Caring Congregations

John M. Crowe, M.Div., D.Min.

Member of NC NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness)

Member of the Pitt County Mental Health Association

Recipient of the 2002 President's Award from the Mental Health Association of NC

  I. The Wesleyan Spirit & Holistic Salvation.

The May/June 2003 Circuit Rider’s theme was “What does it mean to be Wesleyan in 2003?” Dr. Maddox’s article, Reclaiming Holistic Salvation, rightly lifted up physical healing. The writings of John Wesley demonstrate both a therapeutic and holistic understanding of ministry. His approach to physical health included both medical and spiritual treatment. He recognized the impact of the physical and the spiritual upon each other. He appreciated the support of the Christian community and emphasized preventative care.

Wesley wrote many pamphlets calling for environmental change in housing, wages, community services, etc. He was convinced that many illnesses were provoked by trauma of stressful social conditions. He was very sensitive to psychosomatics and chided physicians who prescribed drugs when they should be listening with compassion.

Furthermore, "more than any other major figure in Christendom, John Wesley involved himself with the theory and practice of medicine and with the specific principles and practices of ideal physical and mental health" (Vanderpool, 1986, p. 320). Sadly, Dr. Maddox’s article missed the opportunity to address the contribution of our Wesleyan heritage to the area of mental health.

II. The Wesleyan Spirit & Apostolic Ministry.

One writer in the area of church growth in the Wesleyan Spirit believes that “if our Church learned, to care enough and dare enough to minister with mentally ill people, we would discover the apostolic confidence to minister with many other people too.  Ministry to mentally ill people may be the key to the renewal for relevant ministry for many thousands of churches." 

    A. Contemporary Equipper for an Apostolic Ministry.

My friend and colleague, Rev. Susan Gregg-Schroeder wrote a moving article in the February 2003 edition of The Circuit Rider concerning mental health. In response to her article, she received many heartbreaking e-mails from both clergy and laity within the United Methodist Church. 

An Example.

On the opening page of Bill Hybles’ book about Willow Creek Community Church, he shares about a unique church meeting (13). Bill and the leaders of the church were meeting with some consultants. At one point, Bill perceived the Holy Spirit leading him to ask them to leave the room. As the high paid consultants waited, Willow Creek’s pastor and leaders were a caring church to each other. For 2 ½ hours they sought to support and strengthen a leader going through a painful, fearful, and lonely family tragedy. 

The Typical Situation.

For a church to offer healthy ministries as a caring community to a hurting world, we must first offer such care between the pastor, staff, elected officers, and influencers. If we are truly keeping our eyes upon Jesus, then ministry to people will always take precedence over business. If not, the hurting among our churches will feel crushed by a focus on number crunching. Too often, church officers and clergy who are hurting enter the ranks of the De-churched in reaction to one more church that forgot the Great Commandment to love one another.

Sometimes though, another type of health tragedy strikes a family within the congregation. An anxious and sometimes shame filled silence hovers over families in a church who are struck by mental illness. 

When mental illness strikes the parsonage family, the pastor is understandably hesitant to share. Pastor Doug Murren feels free enough to share about his struggle with bi-polar (p 23). He waited five years to do so. In retrospect, he is glad he did but wished for better support that would have provided him some wisdom about the best timing and manner of sharing this news with his congregation.

While some pastors like Murren deal with the challenges of a biologically based mental illness, others deal with illnesses like depression following a traumatic experience in their life. A useful book on this subject is Archibald Hart’s book, Coping with Depression In The Ministry and Other Helping Professions .

 B. Story.

The pastor’s family is more closely connected to the pastor’s work than any other professional (Friedman). Sometimes clergy weather traumatic experiences in their personal life and/or church life better than other members of the parsonage family. 

The above statements was true of one clergy family who went to a new town and church following an almost devastating experience with a clergy killer church. That traumatic experience really pushed every button from the spouse’s childhood experience. The resulting unhealthy reactions of the spouse to this trauma only increased the pastor’s struggle to deal with life, a troubled church, and hurting children. Not knowing much about mental illness at that time and feeling overwhelmed, the pastor failed to recognize the spouse’s emerging mental illness.

