The Body of Christ and Mental Illness


[1] The new social message on The Body of Christ and Mental Illness from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) begins with a cry from Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” (Psalm 22:1-2)

[2] The social message begins by acknowledging the anguish and isolation familiar to those who have experienced the mental and emotional pain of mental illness. Such acknowledgement is important for despite the prevalence of mental illness, it is often a shame-filled secret. A mother once shared that her young daughter, while dealing with difficult mental health issues, hoped that she (the daughter) would develop an illness which would put her in the hospital. That way, the daughter thought, others would at least know she was experiencing some kind of pain.

Open Door[3] With this new message on mental illness we begin by opening the door to conversations throughout our church about something that one half of Americans will face in their lifetimes. We open the door for conversations and education. We open the door to those who have often felt alone and ashamed and thus unwilling to tell anyone their secret. We open the door for those suffering from mental illness as well as their caregivers, families, friends and colleagues. We open the door for the leaders of our church who have often been unwilling to talk about their own struggles or get the help they need for fear of what the people in their congregations would think.

[4] This message not only gives permission for conversations about mental health to take place. It also calls for action. On page three of the message we are reminded that “this message is a call for ELCA members to acknowledge the needs of those living with mental illness and for the church to claim the responsibility it has as the Body of Christ.” As the church, the Body of Christ we are asked to do more than just talk. We are asked to find ways to be signs of healing and hope.

[5] Page three of the message becomes even more specific about our responsibility when it reminds us the church has the power to address many of the ravages inflicted by mental illness whether through compassion to those affected, advocating for and improving access to treatment, supporting caregivers and practitioners, or making mental illness visible.

[6] As the new Program Director for Disability Ministries which includes being part of a Mental Health Network that crosses denominational lines, I find this new message both exciting and challenging.

[7] It is exciting that we are officially encouraging people to speak about and deal with an illness that can cause so much pain. I am glad that the many members of the church who have felt the need in the past to keep silent about their mental illness or the mental illness of those close to them will be encouraged to share their story and hopefully receive the care and support that can come from being part of the Body of Christ. I am thankful that we have a message which encourages the leaders of this church to take care of their own mental health. I am hopeful that this message will lead to better education of lay people and rostered leaders alike. I am looking forward to meeting many out there already striving to be the Body of Christ for those who have felt excluded from the church due to their illness. Yes, all this is exciting.

Lutheran Suicide Prevention
Elsie and Gerald (Jerry) Weyrauch, members of the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Marietta, GA, are the survivors of the 1987 suicide of their 34 year-old physician-daughter Terri Ann. They are the founders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Suicide Prevention Ministry that has developed the following abridged convictions that inform and shape its work.
  • Lutherans concerned about suicidal behavior and its roots of mental illness, drug abuse and alcoholism are strongly encouraged to coalesce around and seize a unique opportunity.
  • Lutherans should seriously consider suicide prevention.
  • Suicide shows no sign of declining despite a decade of relatively explosive growth in prevention activity.
  • While faith communities lead national/world efforts in addressing the “audible and visible” issues of hunger, poverty and disease, their efforts are noticeably absent in confronting the “silent and invisible” issues of suicide, mental illness, drug abuse and alcoholism.
  • There are practical suicide prevention programs that congregations can do now to raise awareness, educate members and support community/regional/national suicide prevention efforts.
  • There are practical suicide prevention programs that district, regional and synodical offices can use now to raise awareness, educate members and support community/regional/national suicide prevention efforts.
  • There are practical suicide prevention programs that churchwide offices can use now to raise awareness, educate members and support community/regional/national suicide prevention efforts.
[8] However in the midst of the excitement comes the knowledge that it will take the time and effort of many for the good news of this message to become a reality. If all we do is read the message and add it to the social messages and statements on our shelves then nothing will change.


[9] Rostered leaders in the church will, first of all, need to take this message to heart, looking carefully at their own personal lives, seeking the help they need to take care of their own mental health and taking advantage of the resources provided by Portico. Hopefully, those who support their ministries such as bishops and other synod staff will be there to encourage them; to “push” them if necessary to get whatever help is needed for them and their loved ones. This help would also include the education needed to better guide those in their care to find the resources they need. Change often begins with leaders.


[10] Rostered leaders need to make sure that this message gets into the hands of those within their congregations and institutions who can walk with them in lifting up the hope in this new message. In order to help this happen, a brief study of the new message is being prepared. This study includes a closer look at the message, a Bible study, and suggestions for moving forward. From this study a workshop will also be developed which could help to introduce the new message across the church.

[11] As a result of the mental health networks in which the ELCA participates there are resources for individuals, families and congregations made available through Pathways to Promise, Ministry and Mental Illness and the National Alliance on Mental Health Illness (NAMI). These resources can be accessed through the ELCA website.


[13] The Congregational and Synodical Mission Unit is also connecting with members of the ELCA who have been led by their own personal experiences to provide organizations and resources for those dealing with mental health issues. The information on these will be part of the new ELCA website which is in production now. Until the new site is completed the following contacts might be helpful.

[14] For Elsie and Jerry Weyrauch telling the truth about the suicide of their daughter has led them to develop resources for others. One resource, called "Telling Secrets: A Path to Abundant Living/A New Educational Series About Mental Illness, Addiction, Alcoholism, Suicide," includes others who have also been telling the truth about their experience with mental illness. (

[15] The journey of Bonnie and Bill Kinschner with their young adult daughter’s onset of mental illness, which is included in this resource, led them to create the “One Mind Mental Illness Ministry”. (

[16] Yes, this new message, The Body of Christ and Mental Illness, is both exciting and challenging. It is exciting to think of how we might more fully reach out to others with the good news of God’s inclusive, all-embracing love. It will also be challenging to find the ways in which we might best proclaim this good news while fighting for justice, giving care and changing the way people with mental illness are treated. But we are not in this alone. We are part of the Body of Christ! This is the Christ who suffered, died and rose on the third day. This is the Christ who empowers us to rise up daily from all that would defeat us so that we might be there to help others do the same.

The Rev. Cherlyne V. Beck is Program Director for Disability Ministries and Support of Lay Rostered Leaders for the ELCA.


© May/June 2013
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 13, Issue 3