a mentally unwell church

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.



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?

10 thoughts on “a mentally unwell church”

  1. Very interesting Stewart.
    Isn’t it sad that so many think of recovery, be it themselves or the church, as going back to what had been, rather than seeing it as being moving on to a new place.
    Is not a little bit of our problem that we see the church as being elderly, and in our society elderly usually means ‘out of date’ ‘past its sell-by date’ and ‘not of much use’? Yet historically, and perhaps even Biblically, the older generation should be the ones to use their wisdom and experience, and becoming refreshed by the Spirit, be ready for God’s newness.

  2. At the very start of my doctorate there is the question of a seriously depressed congregation. Everyone I have said that this was the case, when I tell them the facts agrees that the terminology is accurate. Yes there is denominational depression as well.

    What struck me was when actually teaching I think qualitative software I got to talking to someone who was studying depression. Almost within minutes we were talking about what I call centripetal and centrifugal discourses. Apparently a depressed person has more centripetal, inward looking thoughts than a non-depressed person. They tend to be more self centred in their thinking, that is not to say they think highly of themselves, they often loathe themselves, but that they think more about themselves (often about how much is wrong with them or worrying over their future).

    Now I can see a lot of pressures on congregations and the denomination to be inward looking. If budgets are cut it is often those which are concerned with maintenance that are protected rather than those concern with reaching outwards. Once does not matter, it is that this is a repeated regular pattern!

    Now the answer is not to be totally outward looking, a person who totally does not consider themselves at all is equally sick, an organisation that does stops existing fast but to address the balance and to keep a vigilance on that balance recognising there are very strong pulls that favour the inward discourse.

  3. Recovery. Renewal. Revival.
    Might these be words referring to the same kind of thing ?
    Are we thinking about returning to first principles ? If we are, where are they found ?
    What you indicate, Stewart, seems to fit with the Kirk as well.
    I frequently have conversations with people reminiscing about ‘how it used to be’ when they had to transport the Sunday School in bus convoys and there were no problems of any kind, save the fact that the numbers were huge and finance was not an issue.
    These rose tinted glasses thoughts don’t help with the current struggle. If anything, they compound the sense of failure and even guilt at the way things are heading. With central thinking tending towards the ‘management of decline’ any sense of hope and optimism quickly evaporates and words like the three ‘R’s at the top become ridiculed as an unattainable dream.
    When you try to change things to first principles again you run up against the vested interests of those who like the ways this are and can’t see that they are part of the problem and make life difficult.
    Perhaps a return to genuine prayer is a start ?

  4. I used to think that Recovery was getting back to “the way it was”. However from my very painful experience recovery means growth, moving on, letting go and changing the person and character defects which led to illness in the first place. It means honest change, thinking differently, acceptance of “what is” Willingness, honesty and open mindedness is the key.. Change and change we must. The use of positive bright thoughts even when you don’t feel like it changes, not only your own perception of the way things are, but also the way others around you are affected. Change isn’t as scary as it feels – it is a revelation and a new way of living.

  5. Thank you all for your replies.

    I agree, Derek, that the our perception of age is unhelpful and manifests itself in all kinds of ways, not least our lack of value of things we see as old and out of date.

    David, I’m not sure recovery, renewal and revival are the same. That might become more apparent as I write more about the recovery process. I have a feeling that renewal and revival fall into the trap of hoping that what was will somehow be again. That’s not what recovery is in this context at all. It is much more the kind of development and recovery that Wilma talks about where change and discovery come about through positive engagement bringing about a new way of living.

  6. Not sure I totally agree with you about Revival and Renewal as karking back to the way things were… God could be waiting to do a very new thing and both of these could b part of that.

  7. The ‘recovery’ idea is an interesting one. Do we really wish to get back to how things were? because that golden age is a subjective memory of a select few! Most of us don’t remember it…

    Do our children and young people want to ‘recover’ to a time when they were taught the Bible by rote, where their opinions and needs were decided by others, where they had no voice but were expected to be seen? I would venture to suggest that they wouldn’t.

    So, if we’re not recovering to a past which was healthy in terms of numbers but not in terms of content, and we accept that we can no longer paper over the cracks (re-covering?) then what are we hoping for the immediate present and longer term future to actually look like?

    And therein lies the challenge (very nearly wrote ‘problem’ there!): everyone wants something different from the Church and their involvement with it.

    Some want traditional worship, others something more contemporary.

    Some want a Church which provides a refuge from society, others want a Church which is a servant to that same society.

    Some want a Church which makes them feel comfortable and safe, others want a Church which challenges their understanding of God and their relationship with Him/Her.

