Seven ways Churches can support their congregations and promote healthy mental well-being
Patrick Regan OBE and Rachael Newham
I wonder how you’re feeling as we enter 2022? You may be full of hope and optimistic about what is to come; with vaccines and glimpses of something that looks like normal. Or you might be coming to this fresh new year a little weary, a little wary of what’s on the horizon. Likely you might be feeling a strange mixture of both.
This strange and brutal storm we’ve been living in over the past two years has left its marks on us all as we’ve sought to come to terms with the losses and perhaps the hardest thing about it is we’re not sure when the end will finally come.
Therefore, it’s never been so important that we have ‘the mental health’ conversation, whether that be in the pulpit, on Zoom or in living rooms. So, we’ve put together seven ways our churches can support their congregations and promote good wellbeing as we enter this new year.
Perhaps the trickiest thing about the mental health conversation, is the language we use about it! Mental health, mental wellbeing, mental illness, mental ill health are all phrases used most days - but their meanings have become conflated and confused. I’ve found it helpful, therefore, to adopt the language of a mental health continuum. Optimal mental wellbeing is the point we’d probably like to be at if we had the option - but the continuum shows us that it’s possible even with a diagnosed mental illness. On the other hand, minimal wellbeing can be experienced by both those with a mental illness and those with no diagnosis who might instead be struggling with things like grief and loss, which although aren’t a particularly nice part of life, are a part of the wholeness of our humanity. Over the course of our lives, we’ll move along the continuum, we’ll experience times of minimum and maximum wellbeing, one in four of us will experience a mental illness in any given year, but these aren’t fixed points. The language we use about mental wellbeing and mental illness matters, because how we talk about something informs our response. In a similar vein, we want to be making sure we are mindful of the language we use about mental illness; ensuring that we don’t define people by their struggles. We want to be using language such as ‘living with schizophrenia’ rather than schizophrenic so that our focus is always on the person rather than any diagnosis they might live with. At the heart of our vision at Kintsugi Hope is that we want to see a world where mental and emotional health is understood and accepted - and our language around mental wellbeing must reflect this.
Honesty Over Silence Probably one of the most uttered phrases in our churches is “How are you?”, but how often do we wait for the real answer or feel able to be truly honest when we do reply? Of course, attempting to have honest conversations during a coffee time when trying not to trip over toddlers, or over Zoom is not always easy or possible; but it’s important that we can create a culture where we answer the question honestly and create space for those deeper conversations to get to know one another beneath surface levelTo be supporting and promoting wellbeing, our churches need to be places where people feel able to be honest about their joys, struggles and griefs. One of my favourite theologians, Walter Brueggemann reminds us that: “Churches should be the most honest place in town, not necessarily the happiest place in town.”It can be so tempting only to share our good news at church - we’re a gospel people, aren’t we?! And yet we do one another a disservice when we gloss over the bad news; I’m reminded that in the wake of Jesus’ death, Cleopas and his unnamed companion cried ‘we had hoped’ with honesty only to find the One in whom they hoped had been walking alongside them the whole time. (Luke 24:13-35) We cannot hope to promote mental wellbeing if we are unable to be honest with one another when wellbeing feels like a distant dream.
Learning to Lament It is not just one another that we need to learn to be honest with; we also need to recognise the need for honesty in our relationship with God. Throughout scriptures we see a pattern of God’s people calling out to him with the rawest and sometimes uncomfortable honesty. From the writers of the Psalms declaring that ‘darkness is my only friend’ to Elijah begging for death and Jesus himself crying ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ We are in good company when we are honest with God through lament both individually and corporately; and although forty percent of the Psalms can be categorised as lament, we tend to avoid them in our church services.We have been given the gift of the church year; beginning with the waiting of advent, through the celebration of Christmas to the repentance of Lent and the grief of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday to bring our pain and questioning before God as a community. It might be by holding a “Blue Christmas” event where people can come for a time of reflection if Christmas is a difficult time or intentionally choosing to sit with the difficult feelings Good Friday and Holy Saturday evoke before we join with the hallelujahs of Easter Sunday. Lament is a gift we miss out on when we aren’t honest with one another or God when life is tough.