However, when the spouse’s mood swings and irrational personality expressions continued in the new and far healthier place, it was obvious something was wrong. At first, the spouse went to a therapist, but would not accept the referral to a psychiatrist for depression medication. Within a matter of months this all changed with the first hospitalization. The spouse was diagnosed with both biologically based mental illness and mental illness related to trauma. 

The church was shocked to learn their pastor’s spouse went to a hospital for two weeks. They were also hurt by the desire for privacy. 

The pastor felt very isolated because of honoring his wife’s request for no one to know what hospital. He found help among Christian friends who were not in the church he was pastor of and from nearby relatives. Her going to the hospital also meant loosing the part time employment she had just started.

With the pastor’s spouse on various medications, life appeared to return to normal once again. No one in the church knew about the pastor’s wife driving many miles to both individual and group therapy each week. 

No one except the pastor’s most intimate friends knew he was feeling a living like a single parent with an extra child at home. Feeling like a single parent did present him with various temptations. 

He gained much support during these trying times from his seminary roommate. David shared about his earlier experience with his wife’s similar mental illness. He was very disappointed in several of his long time Christian friends who were completely ignorant of mental illness. 

The pastor found out that the only Christians who understood him feeling like a single parent either had some experience with mental illness or with being a single parent. He did find some indirect support from confidential and anonymous online discussion groups involving those with mentally ill family members.

Several months went by before the pastor and the children rode the emotional roller coaster again in response to his wife’s repeated hospitalizations. Amidst all of this, the wife’s therapist encouraged the spouse to allow her husband to tell the congregation what was going on. 

The reaction was mixed. Some responded in anger saying that if his wife just kept her house better she would not get depressed. They sure showed their ignorance! Others responded in tears and prayed. A few found opportunity to undermine the pastor’s ministry and seek for his removal. Some expected superman out of the pastor by thinking he could do all his church responsibilities and completely take over the home duties without any relief. 

Some relief came to the pastor when the clinical social worker listened to his observations concerning what appeared as the key trigger for these hospitalizations. He felt like someone had finally let him in the inner circle of his wife’s mental illness when they all discussed his observations. 

More relief came when the clinical social worker shared about a support group for family members of the mentally ill called NAMI (The National Association for the Mentally Ill).

In this midst of the chaos, two members of the pastor-parish relations committee stepped up to the plate. They each shared with the pastor in private and with the committee their own personal experience with mental illness within their families.

About a year before all of this unfolded the District Superintendent told the pastors of his grown child’s diagnosis with a mental illness and her need to live with him for a while. 

When the PPRC contacted the DS, he expressed support for the pastor. Some on the PPRC thought a leave of absence would help the pastor and his family. The DS said no. He told them to take on more responsibility for their church and give the pastor three months in which he only had to preach on Sunday if he wanted to.

The pastor received this three month break gladly. He told the church about the key trigger of his wife’s problems. He assured them it was not him or them as a church. He also told them about NAMI and an affiliate meeting in a nearby town. He insisted that neither they nor people in the church view this three month break as making him the identified patient. 

He boldly told the people that her illness was not something he caused, he could fix nor could he control. He directly told the PPRC that he was not going to made into the identified patient. When the NAMI affiliate offered their free 12 week Family to Family course, he signed up and found it very validating and beneficial.

It has been some time since the last hospitalization. Life is far more stable for both the pastor’s family and the church.

Through all of this, he has learned not to walk on eggshells around his wife’s illness. He’s had to enter into counseling to help him regain control of his own life once again. He’s also on anti-depression medicine.

He and his children are very close. The children have learned to share their feelings and ideas with both him and their mother instead of either exploding or shutting down.

He and the children have learned how to take care of themselves and how to have a life beyond her mental illness. He has also found himself sought out now by church members and clergy struggling with mental health issues.

III. The Need for Caring Congregations with Healthy Ministries to a Hurting World.

One of the big needs of today is for healthy churches to offering caring ministries to a hurting world. Today’s society is full of people broken by either mental illness or some trauma in their life. At the same time states are providing less funds for mental health. 

The flame in our United Methodist symbol does not point to the fire for cooking a church fellowship supper. No, the flame points to the Holy Spirit whom God gave to Christ’s church to empower our witnessing through service and ministry.

