How many people does it take to change a light bulb? The answer to the joke depends on who’s changing the bulb.
If it’s lawyers, it’s five (one to change the bulb, five to write the environmental impact statement). If it’s dumb blonde women, the answer is one hundred (one to change the bulb, 99 to take selfies to share on social media). If it’s a group of people you don’t like, the answer is none because [insert group you don’t like] can’t change anything.
If the light bulb is the understanding of mental health struggles, the correct answer is: everyone.
About two and half years ago, after a season of particularly intense mental health challenges, coupled with willful misunderstanding by some churched people in our family’s life, I started researching what churches and faith organizations are doing to help individuals and families struggling with mental health conditions. At the time I found that no one individual, church, denomination or seminary has all the answers. I also learned about Key Ministry, and continue to think this group has made the most strides in helping the Church recognize the worth of every person.
Around the same time, I learned about the collective impact model of accomplishing important goals that cross corporate, government and cultural boundaries.
In the corporate world, within one organization, this is called "matrix management." Projects that impact multiple business lines, crossing into the otherwise impenetrable silos of product or process hierarchy, are completed with key players from a variety of corporate disciplines and knowledge bases. Think mergers, or systems conversions, or the Y2K project from the late 1990s (I worked on that one).
What can your church do to "change the mental health light bulb"? To educate and equip your leaders and congregants to minister to families with mental health issues?
1. Make sure every family is connected to a small group. The small group is the place where relationships begin and thrive. It is the place where meeting tangible needs happens. It’s the place where people can be honest about their deepest struggles, hurts and fears.
2. Recruit a mental health liaison for your church. In most churches, the people who field the mental health crisis contacts are the pastoral and lay leadership (deacons, small group leaders, study group leaders). The mental health liaison will provide critical support to the pastoral and lay leadership, connecting people with mental health needs to the right community resources. Shortening the path to proper diagnosis benefits not only the individual and family, but ultimately makes a positive impact on your ministry.
3. Communicate truthfully about mental health struggles, emphasizing the value of the people who have them. Pastors and leaders should not be afraid to communicate about their own mental health challenges. Such communications should not merely emphasize the struggle itself, but the grace and truth found in Christ through the struggle. Sharing stories of Christ’s help through our struggles is also called a testimony. Revelation 12:11 underscores that sharing our stories - especially the stories that are messy and real - is an important factor in spreading the gospel throughout the world.
The Church is the place God ordained to love and care for the individual. Loving and caring for people with a presently incurable condition is what the Church has done throughout history (think leprosy and the black plague). This kind of care often leads to insights on alleviating suffering, even leading to cures.
Jesus Himself said “the world will know you are Christians by your love for one another.” At the very least, caring for individuals and families with mental health conditions will demonstrate to a watching, often scoffing world who the real Church is when we love each other well.