I love my church. Inviting my friend to join me for Pentecost Sunday and lunch afterward was an easy, uncomplicated act. The service that day was jubilant; our people warmly inviting. There was much shaking of hands and a few hugs as the members of our congregation connected with their new visitor. Having fewer new people these days, they were clearly very pleased to meet her.
At the last chord of the organ, the fellowship only intensified. At some point, I looked up from my conversation with a smiling family of four and realized my friend was no longer with us.
Mildly concerned, I crossed the sanctuary and began my search in everyone’s favorite place of personal retreat, the restroom. It was unoccupied. I dipped into the Sunday school area. The lights were out, and each door was locked. Pivoting toward the Fellowship Hall, I found only a ragged box of doughnut parts to greet me. Then I stepped into the sunny glare of the now-abandoned back parking lot.
There she was. My friend was sitting on a small, slightly rusted iron bench in an embarrassingly unkempt area of our lovely church grounds. If it weren’t for the rapid bouncing of her knee as her right heel tapped the crabgrass, I don’t know if I would have seen her.
My brain quickly attempted to register the situation at hand. Knee bouncing. Arms tightly crossed. Is she crying? I joined her on the bench, sat down and remembered.
“The worship service I found exuberant, joyful and bold was, for her, exhausting.”
My friend is a wonderful, beautiful person. She is a scholar, a gifted writer and a baking aficionado. She also lives with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and depression. The worship service I found exuberant, joyful and bold was, for her, exhausting. The people I prized as open, accepting and friendly were overwhelming.
She tried to explain why this was without hurting my feelings, but the burden of educating me was too difficult that day and only seemed to increase her frustration. It was then that I knew our church had some thinking to do.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that one in every five of us will experience a mental health crisis this year. One in 20 of us will experience major mental illness in our lifetime.
This information certainly begs a few questions about our church programs, practices and facilities. How mental health friendly are we? Since that Sunday with my friend, I have reached out to practitioners, parishioners and clergy with my concerns. How can we, as Christians who are striving to be as inclusive and loving as possible, create environments of safety for everyone?
Here are a few helpful ideas I found.
Talk with an expert. Reaching out to the therapeutic community is an excellent way to become educated on mental illness and its prevalence. Professional mental health practitioners can guide us toward more helpful ways of supporting friends, family, parishioners and, yes, visitors. Once we began looking, we found our congregation included several professionals who were happy to share information and wisdom.
Be ready to refer. While empathetic listening certainly has its place, let us be mindful that in some conversations, a connection to a clinical provider may also be in order.
Andrew J. Weaver made a life of studying the role of spirituality in patients of all types. Specifically considering the interface between people with mental illness and members of the clergy, he found that individuals suffering from an acute mental health event were more likely to seek support from clergy alone than from psychiatrists and psychologists combined.
The sad fact is, in these interactions clergy reported making referrals to mental health professionals only 10% of the time.
Weaver suggests clergy might serve most effectively in the mental health arena as skilled facilitators, identifying needs and connecting people to a larger spectrum of specialized care.
Mental health and religious communities share many common values and goals, Weaver says. Our focus on a sense of meaning and purpose, community support and emotional well-being readily comes to mind. He challenges church leaders and clinicians to work together more effectively for the best interest of all we are called to serve.
“Candid testimony from a church leader can help us begin to see mental illness as something in the category of physical illness instead.”
Never underestimate the power of the pulpit. A well-crafted sermon addressing mental health challenges can be very effective at dismantling the stigma that keeps many from seeking help. For millennia, mental health has been relegated to a kind of spiritual struggle, brought on by a lack of faith. Candid testimony from a church leader can help us begin to see mental illness as something in the category of physical illness instead.
If someone has a broken leg, we expect treatment to be applied. The same principle applies. Including mental health in our preaching normalizes getting help. It helps remind us to keep mental health in the category of the physical, rather than the spiritual, and it gives us words to begin difficult conversations.
Biblical texts abound. Psalms of exultation and lament testify to our shared experience of the highs and lows of life. Jesus continually connected with people who experienced disconnection and isolation.
My latest passion is based around the fourth chapter of Philippians. Do not be anxious about anything (But, what if I am?) but in every situation, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God (But, what if I can’t?). And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your heart and minds in Christ Jesus. (But, what if it doesn’t?)
Consider your space. Returning to the day, I found my friend sitting alone on the bench near the parking lot. The sun was blazing down on her head, and the grass under her feet was overgrown and prickly with briars.
“We must continue to think about making our services available to people whose need for accessibility may not be immediately apparent.”
Rewinding to the triggering event, what if there had been easier access to a quiet, comfortable space? What if she could have reached the women’s room without having to walk the entire aisle of the sanctuary? What if we could have provided her with a shady, comfortable courtyard? Easier exits and quiet, comfortable spaces would have been helpful for my friend. I didn’t know that at the time, though, because I never thought to ask her.
This is why I believe as the church we must never cease educating ourselves. As generations of people pass through our Sunday school rooms, fellowship halls and sanctuaries, new and innovative opportunities to care become apparent.
Are there opportunities for quiet reflection embedded in our worship services? Are we sensitive to the impact of our mandatory moments of fellowship, such as the passing of the peace? Do our midweek Bible studies also include support groups of varying kinds?
This article is hardly an exhaustive list of how to apply mental health considerations to our corporate spiritual practices. It is, however, an invitation to consider how our worship behaviors and traditions affect those around us.
As church leaders, we have learned over the years that accessibility matters. We have built ramps and installed elevators for those who need them. We have hung defibrillators on our walls and are now very careful about the snacks we serve in Sunday school, and rightly so. We must continue to think about making our services available to people whose need for accessibility may not be immediately apparent.
For the sake of our sisters and brothers who process the world differently than we do, let us listen and learn together.
Debby Haralson is a graduate of McAfee School of Theology, where she earned a doctor of ministry degree in mission and community development. She currently serves as director of community engagement for Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.