Cultivate Safe Spaces Traditionally, church buildings were legal ‘sanctuaries’ safe places where people could seek refuge and care; but all too often our churches today aren’t considered safe – especially for those struggling with their mental health. Kintsugi Hope Wellbeing Groups offer an opportunity to cultivate these spaces where people can find a place of belonging and community as they explore together issues such as shame and anxiety. We run these groups in partnership with local churches, provide the training needed and have a wealth of resources that people can use to suit their groups based around the five learning styles; so you can choose whether a group might best suit a ‘do it’ approach or ‘read it’. We want to be able to encourage people to develop self-management tools, participate in peer facilitated mentoring, for the groups to signpost people to, specific support in the community if needed and above all be mini sanctuaries where people feel they belong without shame or judgement. We love hearing the testimonies and evaluations from group leaders about how participants have grown in confidence, accessed support or felt their sense of shame lift as they were able to tell their story in a safe place.“I feel free to share my thoughts and heart in a safe environment”“The Kintsugi Hope Wellbeing Group has been led extremely well in a safe environment to share. I have now practical strategies that I can use moving forward.”
Don’t Be a Hero It can be so tempting as a leader to want to fix the pain we see. As we survey a sea of faces from the pulpit or on a Zoom call, the reality of the stories carried can feel overwhelming; but to care for our own mental wellbeing and that of those we serve, it’s important to remember that we don’t need to fix everyone! We don’t need to be mental health experts or have all the answers to everyone’s problems; we simply need to make space for people to encounter the healing presence of Jesus - whether or not that involves a cure. In his earthly ministry, nobody who encountered Jesus was left unchanged; but they weren’t always fixed in the way we might have expected them to be.We might have been hearing the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) from our earliest days in the faith or ministry; that we need to be on the lookout for people to care for regardless of whether they look like us or fit in with who we expect to help. But in the parable, it is Jesus who is the Good Samaritan - not us! We can’t be a sponge for people’s pain and feeling the need to fix everyone, but we can meet people where they are and ensure they have dignity and hope.
Gentle Presence We recently conducted some research into attitudes towards mental health and wellbeing in the UK church amongst church-goers and church leaders; and the clearest message was that if we want our churches to support mental health we need to create opportunities to walk alongside people throughout their lives. The tricky part is, there is no one way to be a gentle presence for people; it might involve sitting alongside someone in tears, accompanying them to a doctor’s appointment or organising a meal, what matters is our ability to listen to what is needed and to what God might be saying.To be a gentle presence is to view the person as a fellow follower of Jesus who is struggling. It means creating spaces of safety, honesty and vulnerability and creating an environment that is welcoming and allows the individual to feel they can openly discuss their mental health issues. Creating these spaces is no mean feat: it requires leaders (in all capacities) to love beyond their capabilities, to be patient with individuals (even when it’s difficult), and to put in the hard work to understand mental health issues more fully.
Hold out Hope The good news for both leaders and those who are struggling is that we need not go on this journey alone. We don’t need to manufacture hope for mental wellbeing; we already have it! Our hope is not a prosperity-gospel style declaration that we can live lives free from discomfort; but a promise that throughout it all God is with us. In Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians three, he asks that they may be strengthened by the Spirit, be rooted in love and trust in the God who can do more than we ask or imagine. It’s this hope that we hold out; not an absence of hard times but the presence God with us through it all.
Patrick Regan OBE is the CEO and Co-Founder of Kintsugi Hope. Patrick is CEO and co-founder of Kintsugi Hope, which came about following a series of personal trials and ill-health affecting Patrick and his family. He is an author of six books, most recently Bouncing Forwards, which focuses on resilience courage and change.
Rachael Newham is the Mental Health Friendly Church Project Manager at Kintsugi Hope and the author of two books; her most recent “And Yet” has been chosen as a “Big Church Read”. She writes and speaks nationally on issues of faith and mental health. You can find her on Instagram @RachaelNewham90.