What Churches Can Do to Help
By Jerry Fulenwider, NAMI San Antonio
A recent survey conducted by Baylor University of 6,000 church members of several denominations found only about 27 percent of people with mental illness and their families attend church. One of the reasons cited by not attending: they do not feel welcome. Churches across the country could do a lot more to help people with mental illness and their families feel welcomed and supported.
The first step in this process of welcoming and supporting individuals and families living with mental illness is training the clergy, pastoral care staff and interested laity about mental illness and its impact on the whole family. Pathways to Understanding: A Manual on Ministry & Mental Illness, published by Pathways to Promise, is perfect for this effort. This initiative can be implemented by NAMI members who would like to see their faith community become more welcoming and supportive to their members affected by mental illness. In addition, NAMI FaithNet offers slide presentations, scripts and tools to support outreach success.
Since 2006, the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas has allowed NAMI San Antonio members to provide formal, five to six hours of training programs. We have done this in a series of three sessions in separate locations where we trained a total of 20 parishes in this Episcopal Diocese. As a result, the Bishop initiated the Mental Illness Ministries in the Department of Christian Faith in Action, appointed me chair of the committee and gave me carte blanche in getting support groups and ministries established.
This has been a slow process but a good beginning. A ministry will be starting soon in the historic downtown district at one of the oldest churches in San Antonio. Another NAMI volunteer and I provided training for 8o members of their Sunday school class. This will make three mental illness ministries in the Episcopal Diocese, so far. In addition, the Diocese has a bimonthly newsletter to its 90 Parishes including announcements about some aspect of the local NAMI programs pertinent to these faith based initiatives.
St. George Episcopal Church, where I attend, has a family support group, which I started in 2007 and continue to facilitate. It meets the second Wednesday of every month. For best results, we have found that a NAMI member needs to initiate and push this idea to their church or it won’t happen. We have a weekly electronic newsletter that carries a reminder of the meeting date and time, and any other information pertinent to the group meeting.
The local media helps publicize these efforts by doing frequent announcements from press releases that I and others send them. Including the three Episcopal mental health ministries, there are 12 faith based ministries/support groups in San Antonio, with more forming all the time, thanks to many NAMI advocate volunteers.
Other faith communities can also expand their efforts to be more welcoming of individuals with mental illness and their families. They can do this by offering their facilities for support groups which connect people living with these dreadful illnesses, help them cope with how they feel and find out how others deal with the same challenges. A little effort goes a long way. And maybe the next time Baylor University conducts its study, more people will report of the comfort they receive from their faith home.