inhibition
• Verbal working
• Non-verbal working
• Emotional self-
One parent’s lament…
“People in the
they can tell when
a disability ends
and bad parenting
processing as a
PERSONS WITH SENSORY PROCESSING
DIFFERENCES MAY EXPERIENCE AS
AVERSIVE NOISE, LIGHT, TOUCH AND
SMELLS THAT OTHERS FIND ENGAGING
Challenges for kids:
• Pick up and drop-off times
• High energy worship
Challenges for adults:
• Greeting times (hugging, handshakes)
• High-energy worship
• Multiple conversations in close
as a barrier…
WHAT CHALLENGES MIGHT
SOMEONE ENCOUNTER AT
CHURCH IF THEY STRUGGLE TO
PICK UP ON SOCIAL CUES?
• Body language
• Tone, inflection of voice
• Facial expressions
• Small groups
• Small talk
• Unfamiliar situations
Social isolation as a
HOW DO FAMILIES FIND YOUR
CHURCH IF THEY DON’T
CONNECT WITH FAMILIES
ATTENDING YOUR CHURCH?
• Kids seen as less
• Less involved in
• Time, financial burdens of
• Lack of affordable child
care leaves parents with
fewer social outlets
Past experience of
church as a barrier
THE APPLE OFTEN DOESN’T FALL
FAR FROM THE TREE!
• Children of parents with
bad (or no) church
experiences aren’t going
• Kids depend on parents
• Parents struggle with
mental health issues too!
• Inconsistent attenders?
How might we help
individuals and families
affected by mental illness
become more active in our
Seven strategies for promoting mental health inclusion
• Assemble your inclusion team
• Create welcoming ministry environments.
• Focus on ministry activities most essential to spiritual
• Communicate effectively
• Help families with their most heartfelt needs
• Offer education and support
• Empower your people to assume responsibility for
Who needs a seat at the table?
Building an inclusion team
• Senior leadership
• Ministry directors on
• Ministry departments
may have their own
• Consider gifts, talents,
passions of church
What might our planning process look
• Leaders in each ministry area might identify potential barriers,
useful strategies within their area of responsibility.
• An alternate approach might be to focus on a strategy (or
several strategies) and implement the strategy across your
ministry departments or environments.
• Assigning responsibility for the plan (or components of the plan)
with deadlines for implementation important.
Key considerations for an effective mental
health inclusion strategy…
• Mental health inclusion is a mindset – not a program
• A good strategy benefits everyone and doesn’t
require anyone to self-identify
• No church will be able to include everyone with
mental illness, but every church can welcome,
serve and include more people with mental illness
Defining the “win”
• Your ministry achieves a win when any family member
of someone with mental illness has a meaningful
encounter with your church.
• Persons with mental illness have spouses, parents,
sons, daughters, siblings who need churches too!
• Mental health ministry and foster care/adoption ministry
The First Step…
• Senior pastors
• Pray for discernment
• Pursue buy-in from staff, board
• Church staff, volunteers
• Approach senior leadership for
• Developing a personal
• Respect church leaders
• “Be the church” where you’ve
Key Ministry promotes meaningful
connection between churches and
families of kids with disabilities for
the purpose of making disciples of
Free training, consultation, support and resources
What Does Key Ministry Do?
Help from Key Ministry
• Video training
• Book study
• Available to church teams
• Networking with other ministries
• Social media, sermon videos, research to support your ministry