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What One Congregation is Doing to Create a Caring Community

By the Rev. Bean Murray

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, is the home of several members of the EMIN steering committee. We are continually trying to show how to create a caring congregation by implementing our own suggestions in the life of our own faith community. We want to recommend activities in EMIN News that are not just ideas, but activities we have put into practice.

Creating an atmosphere where having or talking about a mental illness is not met with stigma or the need for feeling shame is accomplished in incremental steps. Results are often small and low key, but parishioners have come to understand that St. Michael’s is a faith community where mental illness is not ignored, but met with compassion and solid information.

General Awareness Education

Our educational activities include the following:

  • Promoting Mental Illness Awareness Week and the National Day of Prayer for Mental illness recovery and understanding during the first week of October each year
  • Incorporating mental illness concerns in the Sunday sermons during Mental Illness Awareness Week in October or Mental health month in May
  • Making sure that announcements on mental illness related activities and issues are included in the parish newsletter, in the weekly e-mail congregational update, in the service bulletins, and in bulletin inserts
  • Making sure that at least one adult education forum each year addresses an aspect of mental health
  • Including mental illness concerns in the Prayers of the People
  • Including The Episcopal Mental Illness Network in the parish outreach ministries prayed for on a rotation along with other ministries

Mentioning mental health issues frequently:

  • In Ministry Moments
  • As a ministry to sign up for on the annual Time and Talent pledge sheet
  • Advocating for mental health social justice issues such as health care parity and the plight of incarcerated persons with mental illness
  • Making books on mental illness and spirituality and information on mental health resources available in the church’s library

Conducting Book Study Groups

Study groups on books relating to mental illness and spirituality are excellent ways to provide reliable information about mental illness and questions of faith.

In 2007, St. Michael’s hosted two book study groups.

Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness by the Rev. Kathryn Greene-McCreight was the basis of a group that met weekly on Thursday nights for eight weeks. The steering committee sought the advice of St. Michaelites who are mental health professionals to help in setting up a structure for studying the book. Norms for the study were agreed to by the group participants. The norm of group confidentiality was extremely important.

The book study series ended with a Service of Healing and Eucharist.

In addition to the material in the book, book group members received local resource information so they could follow up with qualified professionals if desired.

Several members of the congregation were interested in the book, but were not able to attend because of other obligations or the current status with their own mental illness. The deacon leading the group made sure anyone who was interested in the book got a copy regardless of their ability to come to the group.

Advent book Study

Advent is a good time for providing emotional support. EMIN distributed a brochure prepared by the Mental Health Ministries to the clergy and deacons of the diocese.

At St. Michael’s, EMIN had an adult formation session on the realities of cultural Christmas pressures versus the “Hallmark” ideal.

This was followed by five Sunday morning sessions of study on depression using In the Shadow of God’s Wings, by the Rev. Susan Greg Schroeder, a personal accounting of depression by a Methodist pastor who now heads a vital mental health ministry. This book has an accompanying study guide.

An encouraging word

As you begin your mental health ministry, many times your events will not draw much of a crowd and you might not get a lot of feedback, but the activities are critical for those who do come. For those who don’t come, you are planting the seed that yours is a faith community where brain disorders are not regarded with stigma or shame, but all are welcomed as beloved children of God. You are planting seeds that if and when a member of your faith community has to face such a challenge, a supportive faith family is ready to assist.

Fear + Ignorance = Stigma

By Barbara Justus

Every now and then, someone who has happened upon our website,, will send us an email with a request for more information or a comment. We recently received one that particularly moved us because it described so eloquently what many families go through when mental illness strikes.

With her permission, we are sharing “Jane’s” story. Jane and her husband have been active members of a church in Michigan—greeters on Sunday mornings, involved in worship, music, mission work, food bank, etc. Recently, Jane’s husband became very ill and had to be hospitalized. It wasn’t cancer or heart disease. Instead he is suffering with a serious mental illness. The response from their “church family” has been devastating.

Says Jane, “No one has called. No visits. One email from the parish nurse, only because I emailed her. She said not to tell anyone about my husband’s illness. ‘People can be mean,’ she emailed back to me. She also emailed me a prayer.”

“I thought about it, and I got upset. It’s just not right. It’s not her fault. It’s just that the church never planned how to respond and never trained her or gave her any guidance on this. Ignorance + Fear = Stigma. Think we are going to have to look for a new church home.”