    I could go on… but I suppose my thinking, after reading your article, is that, yes; there are definite parallels between organisational and personal depression (though a low sex drive is probably a good thing organisationally!) but I wonder if its worth spending money and time on therapy until we have a clear vision of what the end result might look like. If we don’t have a goal, we can’t work towards reaching it.

    here, Grandmother, suck on this egg…

  8. Really interesting and helpful stuff Stewart, I think you’re on to something. I’m with you on recovery being about getting to a new place, rather than back to how things were. But offer some further thoughts into the next stage of your thinking, some of which come from personal experience of depression.

    1. Is depression something you recover from, or is it something you learn to manage? (I realise this links more with a get back to normal view of recovery, but I think the question is still valid). So is recovery an ongoing process rather than a goal? (But I would say that as a wannabe process theologian).

    2. How is depression treated? If the church is depressed telling it to cheer up and stop feeling sorry for itself will not be helpful! 🙂 (I know you’re in no way advocating that, what i mean is, that is how lots of church initiatives are received by depressed congregations).

    3. So do we need medication or counselling? In my case I needed the former in order to feel I could cope with the latter. So what (medication) would help the church to feel better about itself and see how self destructive and irrational lots of its thinking is, in order to be able to be strong enough to seek a remedy (counselling) rather than just alleviate symptoms?

    4. To slip back into theology speak, rather than recovery are we’re talking about the difference between resuscitation and resurrection? The former will still perish the latter is something new and beyond.

    Trying hard here for a concluding paragraph, but it’s not coming! So for now …

  9. Brilliant Stewart, thank you!
    In my fresh expressions work, I often talk with groups of people who collectively tick many of the boxes you describe – and then slowly ‘the penny drops’ and they begin to understand that there is hope.
    To say you have hope is actually very brave – it’s far easier to look back. Hope for churches means understanding that the future might look different and that church might need a new model (although the old model might be right for some). Hope means being open-minded – and that is not easy when you’re depressed. It means looking at the issues as smaller chunks that you can deal with.
    Hope means remembering the importance of prayer too!
    Encouraging hope by always using positive language can feel like an uphill struggle, yet the rewards are huge when a church comes out of depression and decides to try something new. I’ve seen it happen and been privileged to be part of the journey as the church decides to think differently about their reasons for being church.
    Positiveness is as infectious as depression, even though it’s hard work when you’re the only one with it!
    I studied Neuro Linguistic Programming a few years ago, and have ongoing experience of mental health issues in someone very close. Understanding how important it is to stay positive when that person can’t see a way forward is really important. I have to admit, since reading your article, I realise that I subconsciously apply the same techniques to my church work as I do at home.
    I’d encourage all our churches to attend or hold a F E vision day – it provides a stepping stone to a new mindset. 🙂

  10. Mike, thanks for your thoughts. I hope you see them weaving through the next posts.

    Your question about depression as something you can recover from or something you manage I think varies. Some people have one episode and others suffer from many periods of depression. I wonder if church is the same? What the recovery model does do is helps build resilience and skills to help identify and manage your mood.

    You are absolutely right about telling people to cheer up and get on with it. One of the things that led me to explore ‘recovery’ as a concept for church was the sense that people talk about ‘initiative overload’ which in some ways is due to an organisational response that produces another programme as a way of ‘cheering up’ the church. When people or organisations are anxious or depressed there is often a huge struggle just to perform daily tasks, never mind take on a programme. We need to recognise that.

    Medication or counselling? This is one of the areas I need to do some thinking around. I think we have some counselling tools, things like Appreciative Inquiry for example. I’m not so sure what medication would look like in an organisational setting. I’d be interested to hear thoughts about that. One of the recovery model’s strengths is that it is in essence ‘supported self help’ which is different from counselling.

    My theological take on recovery in this form is based firmly in resurrection. The post resurrection Jesus is different. He has not been resuscitated. He has recovered, and been changed by his experience. The people who meet the resurrected Jesus often don’t recognise him initially. I think that’s in many ways the essence of recovery, the same person but changed by experience.

    Leo, part of the Recovery Model, as I’ll write about, is developing that clear idea of self. I speak about meaning and purpose in the Missing Generations stuff. That’s very much Recovery Model based thinking. You need to know what makes you tick, what gives you hope and inspires you and what kind of person or organisation you want to be. This model, I think, might help us do that much more than some of the more ‘business’ based models we try to apply, partly because we aren’t a business.

    Linda, I agree! Fresh Expressions thinking is all about this model. As I work through this stuff I’m more and more convinced about that. Both are fundamentally based in hope and positive thinking. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts as I dig deeper into recovery.

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