Urban Reality: Mental illness

I am a pastor at an inner city church in Toronto, Canada and it is my first pastorate coming out of school. The church isn’t flush with cash by any stretch of the imagination and can only afford to pay me 10hr/week to preach. Still, they do amazing things, particularly on Wednesday nights when they manage to feed 120-200 marginalized people a hot meal. It is pretty impressive how the Lord can use even a small congregation (I regularly get 15 people on a Sunday. Though I have noticed both the numbers and the actual people attending have become more stable since I was hired and the preaching became more regular.).

It is not unheard of to arrive on a Sunday morning to find one of the elders washing vomit off our stoop. The one thing I did not consider when I first arrived was the degree to which I would encounter parishioners with mental illness. Depending on how you crunch the numbers approximately 20% of my congregation – that I know of – struggles with mental illness. Now, mental illness is a very broad term and can cover a lot of different things with varying degrees of severity. I have congregants with most of these. Some of them admit their problems and others do not and some of them know they have an illness but they don’t see it as a problem. Needless to say the one’s who do not acknowledge their issues are harder to deal with.

Even after 9 years as an Emergency Medical Dispatcher for the City of Toronto I still have trouble navigating mental illness issues with all their variety and complexity. It is brought all the more urgently to the forefront in pastoral ministry. I have to consider questions such as how do you communicate the truth of God’s love and His gospel message to such a group?

Here’s a snapshot of what I’ve learned so far in terms of pastoring those with mental illness:

  • They are made in the image of God just like everyone else
  • Treat them with the same dignity and respect as others
  • They must be shown love, grace and everything else we expect to get ourselves
  • They need a pastor who will listen to them and spend a reasonable amount of time listening to them. Ministry in this setting is largely a ministry of presence. Just being there. Sometimes they are lucid, sometimes not.
  • Realize that it’s not your job to ‘fix’ them. Speak the truth and help them understand the love God has for them.
  • Realize that many, many people have mental illness and that you probably aren’t aware of most of them.
  • We are to work towards reconciliation for those who are routinely stigmatized and marginalized by society.

There will undoubtedly be many more lessons I will learn from this unique environment and I will share as I discover.

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