The Christian church does not have a particularly positive reputation when it comes to the subject of mental illness. Far too many, both within and outside the church, view us as cold, dismissive, skeptical, and even harsh in our treatment and response to those with various mental health challenges. Dr. Stephen Grcevich aims to alter that reputation by equipping the church to better integrate and care for those suffering with mental disorders. Mental Health and the Church is more than just a guide to ministry, it is a model of compassionate care.
Grcevich is an awarded child and adolescent psychiatrist. He writes from the perspective of both a professional and as a church member. He counsels and treats hundreds of children and so is able to speak to the real clinical issues with which many of them suffer. He also serves as the President and founder of Key Ministry, an organization that serves churches and church leaders by equipping them to care for the “hidden disabilities” of those who suffer from mental illness. Mental Health and the Church is the outgrowth of these two worlds in which Grcevich lives.
The book is broken down into two parts. Part one focuses on the “understanding the problem,” and here Grcevich seeks to give insight into the unique nature of a number of mental illnesses and the challenges that accompany those who suffer from them – he focuses primarily on ADHD, anxiety, and depression, but he highlights more significant issues too, like schizophrenia. Within these first five chapter he discusses the top five barriers that make church attendance and involvement complicated for those with mental illnesses. Grcevich gives readers tremendous insight in these chapters, cluing us into the symptoms and corresponding challenges with which we would otherwise be unfamiliar. He also demonstrates the great sensitivity and compassion he has for those who suffer. He has a real longing for those with mental illnesses to be included in the church and aches for those who say that their church has let them down. Through his professional counseling and treatment work, Grcevich has collected lots of information, and shares with readers the responses of his clients. It is important that church leaders hear this kind of feedback. It exposes us to a part of the body of Christ that we are not doing our best to care for.
This section posed a few challenges for me personally. The terminology of “mental illness” is so broadly used that it has become hard to nail down exactly what one individual means by it, even in publications such as this. The types of disorders that Grcevich mentions too are a mixed bag. So, while I can certainly appreciate the usefulness of the label, mental illness, when applied to schizophrenia or ADHD, it is a bit more difficult to know what to think when applied to anxiety disorder or depression. Not all “anxiety” is the same, nor is all “depression” the same. So, how we process these terms may impact the different ways we think bout the issues at hand. Yet, even with those concerns still present, I was reminded that the core of the issue is compassionate ministry, not proper diagnosis or treatment. Whether anxiety is more spiritual or more cognitive the symptoms and side effects of the struggle are real, and they create challenges for those who want to attend church. I was challenged, quite honestly, by the fact that my first response to this book was critical evaluation of the terminology and not an embrace of compassionate concern for those impacted by various struggles. It was a good challenge.
Part two, shifts gears to consider “A mental health inclusion strategy.”Having established the “seven common barriers to church involvement,” Grcevich offers guidance on how churches can mitigate these challenges for those with mental illness. Chapters 6-12 each focus, respectively, on one of these barriers: stigma in the church, anxiety, executive functioning weakness, sensory processing differences, social communication challenges, social isolation, and past church experience. Within each discussion there are various elements of church life that are worth reviewing and considering possible changes. Alleviating some challenges may require changes to children’s ministry, or to basic information about the church, or to the corporate worship service. Grcevich is kind and understanding as he recommends changes. He notes that churches cannot change everything to accommodate everyone one, and infant the needs of various individuals will necessarily conflict. No one church can meet every need, he points out. He is also careful to caution non-leadership readers to be patient and understanding with their pastors, noting that these are challenging situations and take time and consideration. All in all, however, Grcevich is calling for thoughtfulness with regard to those who struggle to attend church because of mental illness. His call to compassionate consideration is important.
Whether everyone who reads this book does an overhaul of their ministries or not, Mental Health and the Church is a worthwhile read. It causes us to take stock and consider how the practices of our church culture may be making it unnecessarily complicated for others. We have unspoken rules and expectations that we take for granted, but which may negatively impact others. Philippians 2:3 states:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves.
Whatever you think about the nature of mental illness, those who struggle with a variety of disorders need the church. Considering their challenges and the potential barriers to their participation in the church is one way to consider them more important than ourselves. Compassionate ministry calls us to at least seek to understand and to consider ways to mitigate those barriers. Stephen Grcevich has written a wonderful ministry handbook, but in principle it calls for more than just concern for those with mental illness. It calls for us to consider how to do church in ways that are broadly compassionate.