Starting the conversation inside church walls


Imagine watching television when suddenly the following headline interrupts the program...

BREAKING NEWS: Shooter opens fire in elementary school. 

Like most people, Marcie Hatfield’s heart sinks when such news reports come on her television. 

“Who would do such a thing?” she asks herself, coming to the conclusion the suspect likely reacted out of rage stemmed by a mental issue such as schizophrenia or depression. 

Over the years, Hatfield has observed people struggling with mental illnesses. In one instance, a friend whose son committed suicide while suffering from Bipolar Disorder expressed how she felt the church was turning its back on those suffering by being silent. Hatfield visited with her husband, Dr. Stephen Hatfield, pastor of First Baptist Church in Lewisville, about the friend’s remark. The couple began to ask the questions, “Why are we afraid to help? Why are those suffering afraid to reach out for help?”

“It seemed sad these people were suffering without any support,” she said, “especially in the church, and we’ve never really talked about it at church.”

Expressing those ideas generated interest around their congregation at FBC Lewisville to begin a ministry for people who feel they are struggling, or have close family or acquaintances who are struggling with mental illness. 

Studies from the National Alliance on Mental Illness show 1 in 5 people are touched by mental illness. Yet, it is not often discussed in churches. 

“The problem is people are embarrassed to say, ‘I have bipolar’ or ‘I struggle with depression’ or ‘I have anxiety’ whereas if we have diabetes or if we have cancer, the church rallies around those people and brings them casseroles,” Hatfield said. “If somebody suffers with mental challenges, you just don’t talk about.”

But FBC Lewisville, and other churches, are changing that stigma and have begun the conversation amongst their congregation. 

Last November, FBC Lewisville invited Joe Padilla, founder of the Mental Health Grace Alliance, to train them on starting that conversation. He preached one Sunday and Dr. Hatfield preached the following three Sundays about the biblical importance of addressing and promoting positive mental health. 

“One of the strongest community leaders in any society is the church,” according to Padilla. “It’s important for the church to be aware and educated on all the issues.”

The sermon series attracted enough volunteers to serve as leaders for five Grace Groups--small groups designed to support those affected by mental illnesses. 

Each Grace Group caters to a different group of people who are impacted in some way or another by mental illness. The five groups each fell into one of the following three group titles. 

The first group, Living Grace Group (LGG), is for those living with a mental health difficulty or disorder. LGG provides psycho-education and practical tools within a supportive community. It includes topics such as Holistic Recovery, Healthy Thinking, Medication and Rest/Relaxation.

The second is Family Grace Group (FGG), which is for the families of those living with a mental health difficulty or disorder. FGG provides psycho-education and practical tools within a supportive community. It includes topics such as building your faith, Boundaries to Rebuild, Enabling versus Empowering and Staying Ahead of the Game (prevention planning).

The final group, Living Hope Group (LHG), is for those who have experienced trauma or PTSD. LHG provides psycho-education and practical tools within a supportive community. It includes topics such as Stress & Trauma, Safety & Control, Guilt & Shame and Staying Resilient.

FBC Lewisville finished its first set of courses in the spring and, after receiving a positive response and having over 50 participants, began a new set for the summer. Hatfield said they anticipate beginning them again in the fall. 

“It’s just been so amazing how God has brought all these people together,” Hatfield said. “God has just totally led every step from when we started to go down this path. That’s been the most exciting thing. I feel like He’s brought the right people at the right time to lead or encourage us.”

One of the key components to ministry being so successful, Hatfield said, is having the congregation’s support and involvement during all of it. 

“The education and information has to keep being in front of the whole church,” she said. “We can’t just start these little groups and let them go on their own.”

Having the right message of grace from the church will save hundreds, maybe even thousands of lives on the verge of committing suicide, Padilla said. Beginning the conversation inside the church walls is the first step to helping heal and restore lives affected by mental illnesses.

Related articles: How Much Battery Do You Have? / Why ministry leaders should consider an annual mental health check important / Hope for lives to be transformed