What is the church’s responsibility to the mentally ill? I have concluded that mental illness, despite the potential baggage of the worldview of psychology, is inherently a truthful enough category to be useful in describing a phenomenon in the real world. While there are very controversial and ongoing conversations regarding the Biblical analysis of mental illness and the interpretation of Biblical passages about mental illness, we cannot reasonably deny that mental illness, as a human experience understood today in the language of medical diagnosis, did exist in the Bible and is all around us today.
The mentally and emotionally ill are part of every church. They make up part of the body of Christ. They are persons baptized, professing faith, participating in fellowship, worship and ministry. They are ministers, teachers and pastors. They are the fathers, mothers, young adults, college students and singles in our churches. At times they are our children. Certainly they are part of the community every church seeks to reach.
Churches that choose to ignore mental illness are making the decision to deny a valid part of the human story. The church tradition that I grew up in had no categories for dealing with mental illness. My father’s depression simply wasn’t allowable in the concept of the church that was nurtured among us. Virtually no one in our church would have felt it was possible to admit to mental illness without enormous stigma. The behaviors and struggles of the mentally ill were interpreted through other grids, from spiritual warfare to personal blame to contamination by worldly influences.
Such phrases as “the victorious Christian life” and “the spirit-filled life” led to simplistic psychologies that made any mental or emotional illness seem quickly “fixable” by prayer, scripture memory and church attendance. As I refect back on my early years in church, it is plain to me now that many of the mentally and emotionally ill in our church did not seek any kind of help, but populated the altar at almost every invitation. Our pastor, who was completely untrained in these matters, dealt with these people as best he could.
Later on, I was serving in a church in a large urban center, among a congregation that was much more open about understanding and accepting mental illness as a reality. Even with many “referring relationships” to the those providing medical and psychological help, our pastor- a very gifted and empathetic man whose preaching reached to the emotions of the congregtion- was overwhelmed with “needy,” emotionally hurting people. There were often hazards in our ministry there caused by the complexity of working with mentally and emotionally disturbed people who expected ministerial staff to be able to help those with severe emotional disability.
Of course, for 14 years I have been face to face with emotional illness on a daily basis. Though our school does not work with “actively” mentally ill persons, we work with many who have “psych” diagnoses and histories. Because we are a Christian community, our staff have differing beliefs about the best way to respond to the needs of our students who have issues in this area. For example, the subject of psychiatric medication is quite controversial, and the topic of ADHD will always rouse debate.
Iit is in this environment, however, that I believe I have glimpsed the truth of the Church and mental illness most clearly. My early experience of institutional fundamentalism was unable to cope with the reality of mental illness, but today I look at examples such as Henri Nouwen as signs of Christ moving toward the mentally ill; including them and ministering with them as a sign of the presence of the Kingdom of God.
Nouwen left ministry at Harvard in order to spend the closing chapter of his life at a community for the mentally and physically handicapped, serving and leading worship for the last, least, little, lost and dying (to use Robert Capon’s list of those Jesus ministered to.) I believe Nouwen did this in order to truly experience the church as the people of God seeking to follow Christ in an imitation of Christ himself. In Nouwen’s sacramental tradition as a Roman Catholic, there was a strong sense of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the handicaps of those in the Le Arche community provided no barrier to the power of that divine presence.
Those of us who conceive of the church in less sacramentarian terms- but still rejecting transactionalism- can still understand the presence of Christ among the mentally and emotionally ill. That presence comes as Christ is incarnated in his people, in the Word and in the sacraments. The acceptable year of the Lord is declared among people like this, and God would them in our midst.
Can the mentally ill receive God’s word? Can they participate in the life of the church? But are there limits that must be respected? The answer to all those questions is “Yes.” While there are places in the life of the church where emotional and mental illness would mean some limitations or boundaries, the heart of the life of the church- fellowship, worship, communion, service, celebration, love- should intentionally include the mentally ill.
The presence of the sick, the poor and the mentally ill are important reminders of Jesus and his ministry in the Gospels. We cannot make the church a museum of “bright, shiny” people or “catalog model” teenagers and call ourselves the same movement that flowed from the ministry of Jesus. Mark’s summaries of the Galilean ministry of Jesus make it clear that those we would call the mentally ill were there in large numbers. This would not have been convenient, but it was of the essence of Jesus’ inclusion.
The church of Jesus Christ should create- or recreate- itself into a form that includes the broken, the sick and the mentally ill. We should be careful that what belongs to Jesus does not come to resemble a country club. This is a serious argument for some of the kinds of “house” church structures that the emerging church is revisiting. It is a serious critique of the kind of image making many seeker churches pursue.
One other question: What about mental illness and ministry? This is a sensitive topic, because many of those in scripture who are emotional and given to depression or emotional outbursts are prophets of God. The Bible talks about family, marital and personal stability as a qualification for ministry. It seems undeniable that the shepherd cannot shepherd the sheep if he or she is too depressed to speak the truth, love the congregation or feed the sheep.
Mental and emotional illness, however, are not a simple “downers” or crippling instabilities. Many emotionally ill persons function at high levels. It would be foolish to say “Johnny has emotional instability, therefore he cannot serve or lead.” Why? Because such issues are usually not life-dominating. The question is, “How does Johnny live with mental illness? Responsibly or irresponsibly?”
In many cases, these afflictions have benefits as well as dark sides. (Again, Lincoln is an example.) Relentless cheerfulness and glib insensitivity to pain are not blessings in a minister. A sense of the darker side of life and the reality of pain and brokenness are windows of compassion. Those who read a book like Lloyd-Jones “Spiritual Depression” know they are reading someone who has seen the dark valleys of depressions he seeks to lead the sheep through.
I have experienced this balance in my own life. I have struggled with serious depression and severe, paralyzing anger in my own life. At times, these afflictions have hampered my preaching and my leadership, and wounded my family. Yet my family has experienced profound healing. My marriage has deeper strength than most we know. Others see and affirm this. My relationship with my family and my congregation have enhanced the person I am when I stand in leadership and ministry.
These emotional struggles have also made me more willing to share my own life’s struggles with my people- and they unanimously appreciate this and realize that I stand and speak only because of times I have knelt and wept to Jesus. I have been more open for prayer from others. I have taught the value of our own stories. I have an emotional window into the experience of Jesus in dark times, and into his own compassionate ministry. My reading of the Bible is deeper, especially as I read the Psalms. I believe I can enter into the experiences of hurting parents and depressed church members as a shepherd and as a sheep.
As I have written elsewhere, full-time church ministry as amplified some of my own struggles and problems. Looking back, I wish that bi-vocational ministry had been an option in my early years, just as I wish someone had explained depression to me when my father was suffering with it. But I have never been told by any church leader or church member that I was a poor shepherd or a fraudulent minister. I’ve experienced a deep love from my congregations, and I rejoice that some of my struggles have enabled me to stand before them as a person deeply touched by Jesus. My repentance with my family is great, and my appreciation for the grace of God is not academic, but real and personal.
Ministering to and with the mentally ill requires much love and discernment. It is important that ministers and laypersons do all they can to understand mental illness with the best insights of contemporary science and medicine. It is an important witness when we embrace those Jesus embraced, and include those he included. This is why the mentally ill can be a gift to the church, and a continuing opportunity to discover Jesus in those in whom he mysteriously meets us.
Now we move on to the final question: What does the Gospel say to the mentally ill?