'Church Shopping' With Chronic and Mental Illnesses


There’s a really funny video going around – a parody of the show “House Hunters” that’s called “Church Hunters.” Watch it here. In this video, a couple is trying to find the right church for them, and it parodies modern church, parishoner-centered, experiential-culture.

Now, if you’re someone who is religious and attends church, you probably had a good laugh at this, because you know that there’s so much more to church than this. Church is about way more than what a church has to offer: it’s about what the person who attends church can bring to a church, too. Everyone has their own gifts. When the right church for the right person combine, it’s a beautiful thing, because the person brings their talents and makes the church a better place, and the church makes the person a better person, and I believe together they are truly able to advance the kingdom of God and be the hands and feet of Christ.

But what happens when mental and chronic illness are brought into the body of Christ, which is the church?

I believe wholeheartedly that the church – both the whole, universal church, and individual churches which are all supposed to be little branches of the church universal – are all the body of Christ, and every single member is made in God’s image. That’s right, every single member. Sometimes, all members aren’t treated that way, and it breaks my heart.

I believe if Jesus lived today, he would be appalled by how many churches treat people with mental and chronic illness. They are often rejected, stigmatized, left behind, and ignored. Because of this, many people with chronic and mental illnesses, which are often invisible, hide their illnesses from church communities, which are supposed to be places of love and mutual help and support but in my opinion more often become a place of judgment and dressed-up facades. There are many churches that do strive to do better, though, and I hope everyone with a mental and/or chronic illness finds one.

I haven’t been in the position of trying to find a church family to belong to for a while, and it’s especially complicated for me because I have my master’s degree in divinity and have worked on staff of several different churches. The last few churches I have been at because they’ve hired me. I have learned a lot and benefitted a lot from all these churches, but I never really “church shopped,” or looked for a church that I will attend, not work at, that will not only best fit mine and my family’s needs, but also that I can contribute to and help through my gifts and talents.

Since I have last looked for a church, years ago, I have received several diagnoses that might not define me, but definitely affect how I view the world, and myself. These include bipolar II, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, PTSD, and mast cell activation syndrome, adding to the Chiari malformation, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder I was already diagnosed with. My health has deteriorated, and it affects how I act, including in church. This makes me have several considerations as I consider finding a church that will accept me for who I am and that I can give my gifts and graces.

First of all, is it a church that generally is accepting and understanding of mental health? I know lots of churches that get very squeamish around discussions of mental health. They see anxiety and depression and other illnesses as sins, not disabilities, and they do not take the time to understand them correctly. Is it a church that wants people to sweep their mental illnesses under the rug and be their polished, prim, dressed up “Sunday selves?” Jesus didn’t deal with “Sunday selves.” He dealt with prostitutes and tax collectors; widows and orphans. He loved people the way they were, and called others to do the same.

I want a church where I can be open about my anxiety, panic disorder, and bipolar II, and where other members feel open about theirs, too. I want a church that advocates for inclusion of people with mental illness in their church and other churches and sees them as an essential part of the body of Christ. I can help with this, but I can’t do it on my own. It has to be a whole church effort.

And generally, how is the church with chronic illness? Is it the kind of church that only is comfortable with illnesses that are neatly resolved after two weeks of prayer? This sadly happens more often than you think, and at many churches I’ve seen. These churches preach the power of prayer, and say if you only pray hard enough, you will be healed.

But I don’t believe that my chronic illnesses will likely be healed. They are genetic and lifelong. And while I believe God is a God of miracles, I don’t think curing my Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Chiari malformation, or mast cell activation syndrome are likely miracles God is going to perform. I will likely have these illnesses for life, so what I want from the body of Christ is prayer for management of symptoms, help when the symptoms flare up badly, and most of all, love and understanding, rather than judgment and bewilderment. I want a church where they help put my daughter’s coat on when I had to sit through all the hymns because my hips hurt too badly to stand, not where they look at me judgmentally because I seem too young and healthy looking to be ill. I want a church that understands I have good days and bad days, and that I might have to call off volunteering for a Sunday because of a flare, but I will try my very best to be there. And I want a church that will still let me help; I may have sicknesses, but I am passionate about helping children develop lifelong faiths, and I am very good at what I do, even if my health sometimes gets in the way of that.

I know not all people with chronic and mental illness are religious, and even if they are religious, maybe they do not attend church for various reasons. But for me, church attendance is very important to me, and I want to find a church where I can be open and help them be the hands and feet of Christ just as much as they help and support me. We don’t have any family in the area, so it’s important for me to find a church to be like family for us.
I have found a church that seems promising, but I have only visited a couple times, so I will have to keep going and see what God has in store for me!

Until then – and past then – I plan to keep being an advocate for Christians with mental and chronic illness because they bring so much richness and value to individual churches and the church universal.

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Thinkstock photo by Jose antonio Sanchez reyes

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