by Gunnar E. Christiansen, M.D.
“Speaking to the Choir” is important, but more is needed. If we are to be successful in developing a welcome and spiritually nurturing environment in our places of worship for those affected by mental illness, we must take a step beyond just talking to each other.
We must speak to the “80 percent” in our congregations, as well as to those in society as a whole who don’t have a mental illness or have someone in their families affected by mental illness. Unless we educate them about the challenges of mental illness, we will limit our success in our attempts to develop our ministry.
Education leads to understanding.
Understanding leads to empathy.
Empathy leads to loving, compassionate care.
We will truly have a “Caring Congregation” when the “80 percent” experience empathy rather than just sympathy for those affected by mental illness. The ability for people to have at least a glimmer of what it is like to walk in the shoes of someone with a mental illness is necessary for a congregation to recognize that ministry with those affected should be a central part of its mission.
A paradigm shift is needed.
This paradigm shift from a peripheral focus to a central focus by a congregation is a progressive change rather than a sudden change. The necessary steps will vary in different congregations, but you are invited to visit the “Steps of Ministry” page in the NAMI FaithNet Web site for further discussion. Also, please check out the many other downloadable resources available from the organizations listed on the “Related Links” page of our Web site (e.g. www.pathways2promise.org, www.mentalhealthministries.net and www.congregationalresources.org/mentalhealth.asp).
We can engage the “80 percent” by connecting with our faith leaders and making presentations to our communities.
Whereas 20 years ago, mental illness hardly ever was mentioned in worship services, today this is no longer the case. For example, during the past four years, in my congregation, we have had three entire worship services devoted to ministry with those affected by mental illness. During the past 16 years, we have had multiple presentations to Sunday School classes, etc. concerning mental illness.
The Talmud states that beginnings are difficult. Certainly the steps in developing ministry with those affected by mental illness can be challenging. But we have a partner in our advocacy and we could not have a better one. With God’s help, we can climb mountains. With God’s help, all things are possible.
“Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him and he will do this:
He will make your righteousness
shine like the dawn,
the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.”
Psalm 37: 5 & 6