DALLAS—Up to 25 percent of the U.S. population has a diagnosable mental illness. Christians agree 100 percent of those people deserve to know Christ, but few churches reach out to them.
Believed to be the only church that counts the mentally ill as its target population, The Well Community in Dallas is seeking to be an avenue where mentally ill people can come to know the love of Christ. And the church hopes it can be a model for other congregations.
The Well Community started in 2002, and Pastor Joel Pulis has learned a few things he believes might be helpful to others.
“One of the things at the top of the list is that I don’t have professional mental health training. This is a lay ministry. The skills of praying for and with someone and just being a spiritual friend are what are needed in this ministry,” he said. “I wouldn’t seek to believe that everyone is called to this ministry. But if you are called to it, God will gift you for it.”
The Scripture passage that reigns as the theme of the ministry is Matthew 9:35-10:10, he said. In these verses, Pulis sees a balance between spiritual needs and physical ones. The passage recounts Jesus going through villages preaching the good news and also healing disease and sickness.
“At The Well, we see it as a spiritual problem, a medical problem and a biological problem. It’s not, ‘Take your meds, and you’ll get better,’ or, ‘Trust Jesus more, and you’ll get better.’ It’s both of those,” he said.
“That passage also speaks about Jesus having compassion on the harassed and helpless, and there are probably no one in this country as harassed and helpless as the mentally ill.
“They are made in the image of God, and we’re called to be compassionate toward them. So that compassion is huge, and if you don’t have that, if you can’t look at these people with a deep and abiding love, I’d question whether you’re called to this ministry.”
The severity of mental illness varies widely. Some are homeless. Others successfully hold down jobs and live with supportive families. “These people are in every one of our churches,” he said.
Despite the prevalence, a great stigma still surrounds mental illness, Pulis asserted. Some are afraid of the mentally ill, considering them to be violent.
“We’ve never had a violent episode in our history. And the reality is, the mentally ill are more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator of violence,” he said.
Perhaps Baptists should look at the mentally ill as an unreached people group, he suggested.
“In Dallas County, there are an estimated 21,000 with severe and disabling mental illness. That is not a language group, and that is not an ethnic group, but it is a group with a distinct culture,” he said.
“The Well is multi-ethnic and multigenerational. The glue that holds us together is being diagnosed with mental illness.”
While he would like to see a greater willingness in mainstream churches to accept the mentally ill, he looks at the success of niche congregations like the western-heritage churches and sees the advantages of reaching out to a particular culture.
“I think there is some benefit in having this focus. Some of that is a concession to the stigma that goes along with mental illness, but there also is a balance in meeting the needs of these people,” he said.
In the center of the Scripture passage, Pulis notes the call to be healers is maybe more widely spread than those who heed it. The end of Matthew 9 has Jesus telling his disciples to ask the Lord for workers to send out to the harvest, and then in chapter 10 it is the disciples who are sent out.
“Jesus gave that task to the 12, and I believe it isn’t unique to those 12 but is a commission to everybody to go and help heal the afflicted,” he said.
The essentials of a ministry to the mentally ill are to preach the good news and address spiritual issues, help engender a social community, try to help the mentally ill secure clean and decent housing, and encourage them to see doctors and stay faithful to their orders.
“We try to tell them we believe in you, there is hope for you. We also try to give them a support network and be a friend. Those are things an average Christian could help with,” he said.
Pulis encouraged churches interested in reaching out to the mentally ill to go to the county mental health/mental retardation center and ask how the church could help.
Last year, The Well ministered to 275 individuals. It averages about 45 each day at its noon meal and community center, and about 70 to 80 each Saturday night for worship services.
The ministry has a residential facility for eight men and a building where 30 people have individual efficiency apartments. It helps others find clean and secure places to live.
“Housing is a big challenge for us going forward,” he acknowledged. “If they go back to a hellhole each night, it’s not good for their mental or spiritual health.”
For churches wanting to begin ministries, Pulis offered a few hints.
“When we first started, there wasn’t a lot of peer-to-peer interaction of support. We weren’t getting a lot of relationship going on between members. That will be that way to some degree with any new group, but in the mentally ill, they are so involved in their own worlds there is a lack of empathy and ability to love someone else. But we’ve seen that change over time at The Well,” he said.
“And even though I’m describing these people as unable to love, I have people who are college graduates and people who have a wealth of life experiences, so while bringing what you have to the table, they have a contribution to make as well.”
Realizing the intellectual acumen of his congregation has changed the way he preaches, he said.
“Early on, I felt I had to dumb down what I was saying. I’ve learned that some are extremely, extremely bright folks, and now I’m delivering a message the same as I would in any other context. Looking back, I could have slowed some of their spiritual progress,” Pulis acknowledged.
“There have been frustrations over times, and we’ve seen doors close, but every time it was the Lord preventing us from making a mistake. We just try to be just as aware of the doors he opens for us.”
One of those blessings is the support of other churches. Cliff Temple Baptist Church is the site of The Well, and has supported the congregation from its infancy.
Over the years, other churches have partnered with the Well, and last year, 29 churches helped with either volunteers, prayer support or financial gifts.
“Look beyond your local church,” Pulis said.
“There may be others in the community who have a heart and skills you’re looking for.”
George Henson is the staff writer for Texas Baptist Standard