Jane went on to say, “We know our experience (at the church) is far from unique. I think most people in our shoes would give up on turning to organized religion for support. That sure would make things easier for churches. Just healthy worshippers with normal everyday problems. Almost heavenly. I want to go there! Sure sounds nice… ‘The Healthy Church.’ Sounds a lot better than ‘The Church of the Sick, Diseased & Unwanted.’”

Jane ends her email to EMIN with this. “Thanks for listening. There must be a reason for all of this. My husband is starting to feel better. I asked him if he wanted me to call the church office and have someone visit him, but he said no. I think it’s because he’s so disappointed and embarrassed he got sick. Pray that God helps us make a better church choice next time! Do you have any ideas about that?”

Do we have any ideas? You bet we do! The stigma associated with mental illness at church and other places is a senseless tragedy and it’s not going to go away without all of us working on it. You don’t need to make a “giant leap for mankind.” Baby steps are fine. Even wobbly baby steps are fine. But just take them. Today!

Pick up the phone and call someone you know whose family has been affected by mental illness. Ask your church to include those with mental illnesses in Prayers for the People. Start a book study at your church on a topic pertaining to mental illness. Go to the EMIN website and click on the “Take Action” tab to see dozens of ideas about how you can improve the lives of people with mental illnesses and their families in big ways and small.

Mother Teresa said that the most terrible disease is not leprosy or tuberculosis but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted. Please join EMIN to help us free our churches from the disease of stigma and help make your own church the kind of place where Jane and her husband would feel loved and supported.

The Reverend Chet Watson: Warrior and Saint

By Barbara Justus

To describe the impact the Reverend Chet Watson has had on mental health ministry in this country is a daunting task.

Since his son was diagnosed with a serious mental illness 17 years ago, Fr. Chet has been both warrior and saint on behalf of those with mental illnesses and their families.

Whether he is soothing the battered hearts of those with mental illnesses or challenging policymakers or fellow clergy to open their eyes to how critical mental health issues are, Fr. Chet leaves a big wake wherever he goes.

Perhaps author, colleague and friend, the Reverend Jim Stout, has summed up the impact of Fr. Chet’s ministry most eloquently. Reverend Stout, a Presbyterian pastor who has served churches from 300–4,700 members around the nation, was diagnosed with a mental illness many years ago.

Rev. Stout says:

I’ve known Chet Watson for over 15 years. He has been a strong and sensitive mentor to me. His influence has extended to his community, county, the state of California and the nation… via his leadership and service on various boards such as NAMI CA (National Alliance on Mental Illness), NAMIFaithnet, antistigma and various other community activities, including the establishment of a 80-bed facility in a residential neighborhood. While he is unapologetically Episcopalian, he has worked extremely effectively with believers of all faiths, across denominational lines… and with nonbelievers as well.

I don’t know how this truly humble man has done so much for those affected by mental illness in his church community, state and nation… He is, above all, a man of great faith and a man who deeply cares for the people with mental disabilities and their families!

If we could clone Fr. Chet and plant him in every diocese across the country, the state of mental illness ministries in the Episcopal Church would be much healthier. However, since we must bring the mountain to Mohammed, Fr. Chet was kind enough to share his experiences and advice with EMIN readers.

So enjoy the interview and show it to your fellow parishioners if you want to start or enhance a mental health ministry in your congregation.

EMIN: Did you ever dream that your life’s ministry would ultimately focus on advocacy for those with mental illness?
Fr. Chet: No. However, I do remember when I was 12 years old and my younger brother was deathly ill, I made a promise to God that I would give my life to Him if He would save my brother.
My life has been a good lesson about making (and keeping) one’s promises, particularly to God!
I was ordained to the Diaconate in 1980. Nine years later, I entered seminary and was ordained a priest in 1991 by the recently retired Bishop William Swing. Bishop Swing has been a great supporter of EMIN and other mental illness ministries. The Rev. Richard York, my predecessor, encouraged Bishop Swing to create one of the few Commissions on Mental Illness (COMI) in the Episcopal church. This was to fulfill the General Convention Resolution in 1991 on mental illness.
After the Rev. York died in 1994, all eyes turned on me when the question of leadership was raised at the next COMI meeting and that’s how I became chair of it.
EMIN: What are the most important things you think a congregation can do to make their church a welcoming place for those with mental illness?
Fr. Chet: From my answers to your questions, you will be able to tell that I consider the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) a critical resource for any mental illness ministry, secular or religious.
So here are my candid recommendations.

