The Way of Companionship

The Way of Companionship: Discovering the Heart of Mental Health Ministry

Most faith communities remain somewhat oblivious to the needs of people experiencing mental illnesses. Mental illness is not discussed much and individuals and families who cope with mental health challenges often do not share them in the faith community context, because they fear the misunderstanding and even blame they might receive in response.  By receiving training in the different types of mental illnesses, by training ushers and other faith community members in how to help people who might behave differently in the faith community context, some congregations have developed effective means of tolerating or absorbing people with mental illnesses.  These are noteworthy efforts and they often represent important first steps in avoiding the implicit or explicit rejection of people with mental illnesses that are often inherent in any community.

But companionship, as defined by Rev. Craig Rennebohm, suggests a more profound response to mental illness and it compels us to become the people our faith traditions have long called us to become.  Companionship asks us to walk “side-by-side” a person and to share the journey toward health and wholeness. Through the side-by-side presence and orientation and through participation in the other four core practices of companionship – listening, providing hospitality, “neighboring,” and expanding the circle of care – we become more acutely aware of a common humanity, of our experience of frailty and suffering, but also of the eternal significance of each human heart. Through companionship we often witness courage in the face of suffering and deep disappointment. We find ourselves inspired by the indomitable human spirit and by the grace that seems to become abundantly clear as we walk together the road to recovery. We discover that mutuality is more powerful than a one-up, one-down helping relationship, and that people who have experienced mental illness have gifts and unique insights from which we would benefit if we could only learn to see and embrace them.

Companionship is at once both elegantly simple and profoundly difficult.  Anyone can participate in companionship.  Anyone can be a fellow human being who comes alongside another and in hospitality listens to that person’s dreams, hopes, and statements of faith. However, sometimes it is not so easy to avoid giving too much advice or to relinquish the lure of being a heroic helper. As “helpers,” whether consciously or subconsciously, we often strive to affirm how impressive we are by comparing ourselves to the “poor person” in front of us whose troubles appear to be greater than our own.

But through companionship we discover that embracing a community humanity, and developing a wider and deeper appreciation of the work of grace, lead us to an indescribable joy that surpasses any fleeting gratification that might come from being the heroic helper.

Companionship does not attempt to trivialize the suffering, disappointment, and fear that individuals and families experience as they cope with mental illnesses. Rather, as an approach that was developed over Rev. Rennebohm’s 25 years of experience ministering to people on the streets of Seattle, it explains how to participate most faithfully in a process of recovery from mental illness.

The Companionship Series consists of three booklets that guide faith communities in developing caring responses to individuals and families coping with the challenges posed by mental illness. The booklets are indispensable but inexpensive resources in the development of caring responses to people and their families.

Contact Rev. Jermine Alberty at jalberty@pathways2promise.org if you would like to discuss the possibility of obtaining a training in your community.

Finally, Pathways makes available training materials on companionship.  Click here to go directly to our Resources page where you can find downloadable materials:  Resources