I’ve always believed and taught that God uses our pain to help others. I’ve seen that to be true over and over in my life—and in the lives of those in our Saddleback family. Much of the Purpose Driven framework for ministry came from a time of deep pain I experienced early in my ministry. And Celebrate Recovery was born out of the pain of my dear friend, John Baker.
The same is true with our church’s mental health ministries. My youngest son, Matthew, struggled since childhood with all kinds of mental and emotional pain. These challenges were difficult for him and our family.
Then, the day came I prayed would never happen. Matthew lost his battle with mental illness and took his life in a moment of despair. It was the worst day of my life.
Although not everything that happens in our life is God’s will, I do know he can turn bad into good. God doesn’t want us to ever waste a hurt.
That’s why Kay and I decided to use our pain to help others. As we developed our church’s mental illness ministry, we focused on five goals. I believe these goals are important for every church as they begin to tackle mental illness.
Take the lead in dealing with mental illness.
I don’t just believe the church has a role in mental health. I believe we must take the lead. Here’s why:
Biblically, Jesus ministered to people in a variety of different ways—including caring about their mental health. Jesus doesn’t just care about our souls going to heaven and our minds learning the truth. He cares about our bodies, too. Jesus’ ministry clearly cared for people who struggled with mental illness.
Historically, the church has a 2000-year track record of caring for the sick, including the mentally ill. It wasn’t the government or healthcare agencies that invented the hospital. It was the church. It’s no accident that the first hospital in almost every country in the world was started by Christian missionaries.
Practically, people typically contact their church when they’re in pain. Before a person in pain calls anyone else for help, they often call their priest, pastor, or spiritual leader first. From our experience, we know people need help with mental health challenges at all times of the day or night. The church can be equipped to be there during those times.
Remove the stigma.
The real reason people are hesitant to talk about mental illness is fear. There’s no stigma attached to repairing a broken bone. It shouldn’t be any different for mental illness.
Removing the stigma of mental illness starts with the church recognizing this truth: We are all broken. Pastor, you’re broken and I’m broken. Every person we see throughout the day is broken—no matter how healthy they appear on the outside. We need to constantly talk about this. We must admit as leaders when we struggle with mental illnesses, such as depression, so people won’t feel alone in their own struggles.
Equip and educate your congregation.
Pastors aren’t the only ones who need to understand and be ready to help people with mental illness. For the church to be on the frontlines of this ministry, everyone needs to be ready. Often it’s the receptionist answering the phone or the small group leader who is called upon to meet these important ministry needs.
Pastors can’t do this on their own. They need the support of other trained leaders.
Make families aware of the available resources.
When Kay and I were struggling with our youngest son’s mental illness, we often felt overwhelmed and didn’t know where to turn. We looked and looked, and sometimes we couldn’t find any help—but it was out there.
You have an opportunity to open the door for conversations in your community between healthcare agencies and churches. You can provide a space for academics and institutions of higher learning to talk with your congregation (and other churches) about mental and emotional health issues. You can be a connector for people in your community to find the help they need.
Support people living with mental illness.
Let’s show people that we care about their pain. Let’s remind them, “Your illness is not your identity, and your chemistry is not your character.” God has a purpose and plan for every person—regardless of the struggles they face.
Every person we engage is worth loving. God’s Word is clear about that, but many of us struggle to believe it. We must help everyone see—and believe—this truth.
Pastor, maybe you’re struggling with mental health challenges right now. As you plan to live out these five principles in your church, realize that you, too, are valuable to God. Just like he will use the pain of others to help people, he will use your pain also. Don’t let your own struggles with mental illness convince you to sit on the sidelines. Instead, let it fuel your service.
Your church can be a place of healing and hope in your community. No matter the size or the location of your church, you have a part to play.