  • If you wait for the vicar or rector to bring the subject up, think again.
  • Know that you are not alone. Save your energy and use all the resources your local NAMI chapter can provide—mental illness is their business 24/7. Have someone from the congregation attend a NAMI meeting to get a feel for the ministry you are about to embark on.
  • Rate your church. You can find a checklist at the EMIN website: (Click the tab on the left hand side of the homepage that says “Take Action.”)
  • Plan events in May, and which is Mental Health Month, and during Mental Illness Awareness Week in October.
  • Write an article about mental illness in your church publication. EMIN has a section on its website, Click on “Take Action” and follow the links to “The Printed Word.”
  • Add this phrase to the Prayers of the People, “We pray for those who live with mental illness, their caregivers and their families.”
  • Call the local NAMI and offer space for a support group. This is known as “walking your talk.”
  • Prepare yourself for stigma. You will be shocked. Be gentle in your education efforts; remember, at one time you were not very aware until someone shared with you.
EMIN: How can one person jumpstart a mental illness ministry at their church?
Fr. Chet: First, I would get as many people involved as you can. Put together a written plan, get the support of your clergy, and then present it to your congregation’s governing board. Again, I suggest turning to NAMI for ideas. The Family to Family class is a good start, a turnkey program you can put on at your church.
Publicize mental health issues in bulletins, minutes for mission. NAMI has a powerful program called “In Our Own Voice,” a speaker’s bureau of persons with mental illnesses who are able to articulate their experiences eloquently.
Learn about stigma and how to combat it. Join NAMI StigmaBusters. And, perhaps most important, be patient. People only know what someone has taught them and mental illness is a scary topic for lots of people.
EMIN: What do you feel families need most when a loved one is diagnosed with a mental illness?
Fr. Chet: Friendship. Empathy, not sympathy. Understanding, not judgment or advice. Mental illness is not a “casserole disease.” And please watch your language. You may mean well, but stigmatizing language surrounding mental illness is rampant and it is very hurtful. A touch on the arm or shoulder speaks for you.
Those of us who have family members with mental illness have had enough advice from family and friends. True friends know it is okay not to speak.
EMIN: What would you like to see the National Church do differently concerning mental illness?
Fr. Chet: Many things come to mind but the foremost is to remove the page in The Book of Occasional Services, concerning exorcism. The Diocese of California submitted a resolution to General Convention 2003, Resolution C038, concerning stigma and abuse by clergy towards persons with mental illnesses, but it got referred to a committee where it will never be seen again.
The Church has been silent much too long. A good example is the lack of funding for the EMIN, the only publication and voice in the entire church advocating for the mentally disabled. We have a long ways to go to catch up with other faith communities.

About Fr. Chet

Fr. Chet is known as “The Walking Padre” because of his incredible success in raising money for mental illness through walkathons. For the past two years, he coordinated the NAMI Walks of San Francisco Bay. In 2005, the Walk raised $267,727. In 2006, the Walk raised $259,313. Save the date for the 3rd Annual NAMI Walk to be held on May 12, 2007, in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Check out

What does the Episcopal Church feel like to a person with a mental illness?

Part of the mission of the Episcopal Mental Illness Network is to find ways to bring people with mental illnesses into the full life of the church. This means understanding their perspectives and perceptions as church members.

The following is one woman’s account of finding the Episcopal Church a place of healing as well as a place of rejection as she struggles with her mental illness.

