Posts Tagged “church”

I was invited by the good people of Angus Presbytery to come and talk about the stuff I’ve written about Missing Generations last weekend and they kindly filmed all the seminars.  So, here’s my seminar…

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recovery-sign-resizeA holistic view

In this section I want to look at the Recovery Model then begin to work through it point by point in the posts that follow.

I realise that for some people suggesting an organisation is mentally ill is a bit of a leap but I want to assure you all that I’m not suggesting that either everyone in the organisation has a mental health problem  (although there would be absolutely nothing wrong with it if they did and a high participation rate of people with mental health problems might actually be an indicator of growth, after all 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health problem in any one year) or that I don’t realise that organisations are not people. Organisations do, however, have personality, moods and behaviours, which make, I think, a comparison with mental and physical health appropriate. More on that thought shortly.

So, what are the principles of Recovery?

The Mental Health Foundation describes the recovery process as follows:

  • provides a holistic view of mental illness that focuses on the person, not just their symptoms
  • believes recovery from severe mental illness is possible
  • is a journey rather than a destination
  • does not necessarily mean getting back to where you were before
  • happens in ‘fits and starts’ and, like life, has many ups and downs
  • calls for optimism and commitment from all concerned
  • is profoundly influenced by people’s expectations and attitudes
  • requires a well organised system of support from family, friends or professionals
  • requires services to embrace new and innovative ways of working.

This model is based on evidence. It works.  It’s biggest feature is the idea that people can help themselves get better by challenging and changing behaviours.

So, let’s look at the first principle:

The Recovery Process provides a holistic view of mental illness that focuses on the person (organisation), not just their symptoms

People have pointed out in response to my first post that organisations aren’t people and they don’t have the same characteristics. I agree, sort of. But I also think the comparison is worth making in terms of the model, so please, go with it for now and feel free to criticise.

In one forum discussing my first post some people were offended by my use of mental health as a metaphor for organisational behaviour. No offence was meant. I’m in no way belittling or trivialising mental illness and the effect it has on people.

Interestingly, people seemed much more comfortable with a comparison with physical health. I wonder why that should be the case? We are used to the metaphor of body and physical health for the church, but the body includes a head and a mind.  Jesus and Paul use the body metaphor so it has been around since the very beginning of Christianity but we rarely talk about the mind part except in a ‘knowledge related’ way.

Mental and physical health are related, indeed, dependant on each other. This is one of the problems faced in engaging fully in recovery. We know that our physical health affects how we feel and our mood. We know that eating well, sleeping well, taking exercise and tending to our physical health helps to maintain our mental health.

We also know that our state of mind affects how we feel physically. People who are bored often feel tired and lethargic. People who feel excited feel physically alert and stimulated.

Our bodies and minds are not disconnected. Neither is our mental and physical health, but we find it difficult to treat ourselves holistically.

My own example is my on-going problem with my gluteus medius muscles. I get treatment, the sports therapist sorts the problem as much as he can, and usually enough to get me back to running. He also gives me exercises and stretches to do to prevent the injury happening again. I do those for three days, I feel better, so I stop doing them. The injury reoccurs the next time I stress the muscle because I try to run fast or too far. That’s a physical problem but the solution is at least partly mental. I know I should do the exercises. I know I need to engage in my recovery. I know that I can’t just leave it up to the physio, great as he is. But I can’t be bothered.

I think the same is true in our denominations. Our decision making process is the organisational manifestation of our ‘mental health’ and the things we do are the manifestation of our ‘physical health’.

We notice the physical symptoms first. Fewer people. Those who are there can feel tired and lethargic, stressed and anxious, disheartened and dispirited.

We tend to try to treat those physical symptoms we feel we can manage best. We reorganise the rota, invest in some equipment or stop doing that activity.

What we rarely do is explore the feelings around those activities or around the organisation.

In the Recovery Model people are asked to consider biological, sociological and psychological factors which impact how they feel.  There are a range of factors which impact the life of the church.   The demography, locality, cultural and political context and the expectations from self and others all impact how we feel as a denomination.  We know that our work or living environment can cause mental ill health. The way we think, how people treat us and how we process thoughts and feelings can exacerbate mental ill health.  I think the same is true of an organisation.

Meaning and Purpose

In my Missing Generations series I talked about ‘meaning and purpose’. These are central to the Recovery Model. The fundamental questions we need to grapple with as individual members and an organisation are what gives us meaning and what gives us purpose?

One of the impacts of a loss of meaning and purpose can often be a loss of self and identity. It displays as a lack of self esteem, low levels of confidence and withdrawal.

