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Mental Health Friendly Church

September 2010

Dear Friends

On Saturday 8 May I went to a seminar at the International Christian College entitled, ‘The Mental Health-Friendly Church.’ Most of us can thank God for our health both physical and mental, some have a mental illness but are nonetheless able to function, and a small number of us have serious mental illness.

Just as we provide disabled access for those with mobility problems and a hearing loop for those who are helped by it, it is good to consider how well we are doing by those with mental health problems. One of the cartoons shown by Dr Waller the psychiatrist at the conference, showed a person in bed thinking,

‘I am not happy in large groups, I don’t like singing and I’m really not keen on lectures. Hmmm, I wonder if I should go to church in the morning.’

Well, we know that a soul-nourishing word from God is not a lecture, but his main point is valid: a few members can only sometimes manage a meeting as daunting to them as a Sandyford service. Others come to church amidst struggles which hardly anyone knows about; we must consider how to be of service to all our members.

For most of us, being the church at worship is a joy. The gospel is liberating, enheartening and stimulating, and to praise the saviour together deeply fulfilling. To be with friends of every type and background is a source of great pleasure. There is a proper self-forgetfulness in being only a small cog in a committed and wide variety of kind and charitable people. Church is great!

But we all bring ‘baggage’ with us, some more than others. Another of Dr Waller’s slides showed a man pulling a trolley. On it was a whole lot of suitcases: grief, insecurity, past abuse, anger, depression, loss … The caption read ‘When Simon left home, he took all his ’baggage‘ with him.’ We have all been on the receiving end of such, and no doubt our own emotional baggage affects the way we react also.

That is a little different from having a mental health problem, but it is not unrelated. As I watch you come in on a Sunday morning, time and again this issue of bringing baggage strikes me. We can never tell just what is behind the face in front of us, but Sunday by Sunday it is clear that while some folk are at peace about themselves, others are knowing life-dominating hurt. With one or two faces sometimes I just want to go up and say (although I know it’s not right to interfere with another person’s public mask) ‘Oh, let’s go somewhere quiet and just tell me and tell me until we have really looked at this together in all its pain and you’ve had the chance to weep in the presence of Jesus, if you can reach that stage.’ Sometimes, sadly, we are so locked in that we are unable to get that far as yet.

I appreciate that that is different from mental illness. But then, it is not perfectly healthy either. Not one of us is: and that is a good starting point for all our thinking.

All of which faces us with the question, what are the marks of a mental health-friendly church and how do we rate.

Here were some of Dr Waller’s suggestions. Are they friendly … are they nearby … do they accept people just as they are … is there no loud embarrassing welcome to people who have just started coming, no crass identification of shy visitors …

Another test is a congregation’s links with their community. Thanks to many of you, we are making progress in this. The Drop-In, the YClub, the Living Room – our two local community police officers commend the Drop-in as a place for all including lonely people and those who are less well than the average, and they tell us that Sandyford is providing the best primary-age youth club in the area, and these are a good start.

One of the things which occurred to me at the end of the day conference was whether some members with a mental health problem but who are still functioning well, might be interested in starting a second Drop-In, run by them: not pushy but quietly available: letting people just read the paper, or do nothing, or chat through issues, or discuss how to find support. Queen’s Park Baptist church have one on a Monday lunchtime.

Another idea might be to arrange a time during the week specially for those who cannot manage a Sunday service but would value worship, including God’s Word, in a much smaller group.

Here is another of the psychiatrist’s criteria: ‘Not always positive.’ At the day conference a lady of Charismatic (large C) persuasion said, approximately, that Jesus takes your problems away and that if that isn’t happening there’s something wrong with your faith. I don’t think so. Actually I hate the superficiality and cruelty of such an approach. I think it’s time she read the Bible and learnt to understand what life feels like for a large number of people. So the outward-directed personal focus that wonders how that other person is doing, and doesn’t pretend that life is a bed of roses: that’s important. Not always positive.

Dr Waller made the following suggestions for discerning how well we are doing in respect of this particular ministry:

  • Disabled people are currently in attendance and feel they belong.
  • A contact person or team is available to consult with disabled people and champion disability issues.
  • Physical adjustments are willingly made, to help those with different needs.
  • Church activities welcome, accept and are a positive environment for those considered to be ‘different’ from the average.
  • People give their time sacrificially to listen and respond to pastoral issues.
  • The culture of the church is one of an ongoing journey of valuing all, addressing their needs and enabling them to use their gifts and contribute.

Well, that leaves us with things to think about. If you’d like to read more from Rob Waller, I recommend his website: www.mindandsoul.info . He also recommended one with the most interesting cartoons, indeed a rather interesting title: http://asbojesus.wordpress.com. It is full of insight.

I said at the beginning of this letter that most of us can thank God for our health, including our mental health. But another way to view it is to recognise that just as there is no perfect specimen of physical health, none of us is completely healthy mentally either. While some of us are quite equable and reasonably enjoy being who we are, others of us feel quietly and long term bad about ourselves; still others are fairly unwell but not in such a way as to prevent our functioning; and a few are seriously ill. We are together in this.

Paul pointed to some of this when he said, ‘When I am weak then I am strong.’ There is about the Christian gospel an awareness of our brokenness and our delight in the grace of Christ. There is about learning the grace of God in the gospel the potential for leaving behind, or at least bathing in grace, the insecurities and self-hatreds which make us too easily bruised and too liable to lash out. Even if we just live day by day with the sense, ‘I’m a broken person, isn’t God’s grace utterly marvellous,’ I’m guessing that we increasingly find ourselves easy to live with – and other people might find the same!

So join me, please, in thinking about the special thrust of the conference: am I as an individual, is Sandyford as a community, actively compassionate so that hurting people feel respected and safe. This does not exhaust all the factors in our life which will help. We might add our commitments to prayer and to hospitality, for example. Here then is a tweak to the Sandyford vision: knowing our weaknesses, in Christ we exist to be a safe place, a healing people.

Yours sincerely

C Peter White

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