Mental Health Friendly Churches - Magazine Article
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Mental Health and the Friendly Church
Rob Waller, Steve Seedall and Tim Wood
Dr Rob Waller is a Consultant Psychiatrist working for the NHS in Scotland and a Director of the Mind and Soul Foudnation [www.mindandsoulfoundation.org – a national network exploring Christianity and Mental Health]. Steve Seedall is the Director of Pastoral Care for the Association of Christian Counsellors [www.acc-uk.org] and also works as the director of a community-based Christian Counselling service in Norfolk .Tim Wood is Through the Roof’s Development Manager [www.throughtheroof.org – the Christian Disability Charity] and manages their “Churches inc” programme to resource churches to include disabled people. This article was first published in the January 2011 Edition of ACC’s magazine, Accord.
Choosing a church
Imagine Dave, from Doncaster, who is recovering from depression. Like many people who have been ill, he has been looking into the ‘big questions’ – and would like to find out more. But he doesn't know where to start. He went to Sunday School when he was a child, but that was in Durham so he knows nothing of the church scene locally.
He could of course have a look on the Alpha website (www.alpha.org) to see where an Alpha course is being run, but he hasn't seen the adverts yet so doesn't know it exists. He has seen a list of churches in the Yellow Pages, but has a major problem - he has no idea how they will react if he tells someone there that he has been depressed. His search on Google found some fascinating information on a site called Ship of Fools (www.shipoffools.com), but it wasn’t really what he was after! He also saw lots of internet articles about the bad experiences people have had at church when sharing their mood: "These are nice places, thank you, and we don't want to talk about things like that"…
What makes a church a good one to belong to if you are struggling with your mental health? Is it the fact they have a Counsellor on staff or have an annual Depression Awareness Day? Or is it that they are aware enough to care, small enough to notice and moving slowly enough to actually deliver?
Imagine if there was a way to describe this possibly mythical beast, and (if it can be described) to get that information to Dave in a way that is helpful, real and up-to-date. Imagine if Dave could narrow his search down to say 10 churches in Doncaster. Would that make him more likely to take that first perilous step of crossing the threshold one Sunday morning to see if the Peace really is shared!
Love your neighbour
John Stott once said that the Gospel is not about liking your neighbour, but about loving your neighbour. Of course it would be great if you could like them as well, and most people are likable when you get to know them. But his point was that we need a high definition of friendship in the church – we cannot stop at those we happen to already know, those who have only had easy-to-understand experiences or those who demand more from friendship than a social ‘how-are-you-I’m-fine-thanks’.
Thank goodness many churches are starting to proclaim to their communities that they are places of peace, refuge, support, help, love, community and even healing. But to offer this means you need to be able to deliver it, and the person seeking needs to be able to find these things – otherwise they will become nothing more than cheesy slogans on the church bill-board. The message of the church will be made to sound hollow, empty, damaging and, worst of all, hypocritical – worst because trust is such an important thing for Dave just now…
Also, when churches do reach out in this way, they should expect that some who respond will have significant needs. This is not something for the faint-hearted church and one of the things we hope this idea of Mental Health Friendly Churches will do is get people thinking about the tools they need. The Association of Christian Counsellors has a Pastoral Care Course (www.acc-uk.org/1504) that explores this in more detail.
For churches that are serious about being ‘mental health friendly’, what are the things they should be striving towards, and how can people know that this or that church is on the right track? If you ask people what they want to find were they to go to a church at a time like this, many will reply with something like ‘friendly’. However, we wonder if this is such a vague term that, though laudable, is going to be very difficult to define helpfully. We can also all think of churches who market [if a church can do that…] themselves as friendly yet if you differ one iota from their ‘core target audience’ [it seems they can market…] you will find friendship hard to come by indeed.
Taking things to the other extreme, we can probably all list some things that might indicate that a church is interested in being ‘mental health friendly’ such as employing a counsellor, having a sermon on depression or have regular times of healing prayer. Yet we wonder if we ought to be looking more for signs that friendliness is integrated more deeply and centrally into the day-to-day life of the church at all levels.
Through the Roof have been working for many years on the sort of things that make it easy for a physically disable person to come to church and you can see these listed on the Find a Church database under the ‘Special Needs’ tab (www.findachurch.co.uk). But, they have found that just because a church has a ramp, lift, hearing aid loop or accessible website doesn’t mean that if a disabled person turns up they will receive a loving welcome. Far from being as easy to define as a tick-list of adaptations, it seems to come down to that ‘friendly’ thing again, and trying to work out what being genuinely friendly is.
A possible definition
In the interests of keeping it simple, we wonder if the best way forward is for churches to SELF-identify against some kind of statement like the one below. Self-identification is not some thing we would be going round checking up on (we would leave that to Ship of Fools) but at least it says that the leadership are taking this topic seriously – maybe having it as one of their topics for the next vision period, or something like that.
The list below is some things we think capture the important points without being too vague to be useful and too ‘tick-box’ to miss the idea of friendship. Key ideas are that the church has thought this through, they are willing to go the extra mile (or two) and that actually we all struggle to some degree with ourselves and external barriers. On this note, we acknowledge that no church is ever perfect (if you find one please don’t start attending…) and that this is best seen as aspirational statement with no intention to induce guilt or make your church feel it is way short of the mark.
-- People with difficulties feel they ‘belong’ whether or not they are able to take part in or attend meetings (although it is of course a good sign if they do feel able to attend and be part of meetings)
-- A contact/team is available to consult with who ‘champion’ issues around disability and health and are able to signpost local services
Information is available in alternative formats appropriate for different needs [e.g. large print, audio, electronic]
-- Physical adjustments are willingly made to help those with different needs and the style of individual services is relatively predictable
-- Church activities welcome, accept and are positive environments that are flexible to people’s needs
-- People give their time sacrificially to listen and respond to pastoral issues, ideally described by a Pastoral Care Policy/Strategy
-- The culture/ethos of the church is one of an on-going journey of valuing all, addressing their needs and enabling them to use their gifts and contribute
Would you add or subtract anything from this list? Does this set the bar at the right level, even for smaller churches? Does this make sense?
One related idea to this is to have a list within a list – the larger list is of churches added by anyone (for example a local person identifying local churches they think are good), and the smaller, inner list being churches where the leadership have made an explicit desire to be mental health friendly. The larger list would still have some validity as we hope it would offer a better place to start that the Yellow Pages!
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Rob Waller, 02/01/2014