We have all been to or heard about those churches; churches which seem wonderful, amazing, even quite possibly perfect. There’s brilliant teaching, wonderful youth work, everyone knows everyone else and, to cap it all off, after the service the coffee is freshly ground and the cakes would shame Mary Berry. And there’s those families too: handsome, untroubled, successful, and all with great teeth. And we look at our churches, our families, our lives and think: how have they got it all together? My church and my family is not like that. It’s a mix of messy, wonderful and getting through by the skin of our teeth.
In churches there has been a move away from muddling through and accepting mediocre to something better, more professional. Our music is well produced, we present our sermons in a modern, lively way and our pastoral care team are properly trained. And that’s all good, but how do people in seemingly perfect churches and in perfect families admit that their lives are messy and difficult and actually very imperfect? And where we can talk about our poor mental health?
We know that there are people around us who are mentally unwell. The statistics are frank: one in four of us will suffer a mental health problem at some point in our lives. Too often the Christian church reverts to churchy innuendo when we talk about mental illness (“she has trouble with her nerves”, “he is finding life challenging”) rather than providing a place where people can openly admit their anxiety or depression or other mental illness.
Too many of us are scared about admitting we are having mental health problems. The stigma surrounding poor mental health is alive in our communities including church. If we add to that the feeling that admitting to feeling depressed may be unwelcome in a church where we (quite rightly) proclaim Jesus as Lord of all, where healing is available, and we sing songs of joy and praise, then we force people to pretend everything is fine.
In churches we regularly pray for people with broken legs; we pray for people with broken hearts (both literally and figuratively) but when was the last time your church prayed for someone’s broken mind? When was the last time you heard a sermon about mental health in your church? And when was the last time your minister publicly admitted vulnerability, weakness or a mental health problem?
Yet the Bible is full of people who struggled mentally, whose journey with God was full of troughs and yet whom God restored, used and loved. There’s Gideon, inadequate and anxious; Jonah who flees from God and, for me most moving of all, Elijah who collapses mentally and physically after the triumph at Mount Carmel and whom God nurtures and cares for emotionally, physically and spiritually.
Some church leaders are notoriously bad at this self-care. I believe leaders need to have an answer to the question: if you were feeling mentally ill, who in your church leadership could you tell? If the answer to that is nobody, maybe that’s the first item on your next leadership team agenda. And church members have a duty to look after their leaders and to understand that, just like us, they are not perfect but flawed, struggling and dearly loved children of God.
Because, wonderfully, God’s unfailing love, his grace to us, is not based on what we are feeling on any given day, or on whether we have preached a great sermon or led an amazing youth meeting. His grace is perfect and solid and given with love and kindness – and is a fact and not a feeling.
The writer of the book of Lamentations clearly struggled with mental illness. He talks of remembering his afflictions and how his soul is downcast. But then, in chapter 3 verse 22, he intentionally calls to mind one of the great promises of the Lord:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail…great is your faithfulness.
We don’t need to be overawed by those apparently perfect families and churches. Fundamentally they are not perfect anyway – just a bit better at putting on a good front. But all of us do need to take responsibility for our mental health. We need to protect family times, build supportive and authentic relationships, watch our work hours and practices. For those with mental health difficulties there is also great help available via GPs, online counselling and mental health organisations such as Mind, the Samaritans and Young Minds.
We must start being real with God and with those we love about our feelings. We must start talking about our mental health openly, including at church, so the stigma will start to abate, and we can start to support one another better. So, let’s try it. Next time you’re having coffee after the service or down the pub with your mates or waiting at the school gate, don’t just talk about last night’s footie or the merits of the latest reality show. Let’s talk about how we really feel. And let’s make our communities places where it’s OK not to be OK.
Written by Chris Munday, CEO, Crossways Community
Crossways is the leading provider of residential and supported living accommodation for adults with moderate to severe mental health problems in West Kent. They provide enterprise opportunities such as furniture up-cycling, crafts and computer skills, offer training to local businesses and other organisations and work in schools delivering workshops and raising awareness of mental health issues. www.crosswayscommunity.co.uk