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Creating Caring congregations

A Five Step Program 

There are many ways that congregations can begin or expand a ministry to and with persons with a mental illness and their families. While the journey to become a caring congregation can be described in many different ways, this Caring Congregations model uses a five step approach. These five steps include education, covenant or commitment, welcome, support and advocacy.

These steps are not linear. Rather the process of becoming a caring congregation is dynamic and unique to each community. Some congregations have developed models of ministry unique to the needs of their community. Hopefully our faith communities will become involved in an ongoing process of education, commitment, welcome, and support. We all need to be advocates for a just mental health delivery system.

Step 1: Education

The first step in creating caring congregations is education. This begins with the leadership of the church. If the ministers, priests, amams and rabbis do not educate themselves, they will not be able to recognize the symptoms and make appropriate referrals to counselors and psychiatrists. This is often made more difficult because many religious leaders are hiding their own struggle with mental illness from the hierarchy of their religious organization. As clergy leave the ministry in record numbers, we can no longer ignore the mental health needs of our clergy and their families.

There are many ways to begin an education program with a congregation. Here are a few examples:

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Love Locks

Step 2: Commitment (Covenant)

The second step in becoming a caring congregation is covenant or commitment. This means that the church leadership commits to be intentional in seeking ways to become a caring congregation. It is often a concerned lay person who initiates this process because pastors are so overwhelmed with other responsibilities.

Most successful programs have come from “the bottom up.” Because of the many demands on our clergy, few will initiate such a ministry. But lay persons can collaborate with the church leadership to form a task force to look at ways that particular community can provide education about mental illness.

When mental health provider groups establish programs for persons with mental illness, the church is often left out. Part of covenant involves networking, collaborating and partnering with community based groups to educate them about what the faith communities have to offer in support of persons and families living with mental illness.

  • Involve the clergy and other leadership groups in developing a task force to assess the needs of your congregation.

  • Adopt a statement stating our congregation's commitment to this ministry.

Step 3: Welcome

The third step of welcome involves seeking ways to integrate persons with a mental illness into the faith community. Often we distance ourselves from those persons most in need of a welcoming community. We send money to survivors of the tsunami, Katrina, AIDS in Africa and other global problems…which is very much needed.

But welcoming and hospitality require us to reach out to persons in a way that allows for the mutual exchange of joys and concerns. When we take the time to really get to know another person, the barriers between “us” and “them” break down.

Welcoming persons with a mental illness involves seeking ways to integrate them into the faith community. When we practice hospitality, God can use our faithfulness in surprising ways.

  • Provide training for ushers and greeters to be welcoming and supportive of all persons. Some communities have trained persons to act as "companions" to accompany a person to worship, to talk or simply to help them find a quiet place to rest.

  • Invite persons with a mental illness to participate as they are willing and able...acting as a liturgist, being part of a group.

  • Include persons with a mental illness in prayersliturgies and sermon illustrations

  • Partner with organizations in your area like the Ecumenical or Interfaith Council to identify persons who would need a ride to a faith community of their choice. This often results in congregations helping the person with housing, employment, transportation to medical appointments and practicing important social skills.

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Supportive Friend

Step 4: Support

We are brought up to be strong, self-sufficient and independent people. It is hard to ask for help and so often keep our struggles hidden. But God wants us to care for one another – and allow others to care for us in our time of need. We are called to “bear one another’s burdens.” (Galatians 6:2)

There are many ways to provide support to persons with a mental illness and their families.

  • Train mentors through programs like Stephen Ministry, parish nurses and other volunteers.

  • Have a referral list of mental health services in your community

  • Offer a support group or invite outside groups like your local NAMI affiliates "Family to Family" program to use your facilities.

  • Provide counseling services through a sliding scale or voucher program.

  • Involve members in programs to provide meals or housing.

  • Make prayer quilts, comfort pillows or care baskets to take to persons who are in the hospital, residential facility or who do not come to worship due to their illness to let them know they are not forgotten.

  • Find ways to reach out and support family members.

Step 5: Advocacy

The mental health delivery system in this country is broken. There is a lack of resources and a lack of continuity in treating mental illness. People with a mental illness too often get caught in a “revolving door” health care system. This is especially true for persons who use the public health system for treatment.

Mental illness is a justice issue involving such basic human rights as access to medical care, stable and supportive housing, and job training. Once a congregation has developed a mental health ministry, a natural next step is to be involved in advocacy.

Here are some ways in which you can make a difference:

  • Keep informed on pending legislation about mental illness.

  • Attend workshops and conferences

  • Contact your elected representatives or visit them as a group

  • Support candidates working on mental health issues

  • Keep in contact with advocacy groups like NAMI, DBSA, and the MHA.

  • Participate in community events such as NAMI Walks.

  • Partner with other organizations for community events about mental illness. The community needs to be educated about the important role a person's faith can play in the treatment and recovery process.

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Models of Ministry through Partnership

Faith communities have used these steps or similar guidelines to develop their own unique models of ministry. Most of these ministries begin small, perhaps led by one or two persons. Seeds are sown, some take root and some even reach out to the meet the needs of the larger community.

Effective partnerships with community provider groups have been developed to provide transitional housing, help with legal issues, programs for addiction and other medical problems, peer counseling, family advocacy, training in daily living skills and employment referrals. Faith communities are in a unique position to address the spiritual needs by being intentional about inviting persons with mental illness to worship, offering prayer groups and opening the doors to a variety of small support groups.

Barriers of fear, ignorance and stigma are broken down when people take the risk to break the silence and speak out by sharing their struggles of living with a mental illness or by sharing the struggles of loving and caring for a family member.

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