Making Church ‘Safe’

Emergency_exit_Stockholm_metroFollowing on from yesterday’s post, some thoughts on making church less scary:

 Expect that folks in your pews will struggle.

 Model weakness and beware of a leadership model that says that ‘proper’ Christians have to be strong and together.

 Talk about mental health issues – even in sermons: and not as something ‘unusual’ or ‘weak’. Avoid using loaded words e.g. ‘mad’, ‘crazy’ – especially from the pulpit.

Invite speakers in to talk about specific issues, including testimonies from folks who aren’t fixed, but are working things through.

Encourage people to seek help, within the church (e.g.counselling) and outside (e.g.GPs). 80% of people with common mental disorders (e.g. depression, anxieties and substance abuse) and up to 50% of those with serious mental disorders (e.g. schizophrenia) do not receive any treatment.

Encourage folks to share their whole stories with one or two trusted friends and not everyone. This helps them to find genuine support and to build genuine relationships.

Model and teach on healthy patterns of living e.g. the value of rest, challenging the need for perfectionism, the importance of vulnerability and community. Care for the mental health of those on ministry teams.

 Welcome everyone: including those who have bad hygiene or behave a bit oddly, cry during services or want to sit. Have a team to welcome newcomers (or meet them round the corner), but don’t crowd them! Provide emergency exits! Little things like leaving a door open at the back and creating space for people to come and go as they need to, can really help.

 Make social interactions as easy as possible for those who find them a challenge, e.g. arranging meals around a seating plan where people are sat near friends or people they know. Avoid always putting people in the same groups, e.g. singles, parents, etc.

 Make time for people outside of church services

 Work as part of a team and set appropriate boundaries. Some people have had little or no experience of church and genuinely don’t know where the line is between what is and is not acceptable. Others, desperately trying to make friends and join in with things, make mistakes in how they behave.  As a team make sure you have a consistent strategy: it’s hard to set boundaries if they change from person to person.

 Have a clear and consistent pastoral support strategy. Make sure people know who to go to, (if not the minister, then who else?), when and how. If you offer opportunities for prayer or counselling after the service, do it somewhere discreet. Provide links to helpful organisations and local support groups. Build relationships with professionals in these areas so that you can refer in times of crisis.

 Train and equip the church, e.g. through in-house training evenings, by pointing folks to outside courses, or offering a mentoring programme.

 Allow for God to work in ways other than sudden, instantaneous recovery!

 Build trust e.g. by encouraging small group confidentiality, providing a safe space for people to talk and taking issues seriously.

 Anticipate crises, meet concrete needs and be ready to offer ongoing, long-term support, (including financial).

 Reincorporate sufferers back into church, e.g. by building confidence and helping them to use their gifts (in small and non-pressured environments). Remind them that they are valuable and wanted.

 When preaching or offering pastoral care, be specific in what you suggest. Do not just tell persons to ‘trust God’ or ‘put God first’ – show them how to develop practices that will enable them to be more aware of God and to grow their faith.

 Remember that there may be different reasons why people can’t attend services; especially if they are anxious or feeling low. Consider providing transport/company and offer to visit where they are.

“Speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind… our counsel is that you warn the freeloaders to get a move on, gently encourage the stragglers, and reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet. Be patient with each person, attentive to individual needs. And be careful that when you get on each other’s nerves, you don’t snap at each other. Look for the best in each other and always do your best to bring it out.”
1 Thess 5:11; 13-15 (The Message)

5 thoughts on “Making Church ‘Safe’

  1. Spot on Emma. I am so blessed to have experienced much grace in Church from leaders and others. Without it I could not have kept on coming. Thanks for this wisdom!

  2. “Encourage folks to share their whole stories with one or two trusted friends and not everyone. This helps them to find genuine support and to build genuine relationships.”

    What’s the rationale for this. When I first developed depression someone in my church told me something like this. Now while I’m currently unwell my whole home group know, as do a group of close single friends, and probably many others…this makes me feel much more supported and ‘spreads the load’ so when my home group have all being struggling with their ow stuff, I knew I had my single friends to turn to, when all the church families were away on holiday, the teacher friends were around.

  3. Good point – and one that exposes the dangers of lists like this, where you’re trying to give general advice that changes according to individual needs! It’s great to hear how supportive your church have been – and you’re right that telling just one person can put them under pressure they can’t meet.

    This said, I do think we need to exercise wisdom in what we share and who we share with. That’s why I’ve said ‘whole’ story – it’s one thing for people generally to know that I’ve had struggles with anorexia (and this has really helped me), but when it comes to some of the details, there are things that I think are inappropriate for others to know – and which belong in the context of deep and enduring friendships. I’ve seen several cases where folks seeking help have shared with everyone but felt supported by no-one. (In part because everyone thought everyone else was doing something), but also because they didn’t know how to relate after sharing everything in one burst.

    For some of us who have been damaged, building relationships can be a really difficult area: and we need to relearn appropriate boundaries. A close friendship with a few people is often the ideal context for this. But – as you’ve reminded us, there’s no ‘rule’ for everyone.

  4. Churches (and me) are often really bad at letting people sit in silence. I struggle with depression, and most of the time its just too much to banter away with people about things that don’t really matter – I guess we are just really uncomfortable with silence and so we try to fill it. Two things that have been life savers for me at church stuff are bathrooms and kitchens. Sometimes I need to escape to the bathroom for 10 minutes just to have some alone time before I face people after the service, even though I know I will be encouraged by some interactions. The other things are kitchens – there are always dishes to do, and that way I can feel useful rather than sitting in a corner somewhere. Often other people who struggle with similar things have the same idea, and so instead of talking about nothing for the whole time and trying to force a smile if I had stayed at the event, I end up having a deep, real, encouraging chat while serving in the kitchen. Win-win.

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