You know the feeling—you see her coming and you want to turn away.
Mary is in your church. Something isn’t quite right with her. Sometimes she seems balanced, lucid and smart. Other times she is really off. She might have strong mood swings, flow in and out of psychotic episodes, or she could have one of dozens of mental illnesses.
The bottom line is that you (and most everyone else) feel uncomfortable around her, and with that discomfort comes frustration and sometimes guilt.
How can you help Mary and still maintain your equilibrium?
There is no easy answer for the mentally ill and/or mood disorder sufferers in our congregations. Your “Mary” might be a “Fred,” but the rest of the story is pretty much the same.
We pray for them and their families, but sometimes God doesn’t heal. So we have to learn a different kind of relationship—one that keeps us from falling down the proverbial rabbit hole but still helps them move forward in their relationship with Christ.
Here are some things to consider.
1. Know yourself. Jesus walked with love and grace in even the most difficult situations because He didn’t gain his identity from his relationships. Spend time with God in total honesty. Don’t tell Him how to fix things; just bring your personal brokenness before Him and wait to see what He does with it. Those deep times with God will give you an equilibrium and grace in some of the most stressful situations.
2. Establish good protocols. Sometimes the most loving response doesn’t make everyone feel good. Yet it is necessary to love people by having good boundaries yourself. Here is an interesting conundrum: The time to set boundaries usually isn’t in the middle of a crisis, yet we often don’t discover that we need boundaries until we have been pushed too far. Keep people around you who will walk with boldness and wisdom and help you discern whether you look for the most loving response or the response that will make people feel good.
3. Learn about mental illness and mood disorders. It really does help to have a bit of knowledge. Prior to the understanding of bacteria, many illnesses were mysteries. Now we are able to fix them with cleanliness and antibiotics. A pastor who understands mental illness and mood disorders can create an authentic community where people receive help and love instead of being shunned. Some mood disorders can be helped by healthy living. When you learn how much our diet, exercise, water intake, sleep and mental habits affect our minds, you will want to lead the charge to healthy living.
4. Develop good resources. It is tempting to take on the burden of those in our congregation. Yet those with mental disorders need professionals to walk with them closely. Understand your role as a pastor in the situation, and walk with a team of professionals. Many mood disorders and mental illnesses surprise us. Keep an active list of great mental health professionals in your area to help your congregants access the help they need.
5. Maintain hope. Jesus healed people who were mentally ill, yet when He returned to heaven, there were still plenty who hadn’t been healed. Thinking through the whole Bible, many of the people God used had some serious mood disorders. God has a view we don’t have, and He loves each of these individuals more than you can imagine. Offer opportunities for people to regularly connect personally with God. Altar times don’t seem vogue, but when you offer time during worship for people to be prayed for, you help them engage God with their whole body. Sometimes this is what they need to refocus on health—and sometimes God uses these situations to make a transformational change.
Mary will likely come to your church one of these days. She might have wild ideas, or she might be emotionally needy. The only thing I know for sure is that she will need Jesus. Please take the time to let God love her through you.
Kim Martinez is an ordained Assemblies of God pastor with a master’s degree in theology from Fuller Seminary. She is a ministry and life development coach and can be found online at deepimprints.com. She writes a weekly column for ministrytodaymag.com.