Mental health care: Training equips churches

May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States. Just as Jesus healed people struggling with mental, emotional and physical ailments, United Methodists reach out to their sisters and brothers who seek healing. In this series, United Methodist News Service shares stories of individuals and congregations tackling the challenges of mental health through a variety of ministries.

Pastors of three congregations with widely divergent demographics agree on at least one thing: Mental illness affects everyone, and United Methodists need to address the issue.

All three clergy, along with several of their peers, will participate in two days of intensive training at First United Methodist Church, Oak Lawn, on May 3-4. Called the Mental Health Initiative, the pilot program offers two training opportunities for the Northern Illinois Annual (regional) Conference.

"Mental Health First Aid" focuses on recognizing and responding to mental-health concerns through education, compassion and steps to assist a person who is struggling. In "Caring Congregation Ministries," participants will learn how to create a hands-on congregational ministry on mental health.

The Rev. Rodney C. Walker signed up for Mental Health First Aid. He serves Grace Calvary United Methodist Church on Chicago's South Side.

Mental health challenges, Walker said, are barriers to a full quality of life. They influence "family life and community wellness and are a major source of social problems." These difficulties "affect the church as well and how we as people of faith should respond to our brothers and sisters.

"We have a member who is bipolar," Walker added, "and we welcome him in our congregation. When he is off his medication, we must take special careto engage him. All of our members have embraced him. He seems to find comfort in the midst of worship."

Grace Calvary is situated in an urban, inner-city, predominantly African-American community facing high unemployment, frequent home foreclosures, high crime, poor schools and an aging population. The 118-member church averages 50 worshippers each Sunday.

'It's time to remove the fear'

"The biggest challenge as a congregation," Walker said, "is developing ministries which improve the quality of life for non-church members while presenting the gospel of Jesus Christ to them."

Finding ways to reach out to persons struggling with mental illness is a priority for a growing number of United Methodist congregations. A UMNS photo illustration by Kathleen Barry.
Finding ways to reach out to persons struggling with mental illness is a priority for a growing number of United Methodist congregations. A UMNS photo illustration by Kathleen Barry.

Walker is participating in the Mental Health Initiative to learn "how better to serve people with mental health challenges and how to start a recovery meeting within the church."

Registered for the "Caring Congregations" workshop are the Rev. Robert A. Atkins Jr., Grace United Methodist Church, Naperville, Ill., and the Rev. Diana K. Otterbacher, Zion United Methodist Church, Hampshire, Ill.

Currently, Atkins' congregation of more than 2,400 strongly supports pastoral counseling services in the community. Naperville, an affluent Chicago suburb, has many social service resources available.

"We are looking to develop a multi-part strategy within the congregation as part of, or alongside, our Open Doors Ministry with families and caregivers of children and youth who have special needs," Atkins said. "We need a framework on best practices to develop a plan."

In DuPage County, Atkins said, "it is estimated that more than 77,000 out of 1 million-plus individuals have a mental health issue or that it affectsone out of four families.This would have a huge effecton our congregationwith 700-plus families, ifthe county demographics are the same as our congregation."

During the two-day event, Atkins hopes to learn"what best practices are needed to formulate a plan such as professional referral system, mental-health evaluation for the correct diagnosis, jobs for the mentally ill and housing guidelines for the mentally ill."

Located an hour northwest of Chicago, Hampshire "is a traditional small town with a majority of German Catholic background," Otterbacher said. The former Evangelical United Brethren congregation of 142 doesn't have a mental health ministry. However, Otterbacher believes mental illness "is more common than folks realize. It's time to remove the fear."

'Mental illness continues to be stigmatized'

Resources enrich Mental Health Awareness

The United Methodist boards of Church and Society and Global Ministries offer a new bulletin insert, "Faith & Mental Health - Creating Caring & Sharing Communities," available free as a download.

The resource highlights the five emphases of Caring Communities:

  • Educate congregations and the community in public discussion about mental illness and work to reduce the stigma experienced by those suffering.
  • Covenant to understand and love people with mental illness and their families.
  • Welcome all people and their families into the faith community.
  • Support people with mental illness and their families through providing awareness, prayer and respect.
  • Advocate for better access, funding and support for mental health treatment and speak out on mental health concerns.

Find more information and resources concerning United Methodist ministries in this area at:

She said several church members take medication for clinical depression. "My husband was bipolar," she said, "and we learned how to live with that, so I try to be understanding with others dealing with those issues.I care about folks with mental health issues."

At the Mental Health Initiative, she hopes to learn how to start a program and reach out to the community.

Awareness and openness are essential, said the Rev. Cynthia Abrams, who oversees health-care ministries at the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

"Many individuals with mental illness and their families are silent because mental illness continues to be stigmatized in our society and in the church," she said."It is critically important for churches to be educated and loving so that families and individuals know the church cares about them in the midst of their struggles.

"Becoming a Caring Community church is an intentional and accountable path toward effective and compassionate response to people with mental illnesses."

The Rev. Cheryl Magrini, co-leader of the May 3-4 event, added, "A friend who has dealt with mental illness recently told me he no longer attends church because of feeling judged by the Scripture selection and the preaching and because people avoided him during passing of the peace.

"In order for people struggling with mental health to be treated with dignity and understanding, for change to happen in access to mental health services and for congregations to educate and to support family and friends," she said, "faith communities must embrace both public advocacy and holistic congregational ministries for mental health concerns that touch the mind, body and spirit.

"In developing the Mental Health Initiative, it is my hope that congregations will step out with prophetic ministries reaching into both the public and personal arenas of mental health concerns."

This story was first published on May 2, 2013.

*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact Barbara Dunlap-Berg at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

Like what you're reading? Support the ministry of UM News! Your support ensures the latest denominational news, dynamic stories and informative articles will continue to connect our global community. Make a tax-deductible donation at

Sign up for our newsletter!

Mission and Ministry
Tim Tanton (center, in red), chief news and information officer for United Methodist Communications, shares updates with African communicators and other UMCom staff during the 2019 General Conference. World Press Freedom Day, observed May 3, commemorates journalists and highlights the difficulties they face while reporting truth. File photo by Kathleen Barry, UM News

World Press Freedom Day and the church

Tim Tanton with United Methodist News talks about giving voice to the voiceless and why freedom of information is essential not only for society but for the church.
The Rev. Tom Berlin (left) presents a copy of his book, “Courage,” to Massachusetts National Guard Chaplain Chad McCabe in the chapel at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. McCabe, whose unit was assigned to help provide security at the U.S. Capitol after the January riot, contacted Wesley Seminary asking for Bibles, novels and board games for troops stationed there. Photo by Lisa Helfert for Wesley Theological Seminary. Copyright 2021. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Church responds to chaplain's call to help soldiers

A National Guard chaplain got Bibles, games and 150 copies of a new book about courage when he turned to Wesley Theological Seminary for help keeping soldiers occupied in Washington in the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection.
The Rev. William B. Lawrence.  Photo by H. Jackson/Southern Methodist University.

What would Jesus tell the US Capitol rioters?

The Rev. William B. Lawrence examines the claims of Scriptural authority by violent protesters who stormed the U.S. Capitol.