Becoming Safe Spaces for Unsafe Feelings
As a psychotherapist and church leader I have often found that therapeutic spaces can be safer for people with mental health issues than church. Church can seem like an environment where only certain ‘Christian’ behaviors and ways of communicating are acceptable. The implication is that other feelings are not permissible because they are sinful and in some way might even pollute the church.
Many people put on a ‘Sunday face’ at church while living lives of quiet desperation, addiction, depression and anxiety in their everyday lives. This kind of dualism happens when the church has failed to show that its OK to not be OK. While more and more churches are taking on the challenge of creating communities that are conducive to mental health this is still a big issue. I suspect one reason this is difficult is that we find operating out of a dualistic mindset very familiar in our culture. Take for example political dialogue. This trades on ideas of in and out, right and wrong, good and bad, rather than acceptance and collaboration.
Christ for the outsider
I always find it amazing that in Christ’s ministry he went to the unclean and those who were not acceptable to the religious leaders. The fear was that he would become polluted by the supposed sinfulness of the ‘unclean’. In fact the exact opposite happened. The love, life and holiness of Christ infected the darkness and brought freedom, healing and peace. He created safe places for unsafe feelings to be welcomed, accepted and transformed. Nowhere is this clearer than in the story of the demoniac in Mark 5. 1-20.
So how can church move from a dualistic approach to one that provides safe spaces for unsafe feelings to be worked through? I think we can learn much from 12 step programs like AA. Here there is a complete absence of people trying to fix one another or give advice or point people to a scripture that will solve the problem. Whereas in church there can be a fear of pollution from the one with mental health issues in a recovery group there is acceptance and compassion. The reason for this is that everyone knows they are in the same boat. All are addicts and all are on a path to spiritual recovery. All are working through the idea that only God can restore them to sanity. There is no ‘us and them’ there is only us. In a church context this may need to be modeled by leaders at all levels. However this does not mean leaders need to indulge in excessive over-sharing either!
Moving on from old narratives
I have sometimes experienced church community where there is a safe place for unsafe feelings, where people are heard and valued with compassion and without judgment. However if this is all that happens there is a risk that people don’t move on from their old stuck narratives. Sometimes recovery groups are portrayed in this way, as places where people constantly moan about their problems but without changing. This is a gross misrepresentation, often made by those who fear things getting too ‘emotional’. Actually recovery groups are focused on just that, recovery.
There is a very clear route given called the 12 steps. I think that having a process in place for change really helps people to share their unsafe feelings. I often find with therapy clients that once a client has told me their truth and how hopeless and lost they feel they want to know there is a process of recovery, that there is hope. They need to know they will not be stuck in this place forever. This is a huge first step when people share their secret fears, anxieties and pain. It is crucial that the person sharing their heart is not responded to with Christian platitudes or quick solutions.
This can often seem like being told to try harder, to pray more, read the Bible more and then things will be better. I have come to the conclusion that church can be a place for health and healing to happen as a process rather than an instant solution. I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to restore and heal. However I do wonder if sometimes the call to ministry at the end of services is sometimes an attempt to replace process with a quick fix. This recovery of true identity and knowing what it means to be in and loved by Christ takes time.
This next step is based on a recognition that however overwhelming and unsafe things may feel these feelings arise from a narrative we have about ourselves, others and God. This narrative is often rooted in traumas, disappointments and relational issues. This old narrative does need to be heard and expressed before a new one can be developed.
I remember talking to a Christian leader who had never told anyone before about their self-hatred and fear of their secret addiction being discovered. Once they had been heard and we started to describe this as a narrative they began to get some distance from the old script and could open up to a different way of describing themselves. As a church leader I hope that my ministry remains rooted in the messy and complex reality of people felt experience. This then creates a safe bridge into looking at moving from old narratives based on painful pasts and into the possibility of inhabiting a new identity in Christ.
It seems to me to be an act of storytelling that creates space to tell the story so far and create the one to come. For people to engage with who they are in Christ it seems essential that they can bring all of their feelings, fears, pain and doubt into this sacred space. Often I meet Christians who feel that they cannot approach Christ as they are because they have to sort the mess in their lives out first. Being ‘in Christ’ is not somehow a perfect state of being that none can obtain. Nor is it just an individual experience. It seems that in his writings Paul is often referring to being in the community of Christ, sharing in one another's sufferings and joys.
So these are the first three steps in answering the question of how to become safe space for unsafe feelings in church.
1. To move away from dualism and a separation of church identity from a secret and shameful identity.
2. To create spaces where peoples full stories can be shared and accepted without any attempt at a quick fix.
3. To build new stories of identity based in Christ rather than familiar feelings attached to old stories.