Mental Health Ministries Thrive

By Donald E. Skinner

When the Rev. Barbara Meyers began a mental health ministry at the Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowship in Fremont, Calif., in 2005 it was the only one. Not anymore. Now there are several others, including Quimper UU Fellowship in Port Townsend, Wash., and Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colo.

Establishment of a mental health ministry generally requires one committed person within a congregation or a small, dedicated group to make it happen, says Meyers. That’s the case at both Port Townsend and Golden. Meyers has written a curriculum, The Caring Congregation Handbook, about educating a congregation about how to be intentionally supportive of people with mental disorders and their families.

At the Quimper fellowship Judy Tough had been a volunteer with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). That work grew out of the fact she has family members with bipolar disorder.

What would happen, she wondered, if congregations could become a place where mentally ill people, as well as families of those with a mental illness, could feel safe talking about it?

“It seemed like an obvious field to plow,” said Tough. Her minister, the Rev. Bruce Bode, agreed. Tough started by putting together a conference on mental health and inviting all of the congregations in town. The conference included a day of workshops and a discussion about the documentary Minds on the Edge. Meyers preached at the fellowship Sunday morning and stayed for an afternoon of conversation. About 175 people attended various parts of the weekend, said Tough.

Soon after that Tough got permission to establish a new committee, “Caring Congregation.” In 2010-11 the committee sponsored a worship service presented by three people who lived with mental illness. Meyers also taught a course on her book, The Caring Congregation Handbook. Before Thanksgiving a panel of mental health professionals spoke about reducing holiday stress. In January there was an all-congregation read, Souls in the Hands of a Tender God. The author, the Rev. Craig Renneboehm, also spoke at a service. There was a film festival with mental health topics and a celebration of art created by people with mental health conditions. Tough has also used the NAMI mental health curriculum for children and youth, “Breaking the Silence.”

“We’re taking the approach that mental health is part of us, that a brain disorder is no different from any other illness,” said Tough. “It’s not shameful, and people can recover.”

She said she believes the new mental health ministry has helped reduce the stigma against mental health issues. She said that when a member’s mentally ill son was arrested and was facing prison time a dozen or more fellowship members showed up in court to support him. They wrote to the judge, she said, who acknowledged the young man’s strong support and did not send him to prison.

She said in its first year the program at Quimper spent about $200, mostly on the conference. She said the congregation is in the process of training greeters and others to respond to people with mental health issues who might visit the congregation or a homeless shelter where congregation members volunteer.

At Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Judy Gangloff was inspired to begin a mental health ministry by a family member who has a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. Plus, in a small group Chalice Circle several years ago, of the eight members, four had strong connections to mental health issues.

Gathering some of those people she approached Jefferson’s minister of pastoral care, Tracey Wilkinson, who supported a mental health ministry. Gangloff introduced the new group, Mental Wellness Advocates, through a chalice lighting one Sunday. At Jefferson, chalice lightings include a statement that corresponds with the sermon. “I announced a meeting, and I was amazed by the number who came to me, who wanted such a group.”

She said Meyers presented a program at a Mountain Desert District cluster meeting at Jefferson that drew 60 people. “It was very powerful,” said Gangloff. Last March the ministry invited the larger community to a program on bipolar issues. “We plan to do one of these a year,” she said.

As to the difference the ministry has made in the congregation, Gangloff said, “I know it has made a difference for individuals, just knowing there is a group there. People come to us asking for information. And we’ve had good participation in our educational programs.”

Her group posts information on Jefferson’s pastoral care bulletin board and has created a brochure about Mental Wellness Advocates. Information is also in the newsletter and on the church website.

At Mission Peak, in addition to creating The Caring Congregation Handbook curriculum, Meyers leads worship, helps with pastoral care, and writes a monthly newsletter message, often on mental health issues. In the community, she is producer and host of a public access TV program called Mental Health Matters. She is also assistant manager of Reaching Across, a mental health drop-in center in Fremont. She testified earlier this year in Sacramento about the need for mental health funding.

She also presents workshops and worship services at congregations around the country, when invited. Here are the steps she recommends in starting a mental health ministry:

  • Gain approval of the senior leadership
  • Establish a task force to work on the issue
  • Provide pastoral care, including visiting people who are hospitalized with mental conditions.
  • Establish a covenant of right relations, plus a disruptive behavior policy.

Not sure if your congregation needs a mental health ministry? Do an exercise that Meyers recommends. “When I do a worship service about mental health at a congregation, I’ll tell my own story of recovering from depression as part of the sermon. Sharing a personal story of recovery is a very powerful way to reach people. At the end I’ll ask people to stand or raise their hand if they or someone in their family has a mental health problem. Generally at least 75 percent of people stand up. Everyone is always amazed.”

She added, “People with mental health issues will come to church to get hope, but they’re often reluctant to share their concerns with anyone. Then when they discover almost everyone knows of a similar problem that makes it safe to talk. That’s the single most effective thing I’ve done to dispel the myth that mental health is a taboo subject.”

Learn more about Meyers’ UU Mental Health Ministry.

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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