Yesterday, Saddleback Church in California hosted a one-day conference called Mental Health and the Church. The event’s stated purpose was to “call the Church to action on behalf of those living with mental illness, equip lay and pastoral leadership, and stand side-by-side with those who suffer.”
The event was encouraging on so many levels. First, it was encouraging to see a united Church stand together in this issue. Although different denominations were represented, I heard one voice: the community of faith needs to be the hands and feet of Jesus as we serve and seek out those that are hurting. After all of the controversy surrounding World Vision’s decision, it was refreshing to see a Church united in love to serve and care. Sure, our solutions may be different, but the goal is the same: to invite in, to have compassion, to weep with, to impart hope. Many times, out of fear or ignorance, we have excluded and shamed those struggling with mental illness. That has to change.
Second, it was encouraging to see brave men and women step forward in the public eye and share about their own experience with mental illness. There were many tears shed on that stage: tears of grief, tears of exhaustion, tears of joy in hope. The courage it took for many to bring these stories into the light was awe-inspiring. It confirmed a desire in my heart to work with the hurting and the broken…to sit down and hear their stories, to weep with them, and to impart hope. I’m thankful for their courage to put a face and name to this specific form of suffering.
Lastly, while the conference gave some helpful practical advice (that I’ll be taking back to my Church), it spurred me on to think about creative ways that we, as the Church, can partner with others in the community to give people the help that they need. Statistically, the Church is still the first place people come to get help with mental illness. I couldn’t believe that when I heard it. We have an obligation and an opportunity to impart the person of Jesus and the hope of the Kingdom of God to these brothers and sisters. Simply put, we must do better. One panelist said, “If we reject people with mental illness coming through our doors, they think God has rejected them.” We are Christ’s ambassadors, and as such, we must welcome, and serve, and include, and love.
Consider this statement from Paul on unity within the Church.
“21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
How does this change our approach to those in our congregations that have mental illness? How does it change our approach to those in our communities with mental illness? The Gospel calls us to honor, not shame. The Gospel calls us to seek out and serve the weak, not marginalize them. I am convinced that we are faced with a great opportunity to serve, to love, to welcome. How does this look in your church context? How can we do better?