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How church is perfectly placed to support health and wellbeing

May 10 2020

In a world that sees people as diagnoses to be fixed, the Church is perfectly placed to speak hope.

Sanctuary Ministries of Canada are part of a growing movement of Christians involved in supporting churches to become places of health and wellbeing. We were excited to discover these fellow travellers who are, like Livability, committed to discovering the gifts churches can bring. We’re proud to announce our partnership with Sanctuary – more details coming soon.

Mean time, we spoke to Dan Executive Director of Sanctuary, about the central call of the church, the impact of his work, his sources of inspiration and the challenges ahead. We hope you’ll be as inspired as we were:

Why should churches respond to the challenge of mental health in their communities?

From a pragmatic perspective, the stats are pretty sobering (1 in 4 will be affected by a mental health problem in the UK this year) as well as a study in Vancouver which revealed that the prevalence of mental health problems is marginally higher in faith communities, which could be attributable to people searching for spirituality at a point of mental health crisis.

However, I also think the arc of scripture, revealed in the gospels, directs us to care for one another especially those who are marginalised or experiencing isolation.

Additionally, I believe the Church is perfectly placed to speak hope into an otherwise medically dominated worldview that sees people as diagnoses to be fixed. The Church offers an alternative – that God sees us as children made in His image and worthy of love, hospitality and friendship. These messages are so powerful for someone experiencing a mental health problem, as it endows people with their humanity, and fights back against a purely medicalised definition of mental health challenges.

What are some of the reasons, in your view, that prevent churches getting involved?

There are many reasons in our intellectual history we could dwell on. Above all, however, I suspect fear is the biggest barrier; mental health is a scary subject especially for a culture that places such a high value on cognitive function. The late Canadian Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, framed it well when he taught that our culture thinks personhood is located purely in the mind, but for us as followers of Christ, personhood is a matter of the heart. I think there is a lot to be learnt in that one sentence.

What would you say are some of the biggest challenges we’re facing right now?

Ensuring that the mental health conversation doesn’t become a fad, and in 10-years, people don’t look back and say, ‘oh remember when mental health was a thing!’ It will take a lot of hard work from excellent organisations, like The Royal Foundation and the Church, to ensure that the subject is framed as a paradigm shifting way of viewing personhood, that embraces mental health awareness at every level of society.)

What are you hearing from churches on the frontline?

We hear stories all the time from people who are grateful that someone is specifically addressing this issue. Many people have suffered in silence for years; other have carried shame about a loved one who died by suicide. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve wept at the injustice of it all, that people are suffering in silence in the one place that should be offering tangible hope and grace. I’m profoundly committed to church, as a former pastor and lay preacher, but I recognise that the church largely seems to be under equipped in knowing how to hold this subject.

Nevertheless, we have also seen churches taking steps to become more welcoming and supportive communities. Some churches engage in the process of starting their own mental health ministries, others offer support groups and are beginning to talk more openly about mental health, when they realise this in one of the most helpful ways of supporting those living with or affected by mental health issues.

What resources would recommend that have shaped your thinking?

Two people come to mind, and they both happen to be ambassadors for Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries and are good friends.

Firstly, podcaster, researcher, therapist and author, Hillary McBride. We’ve done a number of events with Hillary (and we’re planning one with her in London in October 19) and her work on embodiment, spiritual trauma and self-care are outstanding. Her clinical approach combined with such tenderness and care, and wrapped up in her deep faith in Christ, make her well worth reading/listening to.

Secondly, practical theologian Rev. Prof. John Swinton (University of Aberdeen) whose thinking has shaped and informed our work at Sanctuary. His book Resurrecting the Person or his most recent award winning one on dementia, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, are well worth a read.

Finally, what helps your own wellbeing?

I’m learning to listen to my body, my emotions and my behaviours. I’m learning that when I’m doing too much, and my mental health is languishing, I need to pause and reconsider self-care. I’m learning to unashamedly say, today I need to go for a run, or to push my children on a swing, or to leave my phone at home.  The irony is that if my mental health is flourishing, then I’m way more productive, even if I’m technically sitting at a desk less often. These are hard disciplines in a culture that worships busyness and productivity.

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