Here’s a question that originally appeared in Deacon Magazine in 2009:
Dear Dr. Alan,
We have a younger couple that has been going through a difficult time. The wife attempted suicide and has been hospitalized for 2 months for depression. She’s planning on returning to our church and we want to be supportive but most of us don’t know what to say or how to interact with her. Any advice?
Many people have expressed the following notion: “The Church is a hospital where wounded people come for restoration and healing.” But many others have made the following observation: “The Church shoots its wounded.” I like your question because it indicates that you want your church to be a hospital, not a firing squad. “Wounded” is a good word to describe someone who’s been depressed and suicidal. But wounds won’t heal without proper care and attention. There are three things you can do to help this lady with the healing process: respect her boundaries, give her grace, and lend her a hand.
Respect Her Boundaries
There was a time when mental health concerns were so stigmatized that no one dared discuss them out loud. Years ago, a lady was telling me about a church member’s depression. She looked both ways, leaned in, and whispered, “She’s been to see a psychiatrist.” I’m pretty sure I had to lip read the word psychiatrist. This conversation took place during an era when depression was considered to be a shameful indication of spiritual failure and a secret to be guarded at all costs.
But nowadays, the pendulum seems to have swung to the other side. What was once considered unbecoming to discuss is now spoken of openly and with seemingly few reservations. And it’s not just on the afternoon talk shows. Even churches, seeking to encourage realness and transparency, can unwittingly pressure struggling members to open up too much, too fast, and with too many people. Pretending the problem doesn’t exist isn’t healthy. But neither is an emotional strip tease.
So, I would let her know you respect her prerogatives as the gatekeeper. If she wants connection, she can open her gate. If she needs protection, she can close it. But those decisions are hers to make. Knowing that church members respect her boundaries will help her feel safe and hasten the healing.
Give Her Grace
Let me tell you a grace story. I have a friend who went through a serious depression, not unlike the one you’ve described. At the time, she was employed by a Christian ministry. Consequently, she felt exceedingly (though unnecessarily) shameful about being a person who supposedly had it all together but obviously didn’t. Her greatest fear was that she’d be banished to a “spiritual leper colony”—a place where she’d be confined until she could pull the pieces of her life and ministry back together. She had an appointment with her supervisor to discuss her job and future ministry involvement. To her, this upcoming meeting felt more like a sentencing hearing. But then, she was amazed by grace. This is what he said to her:
You’re not the first person in this ministry who’s been through something like this, and it’s far more common than you might expect. Your first priority, your only priority right now, is to do whatever you need to do to get better. See your counselor. Work as much as you like. Take as much time off as you need. You let us know when you’re ready to be back on the job at full speed. You are more important than your duties. Your job description right now is to take care of yourself.
In short, he demonstrated grace. He didn’t treat her like a crazy person, he believed in her, and he expressed optimism about her future. For her, this kind of grace demonstration was like a hyperbolic chamber that accelerated the healing process.
Lend Her a Hand
To put it another way, offer assistance. And, obviously, let her be the one to define the kind of assistance she needs. Listen carefully and do what you can to provide the requested help. Let me specifically mention a type of assistance to avoid and a type to offer.
The type to avoid is excessive advice-giving. It’s a natural impulse to help someone in the way you were once helped. It worked for you; why wouldn’t it work for her? But remember, she’s not you and your advice could unintentionally do more harm than good. She needs one doctor but many friends. You help her most by affirming the work she’s doing with her counselor and encouraging her to stick with the process.
The type to offer is prayer. She’d probably cringe at the prospect of being prayed for in group settings. But she’d be very encouraged to know that numerous individuals were praying for her privately. Pray for her health, for her growth, and that she would experience whatever good things God would want to bring out of this very bad thing.
In a sense, our churches should be “wound centers” where hurts inflicted upon fallen-world inhabitants can be healed. What gets wounded in hurtful relationships gets repaired through relationships with healthy church members.