EMIN: Tell me in general about your experience with formalized religion as a person with a mental illness.
A: I was raised in a conservative evangelical denomination, not Episcopal, that interpreted my strange thoughts and behaviors as some sort of demonic possession. It was frightening and shameful. No one expressed the possibility of my having a chemical imbalance. They just thought I was bad, and I absorbed that judgment, too.
Later, as an adult, I joined the Episcopal Church and continued to turn to religion for a solution to my problem. I latched onto the idea of “confession.” If I could just confess my sins, if I could just be sorry enough, I could be purified and get better. The priest I sought three times for private confessions simply could not relate to my level of pain. Although she was a highly educated woman, she was not trained to recognize a mental illness.
Years later, when I was finally properly diagnosed and got on a treatment plan, my symptoms became manageable. Now that I was “cleaned up,” I could go to God’s house and be embraced. I did and I was.
But, as you can probably tell, my level of social trust is as conditional as the love I received when I was “unlovely.” I still don’t go to church when I’m exhibiting symptoms, although that is the time when I most need support.
EMIN: How is it to be a person with a mental illness in the Episcopal Church?
A: The good definitely outweigh the bad, so let’s swallow the bitter pill first.
People in the Episcopal Church are generally more “upper crust” and have a narrower definition of what “acceptable behavior” looks like. Many churches have pretty tight social codes of conduct.
It’s not like in some African American churches or churches in Latin America that I’ve attended where you have more latitude as to what is acceptable. On the other hand, it’s also been my experience that the Episcopal Church is generally more liberal and open-minded than other mainstream religions. They’ve been on the forefront of acceptance movements for racial, gender, and sexual equality.
But, frankly, I have to say that, if you have a mental illness, it is a lot easier to find acceptance in a bar than in a church—even a church as loving and open as the Episcopal Church. There’s a lot more wiggle room as far as how you can behave and still be accepted, and I find that really sad. In a bar, flamboyance is cool, misery is common, and everyone has a story to share.
EMIN: Sounds like you are a bit dubious about how helpful church can be to persons with mental illnesses.
A: I guess it depends on the church.
I think the Episcopal Church has a deep approach to spirituality and I appreciate that. There is more privacy and reverence in faith matters. Silence and waiting on the Lord are encouraged.
I had many years of symptoms prior to diagnosis so “watching and waiting with expectation” was an excellent concept to have embraced!
Doubting is seen more as an opportunity for exploration than as a faith failure. The people I’ve known well in the Episcopal Church don’t wear their piety on their sleeves but their faith seems to resonate through their bones.
The quiet and meditative depth and predictability of the service is appreciated by someone with an over-stimulated nervous system.
EMIN: What advice do you have for people in the Episcopal Church about how to help bring people into the total life of the church?
A: To the clergy, first I have to say, God love ’em-they have a tough job. But the clergy absolutely cannot, intentionally or unintentionally, turn their backs on people with mental illnesses because they don’t know what to do.
As part of your continuing education, ask to interview some mature mental illness survivors. Ask them how their symptoms exhibit in the various phases—emerging, moderate, and critical. Ask what they want done and said in each stage. Collect an inventory from as many participants as you can about what is most helpful and most offensive. Learn how to sneak in concerned caring without making the person feel like a freak.
To people in the congregation, as I said before, just because someone has a good game face, don’t assume that all is okay.
If you suspect something might be going on with someone you go to church with, don’t politely tiptoe around them. Distancing only exacerbates the shame most of us have absorbed from culture of silence that surrounds mental illness. Ask open-ended questions. “What do you like to do? Can I come along?” You might be surprised at what emerges if you don’t probe too obviously.
EMIN: Overall, how do you feel about the Episcopal Church in terms of ministering to persons with mental illnesses?
A: I’m proud of the Episcopal Church for its strong voice on social and political issues. Jesus came to set us free. That’s comforting to me because, in my experience, there is no more isolating prison than mental illness.
Maybe the next frontier of the Church will be truly freeing people of the stigma of mental illness. What a lovely legacy that would be!

Why would anyone in their right mind get involved with mental illness?

At the beginning of this summer, I watched a person’s face tighten in agony. She had an upset stomach as well as a headache. The world around her faded in importance. The one urgency was a dear relative who was hospitalized because of hallucinations and episodes of paranoia.

The episodes had been going on intermittently for forty years. Always the same and yet becoming more frequent. This relative lived for a while with a family but mostly has been independent. The day will come when an institution will be necessary.

Meanwhile, those who listen to the delusionary phone calls, who are in conversations with the police, the landlord, the bill-collectors, the doctors, fret considerably. There is no way to embrace the person and the disease without having one’s own life experience the ensuing turbulence.

Why would anyone in his/her right mind get involved in mental illness?

First, mental illness doesn’t float around in the atmosphere like second-hand smoke. Mental illness resides in human beings, people who did not elect it but whose lives are invaded by it. So many families, so many families, have members with mental illness.

Therefore, it is not simply that an individual suffers and seeks healing and comfort; so does the family. Avoidance and denial do not work. Any family worth its salt will stand up and face the reality.

