Since the Well Community was founded 20 years ago, it has been unique in that it has offered not only practical resources but spiritual support for individuals whose lives have been altered by serious mental health conditions. Begun by Joel Pulis, his family and some members of Cliff Temple Baptist Church, the Well has, from the beginning, been a community where members seek to strengthen one another’s faith amid the daily challenges of their illnesses.
Kenny Cheshier, Executive Pastor of Cliff Temple, has had a front-row seat to witness the power of connection in providing spiritual support to members of the community dealing with mental health challenges. His church has hosted the Well Community since its inception, and its members were the Well’s first volunteers. Since then, the congregation has served members of the Well in numerous ways, including starting a Sunday school class for those who wanted to extend the time of spiritual connection they experienced at the Well Community during the week.
This spiritual support is important, Kenny says, because it can help those living with mental illness grasp that God truly loves them. For individuals who often face unkindness and the negative attitudes cultivated by stigma, this understanding is especially vital. This support also helps them cope with the unpredictable nature of their illnesses, as knowing that there’s a power that’s higher than themselves gives them comfort amid challenges that are out of their control.
So much of this support is centered around creating genuine community with those who are struggling with their mental health, and over the years Kenny has seen how fostering a sense of belonging plays a big role in offering spiritual support. As he explains, many of the biggest spiritual needs of these individuals can be met through personal connection.
“They want someone to listen to them,” he says. “They want someone they know will care for them and be there for them. … They want someone to spend time with them. They don’t want a handout. They want someone to be part of their life.” Kenny adds that many also want someone to act on their behalf, explaining how accompanying a Well Community member to a government office can make the difference between them being brushed off or them getting the resources they need.
Individual actions, like listening or offering a word of encouragement, work together to create a welcoming environment for those who are struggling with their mental health. Kenny shares that helping these individuals feel comfortable in church involves every point of contact within a congregation, from the greeters to the teachers to those preparing coffee. “They need to know, ‘these people care for me at every point.’”
When people like members of the Well Community feel at home in church, they’re not the only ones who benefit. For example, Kenny has witnessed how, as they are part of classes and feel free to share, others are encouraged to do the same. “Because of their honesty, others are honest.”
As Kenny explains, the honesty and care that Well members demonstrate make other people ask themselves, “Why am I not living that way?” He reflects on how he’s been personally challenged by Well members’ openness. “They are some of the most generous people I’ve ever met. Am I that honest? Am I allowing other people to come into my life?” This willingness to be ministered to and to learn from others living with mental illness can also be a powerful form of spiritual support as it affirms their God-given gifts and value.
Kenny encourages other churches that want to come alongside those dealing with mental health challenges to first “wrestle with mental illness in their own lives and in others they know.” Mental illnesses, which affect one in five Americans each year, are prevalent among church members and those they love; and recognizing this can help those who want to serve to do so well.
In addition, Kenny suggests getting involved in ministries like the Well that are already serving individuals dealing with mental health struggles. He emphasizes the importance of church members, including leadership, volunteering together as it gives them a better shared understanding of mental illnesses and of the challenges faced by those living with these disorders.
He saw this firsthand when members of Cliff Temple began volunteering at the Well. “Giving them the opportunity to serve from the outset really raised awareness of mental illness among our members.” This is important, he says, because he believes that many of the members of his church have dealt with mental illness personally or have a family member who has faced mental health struggles.
Kenny says his own compassion has grown as well as he’s come to better understand that individuals suffering from mental illnesses can’t control the fact that they live with these diseases. Just as some people get conditions like thyroid disorders or cancer without their consent, people like members of the Well didn’t ask for their disorders. “It’s not their fault,” he says.
This understanding and compassion pave the way for creating the sense of belonging that’s at the heart of spiritual and overall wellbeing—not only for those living with mental illnesses but for all who are part of the community. As Cliff Temple has faithfully served Well members, the congregation has experienced this mutual benefit of offering spiritual support. As Kenny puts it, “Over the past 20 years, the Well Community members have shown me God.”
Want to learn more about mental health and spiritual connection? Check out these resources.