Mental Health and the Church: A Book Review
This is a blog post/book review Amy Simpson. The book is titled Mental Health and The Church by, Stephen Grcevich, M.D.
I’m so excited to review this book for you. It’s taken me a while to get around to doing this because the book released earlier this year, at the same time as my new book. I’ve had plenty to do, spreading the word about Blessed Are the Unsatisfied. I want to highlight this book now because it’s an important and valuable resource for every church.
For people who live with mental health conditions, everyday life can be a challenge for a variety of reasons. By definition, a mental illness or disorder comes with symptoms that interfere with daily functioning and can be overwhelming. When the broader world misunderstands, mishandles, or mistreats people who are struggling, life is exponentially harder. This is as true in our churches as anywhere else.
The thing is, churches have so much to offer people who live with challenges to mental health. But for many people, church has become not only unhelpful, but inaccessible. This is particularly true for many families with children who struggle with “hidden disabilities” like mental health disorders. In this book, Dr. Grcevich not only argues that we be more considerate and intentionally inclusive of people who need accommodation, but he also provides a model to help us know what to do.
Mental Health and the Church: A Ministry Handbook for Including Children and Adults with ADHD, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, and Other Common Mental Health Conditions by Stephen Grcevich, M.D. (Published by Zondervan, 2018)
What this book offers
This book includes a lot of sound and level-headed information about various of mental health conditions, along with some of the ways different types of mental disorders can keep individual and families from entering into church life. The author describes barriers that can keep people from experiencing welcome, and that can even block their access to church. Sometimes, he points out, the problem is as simple as changing what we expect from people, particularly from children. People who face extraordinary challenges need accommodation. In his words, “An essential first step for church leaders who want to minister more effectively with individuals and families affected by mental illness is to acknowledge that assumptions regarding the ability of attendees and visitors to meet our expectations for conduct or social interaction may need to be revisited.”
In the second part of the book, Grcevich offers solutions. He claims one of the three reasons so few churches effectively minister to people with mental illness (in addition to stigma and the sometimes fuzzy definitions of mental illness) is because we are lacking an effective model for inclusive ministry. He describes the model of Key Ministry, which he leads and which began in 2002, in response to the recognition of this need in his own church. He provides “seven strategies for inclusion” to help churches welcome and accommodate individuals and families living with mental health conditions. Each of these strategies addresses a particular type of challenge many people face when they want to go to church (such as anxiety, executive functioning weaknesses, and social communication challenges). But this model is more than strategies: “Mental health inclusion is best understood as a mindset for doing ministry rather than a ‘program’ for ministry.”
Dr. Grcevich provides information as a mental health professional. He makes his arguments as a person who cares about the families he treats and ministers to. And ultimately, everything he writes, he writes as a follower of Christ who wants churches to do better ministry not only for the sake of the families affected, but also for the sake of the gospel. This idea is clearly stated not only in the book, but also in the mission statement of Key Ministry: “Key Ministry promotes meaningful connection between churches and families of kids with disabilities for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ.” For any readers who haven’t made this connection on their own, the author illuminates the connection between better, more compassionate ministry to more people and our mission as the body of Christ.
What I liked about this book
Dr. Grcevich is an accomplished professional,and he writes from his experience as a child psychiatrist. His recommendations are sound, and his words are authoritative. He also shares stories of families he has encountered in his practice, and they help illuminate the challenges he encourages our churches to address.
This is both a philosophical and a practical book, and it weaves the two approaches seamlessly. It also contains some brilliant insights, which Dr. Grcevich seems to casually throw out as if the rest of us have probably already thought of them. But most of us really don’t know what it’s like to live with significant obstacles in the way of our desire to be part of a community. I appreciate these eye-opening bits of perspective.
For example, when I was reading this book, I learned that one reason rates of mental illness have increased is because life has become more demanding. One indication of mental illness is an inability to meet life’s demands, and if life is demanding more and more of us, it will reveal more and more ways we are challenged to keep pace. This was a really helpful insight for me.
I also appreciate the book’s focus on the gospel and the church’s mission. Again, developing and applying an inclusion strategy is not just about accommodation or even compassion. It’s also about fulfilling the mission Christ has given us as his people.
What I would change about this book
For a brilliant and deeply experienced clinician, Dr. Grcevich writes in a very colloquial style. However, for the average, non-clinical reader, it can occasionally sound a bit like a medical guide. This is not a reason to skip the book; it’s clear and accessible. But at times it would benefit from a slightly warmer, more casual and winsome style.
Who should read it
This is one of those books that should be a topic of discussion at every church’s next board meeting (or deacons meeting or pastors meeting or congregational meeting or whatever). Pastors, other church leaders, and concerned laypeople should read it and pass it on.