Second, we Christians believe that God can be found in human flesh. Incarnation. “God was in Christ.” This assertion breeds infinite hope that God is resolute about flesh, all flesh. The ugly/pretty, skinny/fat, the non-white/the non-dark. The richly integrated and healthy person as well as the thoroughly confused and seriously challenged.

The life of Jesus Christ was directed toward people who needed a miracle. The ministry of Jesus Christ, as conducted by disciples, must be directed now toward people who need a miracle from a savior.

A good example of those who need a miracle are folks who suffer from serious mental illnesses.

I thank God for the work of the Episcopal Mental Illness Network. Also I thank God for the Rev. Chet Watson of the Diocese of California who has championed this vital ministry in season and out. If there is a General Convention such as in 2003 which passes a resolution on mental illness, there are great people in place to carry out the mandates. But they need help. We are sadly at the beginning of the church’s recognition of mental illness.

Therefore, the response from Episcopalians across this land is tentative at the present. But that will change.

As more and more Episcopalians collect around the need for the church to have a strong response—fitting for followers of the healing master of the Gospels—we will grow up.

Isolation is not necessary. Decisions can be assisted by experience and wisdom. Spiritual power will be available to sustain caring people. Healing will come from multiple resources but always from the Ultimate Source. The hour is early to wage the needed campaign in the church against mental illness. This is no moment to be discouraged. We are young. And we will grow up.

Families with persons with mental illnesses need New Testament healing power for themselves, and they will receive it. Suffering individuals need up-to-date care, treatment, and the promise of health, and they will receive it. The Episcopal Mental Illness Network is a blessing beyond our imagination.

Equipping the Saints: Episcopal Counseling Center in the Diocese of Fort Worth

The Diocese of Fort Worth has done more than give lip service to its call to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” Each year, the diocese awards a grant to the Episcopal Counseling Center located at All Saints Church in Fort Worth.

And, as a result, each year hundreds of people who would not otherwise be able to receive counseling have a place to go to help them straighten out the complications of their lives.

The Episcopal Counseling Center was founded in 1991, a time when many Texans were experiencing great financial problems, which lead to many other family problems as well. The diocese recognized that many of its members were in great personal turmoil and unable to pay for counseling services. So it included the funding of the Episcopal Counseling Center in a capital campaign and has been making regular contributions to the center ever since. People who are able to pay for their care do, many on a sliding scale, but no one is ever turned away. No one.

Lynn Busch, director of the Center, says that many of their clients are Episcopalians but many are not. She adds that it has been a good tool for evangelism because sometimes clients end up making All Saints their church home.

Says Busch, “This is an incredible ministry within the diocese. No one is turned away. Unlike many HMOs, we have no limits to the number of visits people can receive because we know the human mind doesn’t work that way.

“Just the fact that people receive counseling within the setting of a church sets a very different therapeutic tone. It’s soothing here, quiet, and the atmosphere is very different than a regular office setting. Often times, people ask to start their therapy session with a prayer. We don’t insist that people weave their religious beliefs into their therapy, but we don’t ignore that important aspect of people’s lives either.”

If you are interested in finding out more about how to start a counseling service in your church or diocese, Lynn Busch would be glad to share her experiences. She can be reached at:

450 Little Valley Court

Fort Worth, TX 76108

(817) 367-3463

EMIN-Arkansas Plans First Diocesan Conference

Save the Date!!

We are coming together for the first time as a diocese to begin building our base of Arkansas parishes that are caring communities of faith for people with mental illnesses. The one-day conference will be held at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Together, we will explore spirituality and mental illness from the perspectives of persons with such illnesses and their families, mental health professionals and lay and clergy advocates. The workshop participants will identify actions to help their parishes become welcoming faith communities that minister to people with mental disorders and their loved ones.

“We want to take a realistic look at what the Church has done and not done to help parishioners facing problems with mental illness. I hope that we can come away from the workshop with a spirit of commitment for every parish to be a safe and welcoming place,” says EMIN co-coordinator Deacon Bean Murray.

Registration is free. In addition to Arkansans, all EMIN News readers are invited to attend. Plans for the conference are incomplete at this time. Details will be posted at as they are finalized.

EMIN-Arkansas is deeply grateful for the grant we received from the Keller Fund for Mission to fund this conference.