Some Anabaptist congregations are finding that when they create spaces to talk openly about mental health challenges, it becomes natural to include mental health problems in the care and support they offer to all members of Christ’s body.
West End Mennonite Church is a congregation where living with a mental health problem is no barrier to belonging, contributing, and receiving support. The colorful mural painted on the outside of their building in Lancaster, Pa., proclaims that West End is a church for all people. Visitors who live with a mental illness or other disability soon find out that “all people” definitely includes them.
“We don't really have a formal program for ministering to those with mental health needs,” said Krishana Sukau, Care Coordinator at West End. “The ministry takes place more in our way of life together, as a body. We strive to be an authentic community—a community in which we recognize that we are all broken and beloved at the same time. This means seeking to be authentic about who we are, both before God and with each other, whatever our struggles might be.”
“Several people in our congregation are very open about their experiences with depression and anxiety, and their authenticity creates a safe space for others. Some have shared about their experiences from the pulpit and others share about them in personal conversations. In any case, their choice to be vulnerable and open about their journeys weakens the walls of isolation and stigma that are so often associated with mental illness. Knowing that others face similar mental health challenges, that there is nothing shameful about mental illness, and that one has an important role in the community regardless of a mental health diagnosis can foster healing and wholeness.
“As we seek to become an authentic and welcoming community. small groups play a very important role at our church. These groups focus on discipleship, but also become important places for fellowship and connection. Simply having a sense of connection to others can in and of itself be helpful in promoting mental wellness. A good support system can act as a buffer in difficult times. An Irish proverb says, ‘It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.’ Whether one is facing a mental health diagnosis or going through another type of challenge, Christian community can become this shelter in times of need.
“We also have members of our congregation who are social workers and counselors, are knowledgeable about community resources, and can provide referrals and guidance as needed. For example, one member of our church is a trained therapist and she has provided support to several community members in their journeys toward spiritual and emotional wellness. In addition we have a committed team of intercessors who regularly hold up the needs of our life together in prayer.
“The beautiful thing about the body of Christ is that we rely on each other and we all have something to offer. There are several people in our congregation who are pillars of our community who either have mental illness or developmental disabilities. They are active in leading worship, organizing events, prayer, teaching, and many other areas of church life. They are extremely generous in using their gifts for the church, and we are more able to live into our calling because of them. Without their gifts our church would not be the beloved community that it is.”
Some congregations find that focusing attention on mental health for a series of Sundays creates a climate where authentic sharing can occur in safety and caring can find expression.
Pastor Charleen Jongejan Harder was aware that many families in her congregation, Valleyview Mennonite Church, in London, Ont., were touched by mental illness in one way or another, yet they often felt alone with the burden. Charleen yearned to bring stories of mental illness into congregational worship, recognizing that worship would touch people at an emotional level.
“You’re Not Alone” became the theme for a four-Sunday series at Valleyview Mennonite Church. Artist and congregation member Ruth Martin created a worship banner illustrating the theme. The artwork was also used on bulletin covers.
A Saturday performance of “Laughter is Sacred Space,” by Ted Swartz, kicked off the series. A description from the Ted and Company website gives an idea why the drama provided a powerful beginning for the congregation’s mental health conversations: “In this gritty and dramatic talk, Ted Swartz walks you through his relationship with friend and business partner, Lee Eshleman, who took his own life in 2007. Ted explores the paradox of working with a comedic partner struggling with bipolar disorder, as well as the challenge of writing and performing stories about God while experiencing the absence of God after Lee’s death.”
A mental health focus during both worship and the Sunday school hour created sacred space for sharing stories and healing. Worship themes for the four Sundays included "Opening up the conversation," "Debunking the Myths," "Facing our Fears," and "What Do We Do?" Charleen set the tone for honest sharing by opening up her own struggle with depression in a sermon. Perhaps the most powerful part of the series came when a member of the congregation shared her story of living with bipolar.
Recognizing that mental health concerns may be too complicated to go into during a typical worship sharing time, planners invited worshipers to come forward any time during the service that the congregation was singing to light a candle as a symbol of prayer for a loved one with mental illness. This form of prayer proved deeply meaningful, and the congregation hopes to come back to it from time to time.
At Community Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, Va., a mental wellness support group met regularly for a year or so, providing its members with support and a sense of community. Though the group no longer meets, some participants planned an adult educational series focused on mental health. The three-month series drew on the personal stories and professional expertise of congregation members and others from the Harrisonburg area. Planners Keaton Shenk and Mary Jo Bowman note that having various church members share their personal stories helped to create a climate of support. They were pleasantly surprised that over 90 people attended at least one class in the series.
Download Community Mennonite's resources: Series outline. Resource list compiled by participants.
If you are interested in opening up a conversation about mental health and mental illness in your congregation, so that your congregation more truly becomes a church for all people, ADN would be glad to help. Please be in touch!
Christine Guth is Program Director for Anabaptist Disabilities Network.