These are also organisational traits. We talk about the economy in similar terms. A lack of confidence or a buoyant market, the big depression.

So, if we want to recover we need to consider the whole, not just individual symptoms.

We label people by their illness or abilities. In a talk at Greenbelt John Swinton talks about a deaf woman who had a vision of heaven. She told people about how great it was and how immaculate Jesus’ signing was. That somehow jars with our idea of perfection. Some of us would have expected the woman to say that in heaven she could hear, but heaven for her was the rest of us making the effort to include her fully. We often see mental ill health in the same way.

In organisation terms we talk about a declining or dying church when what we mean is that it is becoming numerically smaller. Those are not the same thing. A healthy, vibrant church might be one with fewer members. Part of the Recovery Model is seeing what is helpful and what is unhelpful. How we think about things and the way we frame our reality can be helpful or unhelpful. That isn’t about denying facts, rather, it is about choosing to focus on the things that promote recovery.

That would mean the church focusing on its strengths rather than its weaknesses whilst not denying that there are problems; looking at where growth happens at the same time as addressing financial problems; thinking about how we train and deploy ministers while at the same time supporting children and young people; thinking about new forms or church while at the same time supporting existing models, and choosing to frame all of this in a helpful way that is encouraging and enabling, life bringing and hopeful.

It would start with those things which give us meaning and purpose and build on those. Small steps.  Achievable goals.  And a relentless focus on the positive.

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In my series on Missing Generations I wrote about some of the organisation difficulties the church is experiencing, some of which are caused by the ways different generations think about the church, abut change and about development.  We tinker around the edges of change because we have an underlying lack of confidence in who we are and what the church is for.

This is a long-term problem and I’m becoming more and more convinced about what the underlying issue really is.

I think the church is suffering from collective anxiety and depression.

The Mental Health Foundation says that the signs and symptoms of depression are:

  • Tiredness and loss of energy.
  • Sadness that doesn’t go away.
  • Loss of self-confidence and self-esteem.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Not being able to enjoy things that are usually pleasurable or interesting.
  • Feeling anxious all the time.
  • Avoiding other people, sometimes even your close friends.
  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
  • Sleeping problems – difficulties in getting off to sleep or waking up much earlier than usual.
  • Very strong feelings of guilt or worthlessness.
  • Finding it hard to function at work/college/school.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Loss of sex drive and/or sexual problems.
  • Physical aches and pains.
  • Thinking about suicide and death.
  • Self-harm

Those signs and symptoms obviously relate to individuals but they can also relate to organisations.

So, how does the church exhibit symptoms of anxiety and depression?

The church engages is almost entirely in doom and gloom when it talks about itself.  The word ‘decline’ dominates every conversation.  We wallow in our misery.  We are obsessed with how bad things are and how much things have changed for the worse.

We talk about plans to get better but we never really commit to any of them so we make more and more plans and feel worse and worse when none of them work.  We have programmes and ideas and spend huge amounts of energy and money on these initiatives then spend huge amounts of energy and time telling each other why these initiatives and programmes won’t work.  This is what mental health practitioners call ‘negative self talk’ and it is hugely destructive.

We feel helpless and hopeless.  There’s nothing that can be done, nothing that will change how things are.

I’d venture to suggest that the URC is even thinking suicidal thoughts.  We call that ‘union with other denominations’ but the terms of most unions being considered would in reality be the death of the URC as it is consumed by a larger denomination.  We have started to give our stuff away and withdraw for areas of work which actually support growth (apparently someone to support and develop work with children and young people isn’t vital in some Synods).

Our feelings of a lack of self-worth and the crippling nature of our perceived financial position leads us to the kind of paralysis that those suffering from depression recognise all to well.

recovery-sign-resize

Recovery

Can the church recover?  Part of recovering from anxiety and depression is first recognising that we have a problem and seeking help.

Recovery is an interesting concept.

Living with a mental health nurse leads to all kinds of interesting conversations.  The topic which seems to weave through almost every conversation we have is ‘recovery’.

We tend to think of recovery as ‘getting back to where you were before’ and I tend to think in the church that’s really what we mean when we talk about our recovery.  We would like to go back to how things were in our perceived ‘golden age’ when everyone believed in God, everyone went to church and money and buildings were never a problem.

Our plans and discussions tend, however unconsciously, toward this kind of recovery.  This kind of recovery is impossible, unrealistic and actually undesirable.

