Part of my call to ministry and passion in gifting is in addressing the social and institutional stigma directed at individuals with mental health diagnoses of depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar, unresolved grief immobilization and others. I was blessed to have wonderful support and loving community when my world was rocked by depression nearly two decades ago. It has given me a desire to educate, influence, and advocate on behalf of others who find themselves alienated or misunderstood because of temporary, periodic, or chronic mental health challenges. Too often those experiencing mental health challenges encounter suspicion, impatience, avoidance, and ridicule or rejection even among those who profess to love God and follow Christ.
Relationship with individuals with mental health diagnoses may require education, empathy, patience, a commitment to persevere alongside them at times, and trust that God is at work even in the midst of distressing times when adaptive coping skills are stressed or medications are being adjusted.. Where better to promote and assure the necessary acceptance and support than within the Body of Christ where the Gospel mandate exists to not only love others as one loves one’s self, but to love even further as God loves- unconditionally- and as Christ loves- sacrificially?
Individuals with mental health challenges can generally succeed in competent employment, participate in healthy relationships, enjoy meaningful worship individually and corporately, serve with purpose, and experience joy in life. They may require understanding support and accommodation from time to time as they adapt to changing physiological or psychological dynamics.
Christian history and the legacy of godly servant leadership in the past, including people like Henri Nouwen and others, have taught and demonstrated by their lives the value of empathically embracing the woundedness of others and leading from a posture of one’s own woundedness. One must be willing to acknowledge and consecrate one’s own woundedness for God to use it and for the community to embrace it.
Even so, there continues to be stigma and prejudice that results in aloof distancing of the church in some of its representations (and by some of its representatives) from the opportunity to utilize the giftedness and blessings born of suffering that such people can bring to ministry and community in the church.
Such bias and stigma has no place in Christian community and should be identified and remedied. The right of all people to be valued for the strengths they have and accommodated and complemented through supportive community in their weaknesses or woundedness is something that I believe Christ honors, teaches, and requires of those who call themselves “Christian” and is especially true for those whom he calls to ministry. It is the stigma directed at those with a “different” status in culture and the church that is the problem, not the “differentness” itself. God can use the “differentness” of all of us for God’s own purposes and glory, but only if both those who are “different” from the “norm” and those who have a lack of understanding and appreciation for what those who are “different” bring to community and ministry can trust God. When we recognize and acknowledge our own sinfulness and brokenness as well as have our strengths and gifts recognized and welcomed to the process, there is no limit to what can be accomplished on behalf of the Kingdom of God. The opportunity for unity cannot be overemphasized if both sides acknowledge their deficiencies as well as their strengths. It is true whether we are talking about issues of racial differences, gender differences, sexual orientation or practice differences, mental health differences, physical ability differences, social acceptance differences, etc. Coming from a posture of appreciation and valuing our respective gifts and acknowledging and supporting our respective inadequacies, we can all come to agree to trust God to define them and still love and accept us all in spite of them.
My “passion” is born not only of personal experience of an acute depressive episode with temporary psychotic decompensation, but it is also something that God created in my heart and personality and has allowed to be developed through experience and training to assure that all of God’s children hear the invitation to “Come to me” where they can find rest, healing, and belonging. The disciples themselves attempted to prevent the least among God’s children from coming to Christ- whether they were limited by their youthfulness, their social isolation from “uncleanness”, their sinful past, their gender, their mental status, or other conditions of perceived unworthiness. Christ did not permit it then and he does not endorse or allow it now. If it is allowed in the church, then that church has failed to be the compassionate and loving Body of Christ.
It is my assertion that the call to the Order of Deacons that God has put within me is valid for the purpose created and uniquely qualifies me for the ministry of healing for which I have been privileged to train and in which I have walked now since 1998 in lay ministry and since 2008 in pursuit of permanent vocational ordained ministry. I have not received release by God to abandon pursuit of the call to ordained ministry and will continue pursuit of it until God tells me to quit.
Furthermore, in keeping with the spirit and not simply the letter of the apostles’ inspiration to establish the servant-focused order of the diaconate in Acts 6:1-6, the instruction to meet the needs of the people is designed to free the elders to continue their work. Those needs of the community today are greater than ever, to feed the poor, to assist the disadvantaged, to provide healing and palliative care for the sick (physical or psychological), to visit and care for the imprisoned and infirm. I am not seeking to supplant but to support the work of others called to a different ministry.
It is my expectation, and I believe it is Christ’s expectation, as well, that those called to a different ministry of exhortation, teaching, order, sacraments, etc. would support the ministry of the diaconate fully, heartily, and graciously. I will advocate for the diaconate, whether I am allowed to participate in it in a formal ordained way or not. Because that is my call and gift.