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Five Tips for Worship that Welcomes People with Mental Illnesses

Kris Moore, Cheryl Shea, and others offer advice on paying attention to logistics and blessings so all experience God’s grace in worship.

Kris Moore, Cheryl Shea, and others offer advice on paying attention to logistics and blessings so all experience God’s grace in worship.

Logistics: expect the unexpected. People with PTSD may be easily overwhelmed or fear social situations. Drumming may disturb people in the autism spectrum. “You never know what might trigger a memory, especially with song or movement or dancing,” Moore says. Accept that someone might need to leave for a bit of air during worship.

Logistics: structure your welcome. Shea notes that many people on medication have trouble waking up and don’t drive. That’s why she planned weeknight evening services at a time and location that fit bus routes. Someone who found a church through online research says your church website should be current, explain what visitors will find, and acknowledge that everyone is broken but God’s love is greater than our mistakes.

Logistics: pre-teach before experiential worship. Moore says it took a year to develop liturgical movements that felt safe to youth who’d been abused. The key was holding movement workshops for one hour, each day in a week. “Having the same youth participating time after time resulted in very meaningful groups that our clients still talk about,” Moore says.

Blessings: realize we all need healing. Worship and churches can break through the isolation of mental illness by modeling a “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” unity. Shea did this by always including a responsive prayer of lament that began with the leader praying, “Why, Lord, must any child of yours be hurt?....Hear this lament as prayer that fills the earth.” Worshipers responded, “We plead to you, repair the brokenness we share…”

Moore reminds chaplains, pastors, and therapists to lament together, pray a lot, and consciously create a relaxing home environment that renews them for ministry. Others suggest looking for ways to reach out or offer respite to spouses and families of people with chronic mental illnesses.

Blessings: see God at work. Ask God for eyes to see beyond the us-them dynamic that often colors how churches relate to people who struggle with mental health. “Churches need to educate themselves so they don’t fear those with mental illnesses or bar them from serving. I’ve learned so much from people in support groups. It’s okay to be humble. In the midst of difficulties, it’s possible to have hope, stay married, and courageously keep going,” Shea says.

Moore says, “As a staff, we continue looking for signs of God’s presence and activity. We point it out to one another when we think we see it. I see God powerfully at work through the tireless efforts of our staff, who provide for our clients’ physical care and invest themselves emotionally in our clients’ wellbeing.”