We will never get back to how things were because we have lived through this experience and it changes us.  Things have changed so it is simply unrealistic to expect them to return to what was.  Going back to some earlier time is undesirable because recovery brings resilience, a resilience that we didn’t have previously.

If getting back to how things were isn’t an option that leaves us with some questions:

How do we ‘recover’?

Who can help us recover?

What would that recovery look like?

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What’s missing today is a high-quality discourse on rethinking the design and evolution of the entire system from scratch.

The quality of the results produced by any system depends on the quality of awareness from which the people in the system operate.

(Otto Scharmer)

Since writing the first batch of posts on Missing Generations I’ve been lucky enough to be part of two events and several conversations which have expanded my thinking on some of the topics I raised.  I think those events and conversations have at least begun to produce a quality of awareness…

 

The Church is perfectly designed to achieve what we are currently achieving. (Alan Hirsch)

Those were the opening words of Alan Hirsch at a recent conference, The Shaping of Things To Come… in Scotland.  He and Michael Frost were talking through some of the thoughts from the book of the same name (The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church) and Hirsch was basically saying that our focus on pastor/ teacher leads to a focus on an intellectual style of engagement.  We have pretty much ignored other forms of ministry like apostle, prophet and evangelist.  That means we skew our thinking in one direction and that has led to the church we have today.

That analysis would certainly explain our present forms of worship and even our liking of austere buildings.  We could trace that back to the reformation and tie it to the Enlightenment but it also chimes with a second conversation I was part of with Brian McLaren.  The link below is Brian’s podcast at a recent conference and he was saying the same thing at the event I was at.

Brian McLaren at children,youth and a new kind of Christianity  http://www.woodlakebooks.com/files/CYNKC-Brian%20McLaren-Christian%20Faith%20and%20the%20Next%20Generation.mp3

His assertion is that we are telling the wrong story, or at least telling the story in the wrong way.  That stems from even further back than the reformation and Brian blames those pesky Greco-Romans and their philosophy.  He says that the story we tell is transposed onto Plato’s ‘Cave’.

greek philosophy diagram

So our version is:

christianity diagram

McLaren’s assertion is that our story is something very different.  Our story begins with the Exile.  That cycle of exile, rediscovering a relationship with God, returning and forgetting again.  Genesis is the prequel and the sequel is Isaiah and his vision of the kingdom which leads us to Jesus and the incarnation.

One of Hirsch and Frost’s thoughts is that we focus too much on one particular end of the story of Jesus.  We focus on the cross, resurrection and the return.  We forget the incarnation.  We forget an amazing and hugely significant part of the story, the life of Jesus, here on Earth.

Michael Frost talked about ‘excarnation’, the opposite of ‘incarnation’.  Excarnation means stripping away flesh.  I wonder if that’s what we have done in the way that we tell the story of Jesus, or in how we behave as Christians?  It would seem that rather than being an incarnational community, a community in the flesh, we have become in many ways an excarnational community, a community of thought.

If that is true then it has some serious implications for us.  We are, again, telling the wrong story.

And that leads to us doing the wrong things.  We focus on learning rather than sharing, study rather than community and maintaining an institution rather than participating in a movement.

Hirsch asked the question: Did you get into this to run a club or build a kingdom?  Why do we spend all our energy doing the former and not the latter?

I’ve come across this video in a couple of places now.  I think part of the trap of the club is that we are stuck in a cycle of property ownership and wages.  What if money was no object?  What would you do?

If you can see this, then you might need a Flash Player upgrade or you need to install Flash Player if it's missing. Get Flash Player from Adobe.

Is the Church, all wretch and no vomit?

A final thought for now:

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Einstein

 

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I’ve been one for 20 years.

It began around 1989 when I completed the Boys’ Brigade’s King George IV officer cadet training and became a BB officer.

I’ve worked with young people and the adults who work with them for all of my adult life.  Most of this work has been in a church context and for most of that time I have been employed to work for a denomination.

I am a trained community worker with knowledge and skills in community building, group work, informal learning, social research and reflective practice.

I lead worship almost every Sunday in a variety of churches.

I teach ministers in training and in service and I lecture on a Youth And Community Work with Applied Theology degree.

No one has ever called me one.

In fact just the opposite.  People often ask me when I will become a proper one.  A minister.

They mean a Minister of Word and Sacrament.  A dog collar wearing, robed up preacher who is allowed to preside at Communion, conduct weddings and baptise people.

I don’t blame people for this.  That’s the only kind of ‘minister’ they know.  And that’s the problem.

