Posts Tagged “church recovery”

recovery-sign-resizeI’ve been thinking a bit more about the Recovery Model as a helpful tool for churches. In this post I will consider three of the elements, that recovery:

  • 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

Journey

Journey is a metaphor that is widely used in faith. I know that there are some people who don’t find it a helpful one, but for an organisation ‘journey’ seems appropriate.

Why? Well because organisations evolve and change. People travel through those changes together, often exploring side roads and dead ends. People also travel in different ways and at different paces with different concerns and priorities at different times.

For organisations, everyone being at one place at the same time is problematic. That’s why making decisions that please everyone is almost impossible.

This raises lots of questions for me.

Should there be a variety of congregations that make up a local church?

How can we minister to ‘what is’ and ‘what might be’ with ever decreasing allocations of minister’s time to pastorates?

How do we go about training ministers and give permission to others to be pioneers and entrepreneurs, creating new ways of being church?

Back to Where You Were

Many denominations seem to have a collective wish to return to the golden age, mostly an imagined period when everyone went to church twice on Sundays, everyone believed in God and everyone respected the views of the church. Sunday schools had a million kids and there was no crime…

Some of that is of course true. Sunday schools were bigger. But were they full of children who wanted to be there? And if all was so good why didn’t those children keep coming to church?

Recovery isn’t about returning to a previous point.

Recovery is about moving forward having lived through and changed by an experience.

Recovery is a learning experience.

We can learn from our very difficult experiences. The problems almost always come when we don’t learn from them. We repeat the same behaviours over and over again expecting different results.

In recovery from mental health this learning includes being aware of the things that might contribute to you becoming unwell and those things that promote well-being. Those things are not always the same for every person so there is no formula, but focusing on the positive while dealing with things which are problematic is always key ingredient.

I wonder how we can do this as communities?

It would almost certainly involve us being open and honest in our communication. Perhaps that’s a good place to start?

Fits and Starts

When we are well we have a line, kind of like a plimsoll, the red line round a ship, which marks the point at above which the water level becomes a problem. We are aware of things lapping over the side like a big wave. When that happens we make allowances, put in place things to deal with the problem. On a ship they have bilge pumps to remove the water that gets in. When they stop working the ship is in trouble.

I wonder what our equivalent is in church? Do we use membership numbers as our plimsoll line? Is that a healthy measurement? And what about our bilge pumps? What are the things, probably people, that work hard to keep us afloat?

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recovery-sign-resizeIn the west, we encourage goal setting. In fact, we’re obsessed with goals – that end point we are striving so hard to reach.

We jump through hoop after hoop, stepping-stone after stepping-stone, sacrificing everything just to get to that finish line. But once we get there, we realize our thinking was flawed.

Now we’re unhappy again and need to set another goal.

We just spent however many hours, days, or years, sacrificing our health, our happiness, our every-single-day, to reach some goal – only to realize that it was the hours, days, months and years we skipped that actually was our life.

The Change Blog

How many ministers, deacons, church related community workers, youth workers and children’s workers do you know who work for a church or denomination and are quite simply knackered?  They are burnt out, stressed, worried, anxious and deflated.

How many people in churches do you know who are the same?

We, the western church, have fallen into the busyness trap.  We have bought into a ‘success narrative’ hook, line and sinker.  We believe that being busy, doing stuff, being productive is what we should be about.

I get paid to work for a denomination and they are entitled to have expectations of what I will do in return for that salary.

This isn’t a complaint.  I think goals and plans can be helpful, but I have the same feeling as the person who wrote the quote at the start of this post.  In fact I have a bigger question:

Does busyness build the kingdom?

I think we use busyness as a way of hiding from what being church is really about, relationship and service.  We get caught up in meetings, programmes, committees, initiatives, fund raising, groups, work parties and even worship.

We never take time to sit, talk, eat, relax, enjoy… to get to know each other, to share our hopes and dreams, our questions and worries.

We talk endlessly about prayer, meditation, retreat and relationship.  These are all those helpful, non-busy practices and then model the absolute opposite.  We justify ourselves by how much we do, how many hours over our contract we work, how many meetings we have been at this week.

Why?  Where in the Bible does Jesus tell us that we will get eternal life if we only work hard enough?

If the church is going to be a place that is helpful and healthy then we really need to break this destructive narrative of busyness. Busyness leads to stress, anxiety and depression.  We know it does, and yet we still plough on… even though Jesus says ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’

Recovery is about regaining balance.  Taking time to do the things which keep you well, which provide support and about creating a narrative of realistic expectations.

It’s not about settling for less, for an easy life, for never taking risks or pushing yourself, but it is about applying your energy in the right direction to the right things.

The next committee meeting you have, take some cakes and coffee, scrap the agenda and talk about why people are still here in the church.

Ask them their hopes and dreams.

Talk.

Then meet again and talk some more.

The last thing we should be doing is creating communities that people feel stressed and anxious in.  And busyness doesn’t work.

Beth Keith’s report ‘Authentic Faith: Fresh expressions of church among young adults’ give some very helpful insight into what does work…

 

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It is possible to recover.

It’s amazing how far people will go to disprove this, how powerful our negative voice can be and how programmed for fear we are. This negative perspective can overwhelm our collective planning and conversation.

We do two simple things that ensure we almost always have conversations about negative things.

The first is to focus almost exclusively on problems. Our agendas are dominated by what is wrong, broken or problematic. We spend almost no time talking about what is right, what works and what brings joy and hope. We call the gatherings we have to consider our negativity ‘meetings’ or ‘committees’. If we are being really negative we call them ‘committee meetings’.

The second is that we describe what is positive in apologetic terms, as though we are sorry that we are doing well or something is good and as though we don’t want to say anything about it in case we make other people feel bad.

This behaviour is not helpful.

Tackling our negative thoughts is not easy.

We are programmed to listen to them. They are deep and primal ways of protecting ourselves, part of the flight or fight reflex. Hiding in a cave is a valid strategy for not being eaten. I’m not so sure that’s not how we as a church feel at the moment.

Recovery is about more than positive self-talk, but that’s where it starts. Recovery is possible… but only if you believe it is.

It needs a range of supportive factors to be in place and I think it is perhaps here that we might find some of the reasons why we find the concept of ‘recovery’ and ‘growth’ difficult in church.

Research has found that important factors on the road to recovery include:

  • good relationships
  • financial security
  • satisfying work
  • personal growth
  • the right living environment
  • developing one’s own cultural or spiritual perspectives
  • developing resilience to possible adversity or stress in the future.

Getting these factors in place is the first task of recovery. It needs a plan, but more of that later. I also want to write more about this list but before I do, I wonder do how you react to the list in terms of church as an organisation?

Can our regional bodies and our General Assemblies claim that these factors are all being addressed? We seem to be preoccupied with finances.

What does ‘good relationships’ look like for a church? What about ‘satisfying work, personal growth, the right living environment, developing one’s own cultural or spiritual perspectives’? How much time and energy do we spend on addressing these issues? And is financial security not related to supporting these?

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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.

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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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