Ministry and mental illness

The challenges facing churches in ministering to the mentally ill are more difficult when institutions charged with that task are themselves in crisis.

By Kristopher Aaron

Last week was an interesting one. On Wednesday, I met with a young man that had visited our church a few times. After answering a few basic questions about the church, I asked him to tell me about himself.

Almost immediately, he told me that he was someone who was written about in the Bible. I asked for clarification, wanting to make sure that I had heard him correctly, and I had. Then he asked for money, so he could travel to a place that God would show him. Next, he told me that he was a prophet and that he could levitate. Finally, he told me that he was the second coming of Jesus and that the Father would reveal this true identity to me if I merely asked for it.

He spent the rest of our conversation trying to prove to me who he was by reading from his Bible. He jumped from verse to verse, telling me that each one referred to him.

As politely as I could, I interrupted his unique form of proof-texting and told him that we would not be giving him any money and that he would not be given the opportunity to speak during any of our worship services. I concluded by telling him that while we always welcomed anyone who wanted to join us in worship, we could do no more than that.

I feared suggesting he seek mental help would only agitate him, so I didn’t. He was cordial and after a little over an hour he finally left my office.

The next day someone put a CD through the mail slot in the church’s front door. It was covered by a sheet of notebook paper with several messages on it — the name of the one who delivered it, that the CD contained the most important message in the history of the world, and directions to his Facebook page.

Fearful that the CD might have some virus I threw it away, but out of curiosity I went to his Facebook page. In post and after post, the young man claimed to be a prophet. The posts were what I expected — long, rambling and unintelligible.

I had met Jesus one day and a prophet the next.

In every church I’ve worked I’ve encountered people that were mentally ill. They almost always were people who came in from the street asking for help, so these recent encounters weren’t a new experience, though dealing with such severe cases so closely together was. After talking with others on staff, I learned that the frequency of these encounters at church has been increasing.

To make matters worse, I learned this week that Seven Counties, the main community mental health center in Louisville, Ky., has filed for bankruptcy. While struggling to find the balance between wanting the church to be seen as an opening, inviting place and wanting to make sure that the people inside the church are safe isn’t new, it becomes all the more acute when the institutions charged with helping the mentally ill are themselves in crisis.

While our church’s encounters with those who are mentally ill have increased lately, it seems that we aren’t alone. In talking with other churches near us, we have discovered that they are having similar experiences. This isn’t just a problem confined to Louisville, however. In seemingly every other national news cycle, there is a new story about a young man with mental illness obtaining a gun, often legally, and going on a rampage.

Encounters with those who need mental help are only increasing while more and more of the institutions designed to help them are having fiscal woes.

The church cannot solve this problem alone. It needs the help of professionally trained mental health workers and those appear to be in short supply across the country. Ministers need to know about the centers in their area that treat those with mental illness, but equally important is the fact that those centers need the financial support necessary to help their potential patients.

Sometimes the most effective form of ministry is referral, but that only works when the place you refer them to is open.

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