That view of ministry creates a hierarchy of ministry with the Ministers of Word and Sacrament at the top and it doesn’t leave any space for the ministries that others perform.  That means that we don’t value those ministries.  In fact we don’t even talk about them in terms of ministry.

When was the last time you heard a Sunday school teacher talk about their ministry?  Or someone serving soup in a lunch club talk about their ministry?

Our understanding of ‘Ministry’ is killing the church.

Ministers (the word & sacrament kind) aren’t killing the church.  They are as much the victim of this as anyone else.

As soon as you elevate one position above others you create a hierarchy.  We ‘set ministers apart’.  Set apart from what?  Life?  Responsibility?  Other people?  Sadly, it’s the later.  We tell ministers that they are special, different, called to something by God, and then we complain when they act like it.

I think the job of ‘minister’ is important.  I think that it is good for communities to have someone who is enabled to spend their time working to build and sustain the community, to inspire and lead, to equip and enable.

But that’s not what we train ministers to do.

We train them to do our theology for us.  That’s dangerous.  Not because they aren’t good at it but because it means we, the mere mortals in the pews, don’t have to bother.

I’ve worked as a youth worker.  People employ youth workers partly for their skills but also partly so they don’t have to do youth work.  Someone else will do it on their behalf.  I heard a phone in on the radio the other day about litter.  The resounding opinion of the callers was ‘I’m not picking up someone else’s litter.  That’s someone else’s job.’  And that’s how it is with ministry.

Often Ministers fall into the trap and play along.  And complain that people leave everything to them.  Congregations fall into the trap and play along.  They leave everything to the minister and complain that they don’t get to do anything.

We have a system that de-skills people, including Ministers.  For example, training in practical theology doesn’t make you a marriage or bereavement counsellor and yet we expect ministers to do these jobs, and with no professional supervision.  The good ones know their limitations and pass people on to those who can deal with these issues but too many think their theological training means they can deal with difficult situations.

At the same time we may have people in our congregations with these skills who feel unable to offer them because pastoral care is the Minister’s job.

We have a system that means we value 1 hour a week more than the other 167.  The sad think is we actually expect very little of people in that 1 hour.  Their role is to sing, shut their eyes, listen and put money in the plate.

This just won’t do.

In an organisation like this Builders will try to maintain what is.  Boomers will hijack any power that’s going (look around a kirk session, elder’s meeting or parish council and tell me that’s not true!).

Xers and Yers on the other hand will just go off and find places that their contribution is sought and valued, where their opinion is expected and their thoughts encouraged and developed.

Church needs to start to value the spiritual gifts of everyone equally.  The Sunday school teacher’s ministry is just as, if not more important than the Minister’s.  The person who makes the soup for the lunch club’s ministry is just as, if not more important than the Minister’s.  Growing faith and feeding people.  When did they become something less?

If we are going to persist with Ministers of Word and Sacrament their role needs to be much more about being the teaching elder they are meant to be.  Their role has to be about enabling, encouraging and assisting than entertaining and imparting knowledge using big words.

Their job is about making sure people feel that their spiritual insights are valued, helping people to discover and maintain spiritual practices (more on those later) that will sustain them and give them deeper insight and they must be about growing and developing community.

That means having different set of skills in addition to some theological training.

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What if over the past 50 years an organisation had lost the majority of its members?

What should it do?  What should it change?

The decline in membership of the church in the UK has been well documented and plenty of words have been used on diagnosing the problem but I wonder how much time the major denominations have spent actually thinking about how they need to adapt and change to meet the challenge of being the church in a new way for a different kind of world?

There are two areas in which the church spends the vast majority of its ever dwindling resources: buildings and ministers.

It seems less than controversial to suggest that ancient church buildings are at best a mixed blessing and at worst a millstone around the necks of congregations.  They are expensive to maintain and inflexible.

It would also seem less than controversial to suggest that as the world has changed that the job of minister has also evolved.  It would seem strange perhaps that there is a continued emphasis on theological training, almost to the exclusion of anything else, when the role of minister requires so much more.

The Church of England has gone some way towards addressing the new world with its new category of ‘pioneer minister’ which frees people from the bureaucracy of the parish and allows them to build communities in new places and in new forms.

That was a bold step, and it seems to be working.

Something else has been quietly happening… some churches are growing.  I know, surprising isn’t it.

We’ve known for a while that charismatic and pentecostal churches have been growing but it also seems that churches which have positioned themselves as ‘open and afirming’ are adding members.  It would be great to see what it is that these churches are doing that is attractive but I’d hazard a guess that engaging with the wider community and providing spaces for people to build community and actually get to know each other beyond formal times of worship would be common to most of them.

