The role of the church in recovery: a Q&A with Matthew Stanford
by Lizette Beard
Matthew Stanford is professor of psychology, neuroscience, and biomedical studies at Baylor University.
He is also the co-founder/executive director of the Grace Alliance (mentalhealthgracealliance.org), a non-profit organization that trains churches how to recognize mental illness and provides practical steps for churches to effectively minister to those living with mental illness and their families, and a member of Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas.
What is the unique impact a mental illness has on a person’s faith?
Clients who struggle with mental illness often say they feel condemned or distanced from God and isolated from the church. They feel they cannot pray, that God doesn’t listen to them. They often believe their illness shows a lack of faith.
For instance, someone who struggles with depression has feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. These are not thoughts they’re in control of. These are physiological feelings that are then perceived by the brain as thoughts of, “I’m worthless. I can’t be loved.” If the individual is a person of faith, the first thought may be “God can’t love me.”
How should the church approach mental illness?
At Grace Alliance, we look at a person from a holistic perspective: physical, mental, spiritual, and relational. When a person is ill, it affects the whole person. In addition to lifestyle changes, medication, and therapy, there’s also going to be spiritual intervention.
I look at mental illness much like diabetes. If a person has diabetes, they have to alter their diet and exercise. They may have to take medication that controls the symptoms of that disorder, but it doesn’t cure the disorder. We need to consider the same things when we’re dealing with mental illness.
We’ve found that faith can be incredibly therapeutic and empowering. It really is the foundation of our hope. And without hope, there is no recovery. When we begin with a client, we try to re-establish what their identity is in Christ. From there we can move forward because now they understand hope isn’t a feeling. Hope is a person—Jesus Christ. Regardless of the circumstances, there is hope.
When ministering to people with mental illness, it needs to be about who they are in Christ, the rest they have in God, and the character of God—the love He has for them.
We also make sure they have some level of stability in their thinking. We help our clients receive proper medical care and make sure they’re in a supportive environment.
What are some signs of hope family members or churches can observe?
The recovery process is minimizing the symptoms, understanding the illness, and taking ownership of one’s own recovery, and then beginning to make decisions on one’s own about getting better. We have a scale we show our clients. We want them to move from distress to stability, from stability to function, and from function to purpose. We help them understand where they are on that scale.
As they move along, they become more personally involved in their recovery and what’s going on in their lives. We try to help clients and their family members see where they are now on that scale compared to where they were when we started.
What are some of the biggest discoveries churches and pastors are making about working with the mentally ill?
Churches are beginning to understand they have a huge role to play in mental health. They also are starting to interact with people who have increasingly serious mental illnesses, and they feel ill-equipped to help. People in the church often don’t know what to do when someone has an illness affecting the brain.
What can pastors do to alleviate the stigma of mental illness?
It’s up to the leadership of the church to help their congregation understand they have a role to play in mental health. The average congregant doesn’t understand mental illness and is probably fearful.
Leaders can preach a sermon on mental health issues or host a general educational seminar on mental illness for the church. Allow people to give a testimony about their mental illness and how they’ve suffered. When people understand mental illness, it’s easier to show grace, care, and concern.
How can the church help those with mental illness?
The church needs to treat individuals with mental illness the same way it treats anybody with an illness. Offer a supportive care structure, help them spiritually, help them understand where God is in the situation, and help them connect more fully to God in their suffering. Churches also can provide for physical needs. It’s no different from how you would treat someone who had any other type of illness.
We’ve helped churches learn how to build connections with the mental health community in their location and have taught them how to make a proper referral. But that’s not the end of the church’s role. That’s just the beginning.
We encourage churches to develop a team approach with the mental health care provider when they refer an individual. The church then becomes a supportive care community around that person. The church also serves as a spiritual guide to help the individual with his or her faith in the context of their mental illness and recovery. And the church needs to support the family.
The church’s role is three-fold: relieve suffering, reveal Christ, and restore lives.
Lizette Beard (@LizetteBeard) is project manager for Lifeway Research.