In the ninth segment in our series…Ten Things I Wish Church Leaders Knew About Families and Mental Illness, we’ll look at why churches don’t need to launch a new “program” connect with and welcome families of kids with mental health concerns… and explore why programs may be counterproductive to effective inclusion.
I just got off the phone with a consultant who works with families to identify residential placements and therapeutic boarding schools for kids with significant emotional, behavioral or learning disorders. The biggest problems for the kid in question we were discussing are social interaction, obsessive thinking and attention/organizational problems. The consultant’s observation (to paraphrase) was on target, and pointed out the challenge we see with many kids who are high-functioning intellectually, but struggle with social or emotional disabilities…
The kid will reject anywhere with the resources to help with the social stuff because they’ll take one look at the place and say “I’m not like THOSE kids.”
This, in a nutshell, is the challenge associated with including families of kids impacted by mental illness or developmental disabilities at church. The kids (and their families) are exquisitely sensitive to perceptions of being “different” from everyone else. This is a key reason why they don’t fit into most “special needs ministry” models and why they’re inclined to avoid “programs” that draw attention to their differences.
One observation…When we’re involved with launching church-based respite ministries, in churches that provide “buddies” to both kids with disabilities AND THEIR TYPICAL SIBLINGS, it’s not uncommon for the majority of kids served to have mental health disabilities as opposed to kids we traditionally think of as having “special needs.”
So…what’s a church to do if they want to be effective in including kids and families impacted by mental illness in the communities they serve? Strategies will differ, but churches looking to break out of the program mentality need to demonstrate…
- Intentionality about establishing and maintaining relationships with kids and families impacted by mental illness
- A mindset of seeking to understand the uniqueness of each child’s/family’s situation to include them in those activities deemed most critical to spiritual growth by that church’s leadership.
Here are some examples of how intentionality about relationships might play out…
One large church where our team went to train hypothesized that kids and adults with mental health concerns were likely overrepresented in their population of “irregular attenders.” Parents with ADHD are likely to struggle with time management and follow-through, just as their kids do. One strategy we recommended was to identify volunteers who task would be to call or text message parents who had missed church two or more weeks in a row to express care/concern, invite them back the following week, and see if they could benefit from any help/assistance.
A church might support church members in establishing “Grace Groups” offered through Mental Health Grace Alliance or support groups through NAMI for kids and families and help to promote the availability of those groups in their local communities.
A church might look at using online worship resources and services as a tool for connecting with families impacted by mental illness and other disabilities in their surrounding communities.
A church might look at event-based or relational respite as strategies for establishing relationships with families impacted by mental illness and other disabilities.
Here’s what a mindset of approaching inclusion as a process as opposed to a program might look like...
It may look like church staff or key volunteers building relationships with parents that offers them the insight to help families connect first with church through ministry environments and experiences in which their kids are most likely to be successful.
The middle schooler with agoraphobia might be more comfortable watching large group worship on their iPad, but do just fine as part of a small group meeting at someone’s house.
The kid with separation anxiety may struggle to go on a mission trip, but thrive in activities where families collectively have the opportunity to serve together.
The kid with ADHD may have a difficult time sitting through a discussion in youth group, but be totally engaged while loading trucks at a food bank or rehabbing houses with peers and adult volunteers.
Even a cursory reading of the Gospels suggests that Jesus in His earthly ministry was very intentional about meeting each person He encountered at their point of deepest need. We weren’t created as “one size fits all” beings. There may be one way to God (through Jesus) but there are lots of ways for the church to help kids and families to come to know and experience Jesus. Taking the time to appreciate the unique gifts, talents and struggles of kids and families impacted by disability, especially those with disabilities that are less obvious and to craft individualized responses to inclusion that take into account those unique differences is more likely to help those families get involved and stay involved at church.
Key Ministry has assembled resources to help churches more effectively minister to children and adults with ADHD, anxiety disorders, Asperger’s Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, depression and trauma. Please share our resources with any pastors, church staff, volunteers or families looking to learn more about the influence these conditions can exert upon spiritual development in kids, and what churches can do to help!