The Brooklyn Tabernacle Church in NY sees itself as a Holy Spirit Emergency Room for those traumatized by life. Doug Murren, Bill Hybles, Rick Warren, and many others carry a great passion for developing churches that heal broken lives. Pastor Murren writes as one wounded healer to another by sharing scripture and true stories of how to create a church that brings healing to the broken emotional lives and relationships in their community. 

Therapist Larry Crabb writes about churches as caring communities in his book, Connecting: Healing for Ourselves and Our Relationships A Radical New Vision. Dr. Crabb boldly claims that churches can accomplish much of the healing that people now depend on mental health professionals to provide. 

Dr. David Thompson and his daughter Gina expression a similar passion in their book, Holiness for Hurting People. Thompson, co-writing with his daughter, uses his own family as a poignant case study, candidly tracing the feelings of shame and abandonment that cause many adults to cope as children. He then maps out a discipleship-recovery journey that is structured around Paul's teachings on holy love in Ephesians and draws on the principles of the Twelve Step process used by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. 

  A. Pentecost & Ministries to Hurting People.

The gift of the Holy Spirit whom we will celebrate on the Day of Pentecost means far more than Holy Ghost thrills and chills. Part of what Holistic Salvation means as Wesleyans in 2003 goes far beyond singing “I’m love, you are love, I can risk loving you.” 21st century Apostolic ministry in the Wesleyan Spirit calls each church body to cease sitting on its blessed assurance. We are called to perform intentional deeds of love to both the mental health consumer and their families. 

     B. Seven Lessons for all Churches Desiring to be Caring Christian Communities.

The church mentioned in the above story went through a baptism of fire in learning about being a caring community to their pastor and his family whose wife was struck with mental illness following a traumatic experience. What can we learn from this to equip churches with healthy ministries for a hurting world?

First, the pastor is in a key position within the church’s nervous system to sensitize leaders to the problems common to all people. A pastor can accomplish this by intentionally forming the leadership team into a caring community as shared in the opening story. Unless a church body is a caring community within this subsystem of the church, any programs of care for others will lack the needed passion.

Second, sermons and Sunday school lessons on relating the church’s call to fulfill both the great commandment and the great commission in relationship to mental illness would help cast a vision for developing a caring community within the church body and beyond ourselves  

Third, the formation of small groups to help people integrate Christianity with mental illness could start out very general and then expand into specialized small groups as the ministry of being a caring community grows. 

Fourth, before forming these small groups, the pastor and others will disciple the leaders of these small groups in more than just completing the tasks of small group leadership. These folks will need some solid development in their own holy wholeness in Christ. Then they will need to be held accountable for their ongoing growth by whoever is directly in charge of the small groups.

Fifth, from time to time the church will offer special services of anointing with prayers for wholeness as found in the UM Book of Worship. These services will not only minister to people’s needs but also keep before the church its calling to be God’s Healing Community as the late Frank Stanger wrote about. 

Sixth, distributing materials from a nearby NAMI affiliate about their meetings and Family to Family Course would help as well. As people experience healthy Christian love in the church as a caring community in Christ and discover the resources from NAMI, a relationship could develop in working together on issue of education, support and advocacy on a local, state, and national level. 

Seventh, once a caring community for the mentally ill and their families is well established, a church could offer its experiences as a teaching church to others both within and outside of its denomination. It could send articles in to their denominational paper about what they are doing in this ministry in hopes of inspiring others.

Works Cited

Crabb, Larry. Connecting: Healing for Ourselves and Our Relationships A Radical New Vision. Nashville:  Word, 1997.

Friedman, Edwin H. Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. New York:  Guildford, 1985.

Galloway, Dale, and Kathi Mills. The Small Group Book. Grand Rapids:  Revell, 1995.

Hammond, Mary Tuomi. The Church and the Dechurched: Mending a Damaged Faith. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001.

Hybles, Bill and Lynne Hybles. Rediscovering Church: The Story and Vision Willow Creek Community Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.

Murren, Doug. Churches That Heal: Becoming a Church That Mends Broken Hearts and Restores Shattered Lives. West Monroe, LA:  Howard Publishing, 1999.

Thompson, David L., with Gina Thompson Eickhoff. Holiness for Hurting People. Indianapolis, IN:  Wesleyan Publishing House, 1998.