My concern is that this kind of development is hugely dependant on the minister’s personality and interests.  Sometimes it is strategic, but not often.

That’s not good enough.

When will denominations recognise that more of the same will lead to more of the same?

As funds become scarce we retreat into sustaining what is and what has been.  We merge, link and unite so that we can continue to provide ‘ministry’.  No-one seems to be asking if that kind of ministry is what is needed.

Some denominations have community workers.  These people have training in both theology and community work.  These are recognised ministries and the people who perform them have the primary task of engaging with communities, organising projects and enabling people to meet the needs of their communities.

There are a growing number of youth workers and children and family workers who study both theology and community work.  These are not recognised ministries but they engage with people outside traditional church structures and work to enable people to meet the needs of their communities.

These community ministries are often viewed as extra, peripheral, something to be done if there is time and money to spare.  You could add chaplaincy into the same category.

Which brings me back to my initial question… what if?

What if we flipped our view of essential ministry?

What if rather than spending almost all of our money on crumbling buildings and ministry of word and sacrament we spent 90% of our funding on community workers with some theological training who had a strategic mission to engage with communities, build capacity and resource worship in those communities?

What if, rather than investing everything in maintaining a building for people to come and sit for an hour once a week we sold the buildings and we invested that money in places for homeless people to sleep, for hungry people to eat, for lonely people to meet others, and people’s homes became places where people gathered to worship, to plan and scheme random acts of kindness and deliberate acts of grace?

What would that kind of church look like?

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Earlier in the week I attended an event called ‘Faith in Recovery’.  The morning was a step towards better spiritual care for people with mental ill health by health services working in partnership with faith communities.

Last week 11 faith communities in Lanarkshire signed the See Me pledge to work towards ending the stigma around mental illness.  ‘Faith in Recovery’ was a step towards making that a reality.

I was struck by the number of times speakers highlighted ‘hope’ as something essential to recovery.

‘If you don’t believe you will get better then it is unlikely you will.’

Simon Bradstreet, Scottish Recovery Network

Hope can be particularly elusive, and not just to people who are unwell.  It would appear that institutions can suffer from a lack of hope too.

The symptoms are similar:

  • Difficulty seeing beyond the present
  • Being unable to see anything other than a negative future
  • Thinking you’ll never be able to do the things you used to do again

When people and organisations are stuck in this cycle of negative thinking it is vital for them to have communities to support them.  These communities need to be hopeful.  People need sympathy and understanding but re-enforcing negative thoughts really isn’t helpful.

Negativity is contagious.  It’s a state of mind that it’s easy to get stuck in.

Part of the problem is our understanding of ‘recovery’.  We think that ‘recovery’ means returning to how we were before.  It doesn’t.  It never has.  Very few illnesses, breaks or conditions pass with a return to a previous state.

Healing changes us.

Often a broken bone heals stronger than in was before the break.  Sometimes a vulnerability remains.  Neither of those two states are how we were before.  An infection often leaves antibodies behind which will fight against future attack but it may leave a vulnerability.

The same is true of mental illness and of organisation decline.

We can’t, and shouldn’t, expect to return to how we were before.  Being ill changes us.  We learn to cope with adversity, we learn how it feels to be down, we learn to recognise the signs of approaching illness, we learn to accept help when we need it and we learn that things can change.  We are not the same as before because we have experienced something different.

If the Easter story tells us anything it is that Jesus was changed by ressurection, and that we are too.  Hope changes everything.

But if you don’t believe you will get better than it is unlikely that you will.  That is the absence of hope.

Sometimes people become defined by their illness, just like people are defined by their job or their relationships or by something the did long ago.  These can be difficult things to change.  Recovery requires us to take steps to get well.  Those can include medication, exercise, healthy eating, rest and talking.  Few of us recover without help.

I wonder if the same is true of organisational recovery?  I wonder if we are able to recognise the things that trigger our problems?  I wonder if we know what a healthy diet and exercise look like?  I wonder if we can learn to live with our vulnerabilities and make the most of our strengths?  I wonder if we want to get better?

Most of all I wonder if churches have forgotten to be hopeful communities.

It was good to hear a story of recovery on Tuesday, a recovery which was in no small assisted by faith and a hopeful community.

The church can and should play a huge part in supporting people with mental health problems.

The church can and should be a hopeful community.

Hope is the key to our recovery… and to to the recovery of many people living with mental illness.

I’m sure Jesus said something about that…

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