Saturday, February 20, 2010

Revisiting That Soapbox

I ran across this article in the archives of SPU's Response Magazine. Reminded me of why, despite its flaws, my place of worship and community is on the right track. It's long, but read up. It's local! :)

Church In-Reach: Care for the Congregation

“When a person deals with mental illness, sometimes the Christian community says it’s a spiritual problem — that you don’t have enough faith, and if you just read your Bible more, you’d be cured,” says Claudia Grauf-Grounds, chair of Seattle Pacific University’s Marriage and Family Therapy program.

One Seattle congregation is taking radical steps to change such thinking. Twelve years ago, University Presbyterian Church (UPC) Senior Pastor Earl Palmer invited David Zucker to join the staff. Zucker, neither a clergyman nor a clinician, had long worked for Agape Outreach, a home for adults with severe and persistent mental illness. He was a natural fit for a groundbreaking new position at the church: mental health advocate.

“I’ve learned over the years that the biggest part of healing and recovery is how well you’re welcomed back into the community after you’ve been ill,” says Zucker. “Folks that come the farthest have cheerleaders to root them on. I wanted to explore what the church could do to provide that kind of support.”

Zucker initially envisioned his UPC ministry would center on outreach to people in the city who struggled with mental illness. But something amazing happened. “People — church members — started to come to me in droves,” he says. “Many of them came like Nicodemus in the night, knocking on my window and coming up to me after services.”

Zucker describes families in distress; depression-ravaged, high-functioning adults; and everything in between. “I found that UPC was no different than any other congregation in America; members of the church were suffering and struggling with mental illness, and they were afraid to be identified,” he says. “Yet they desperately needed and wanted support.” That’s when Zucker came to an important conclusion, one that would define his next 12 years at the church: “We needed to be doing in-reach, not out-reach.”

It takes a special sensitivity level to manage such a program. “I’m someone who is a survivor of mental illness,” he says candidly. “That’s where my interest and openness come from. I’ve walked through the dark night of the soul myself. After I became a Christian, I got engaged. When she called it off, I became deeply depressed. Folks very quickly got tired of praying for me. I felt like I was a leper — on the periphery. I’ll never forget the pain and brokenness I felt.” He says he saw the importance of community in recovery from illness and crisis. “I became convinced of the healing value of relational ministry — that’s ultimately what we do here.”

Zucker says his work is rooted in a word: compassion. “In Greek, compassion means to suffer with,” he explains. “When you choose to walk alongside someone who’s suffering, you enter into their grief. I’d love to see seminarians have more training to do this.”

UPC’s model for mental health ministry is radical by church standards; it’s also rooted in concepts of collaborative care — specifically, that healing can be maximized by a network of support. “Our focus is to provide a first-class welcome and spiritual discipleship to folks who are hurting,” says Zucker. “No matter how ill a person is, even if they’re delusional, there is still that deep spiritual yearning.”

Beyond that, Zucker serves as an advocate, someone who goes to bat for people who are suffering. He’s there to provide a listening ear, support, and referrals. “I advocate for people, meet their felt needs, and help network for them.” Sometimes that means helping families access social services, dealing head-on with crisis, or making referrals to psychotherapists. “If someone comes in here needing support for life, I’m here,” he says. “I can’t do everything for them, but I can do something.” And Zucker is especially proud of one thing: “In all of the years I have been here, not one person who has attended our fellowship groups has ever taken their own life.”

Aside from managing five church-sponsored support groups attended by nearly 40 people each week, he is in contact with roughly 200 people in any given Monday-through-Sunday interval — some of whom are psychotherapists working collaboratively with him to meet the needs of parishioners and their families. “Twenty-five years ago, churches didn’t know what to do with divorce; now there are ministries and support groups for people going through that,” says Zucker. “I think this [mental illness ministry] is the last frontier in churches — because it impacts so many people.”

He points to 1 Corinthians, where Paul likens the church to the body: “Paul says all the parts of the body are essential, but he reminds us that we need to give greater care to the weaker parts — that’s ultimately what leads to greater unity in the body.”

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