Twenty ways our ministry made a difference in 2020

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Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:11-13 (ESV)

I’d like to express my heartfelt thanks and admiration for the magnificent work accomplished by our ministry staff, volunteers, writing team and the pastors, staff and volunteers of the churches we serve over the last twelve months through some of the most unusual and trying circumstances the small “c” church has experienced in our lifetimes.

Our ministry plans for 2020 went out the window when church doors closed across the country as we learned the meaning of social distancing. But in reviewing the accomplishments of the team in 2020, it’s hard not to argue that Beth, Catherine, and the rest of the team had their most impactful year of ministry ever.

Here are 20 ways in which our team made significant impact for the cause of including families of kids with disabilities and children and adults with mental health concerns in this most challenging of years.

1. The team quickly mobilized to provide training, connection and support to ministry leaders related to impacts of COVID-19. All of our coronavirus-related resources may be found here. We launched weekly “Idea Share” videoconferences including church staff and volunteers from across the country to facilitate brainstorming of ideas for serving kids and families during #COVID19. Other sessions provided encouragement and support to parents of kids with disabilities who suddenly found themselves without many of their usual support services for their children. One of our most popular video roundtables featured the author, pastor and biblical counselor Jonathan Holmes discussing the use of Scripture to help manage and support emotional health during COVID-19.https://player.vimeo.com/video/408070764?app_id=122963&wmode=opaque

2. Together with members of our writing team and leaders of other like-minded disability ministries, we produced and hosted a special Easter Sunday worship service for families impacted by disability. The service received over 31,000 views on our Facebook page. The service may be viewed here in its entirety.

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3. Our team, in partnership with Amplify Social Media produced on Online Pastors Retreat in response to the dramatic increase in mental health struggles among clergy and the population at large during the pandemic. Nearly 200 pastors and church staff to date have registered for this remarkable resource, addressing key topics in self-care, church care and steps for becoming a mental-health friendly church. We were honored to have been joined by many prominent church leaders in this effort, including Kay Warren, William Vanderbloemen, Pete Scazzaro and Brad Hambrick. Click here to learn more about the retreat, or here to register.

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4. We continued our work with the Office of Faith-Based Partnerships of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and their efforts in helping congregations from all faith traditions improve their capacity for supporting individuals and families with mental illness. On April 28th, Steve had the opportunity to take part in a nationwide videoconference hosted by the Partnership Center on Mental Health in the Time of COVID, together with Kay Warren and psychologist and former Pennsylvania congressman Tim Murphy. Several thousand had registered for the webinar and many more have viewed it since then through YouTube.https://www.youtube.com/embed/C8Zzgw4ihOg?wmode=opaque&enablejsapi=1

5. Speaking of the Office of Faith-Based Partnerships, we were honored to contribute to Compassion in Action: A Guide for Faith Communities Serving People Experiencing Mental Illness, available as a free download through the HHS website. The guide is organized around seven key principles applicable in all faith traditions that offer a way for spiritual leaders to address mental illness in the communities they serve. The guide also identifies concrete houses of worship might take to “put their compassion into action.”

6. Our team played a significant role in Wonderfully Made, the “sister” conference of Inclusion Fusion Live, which was held virtually this past October. All of our core team served as presenters, with Steve doing one of the keynotes. Wonderfully Made featured a number of our writers and represented the largest disability ministry conference of 2020.

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7. We were able to take part in four live, in-person training events before the COVID shutdowns – training for the children’s ministry team on mental health inclusion at Bay Presbyterian Church, two additional local trainings in Northeast Ohio, and the Together Conference at Mount Paran Church in Atlanta on the first weekend of March.

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8. Steve was invited to speak as part of the Church Mental Health Summit, sponsored by Hope Made Strong on October 10. 1,785 attendees registered for his talk on Why Attending Church is Difficult for Families Impacted by Mental Illness.

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9. We continued to grow the disability ministry field. The Special Needs and Disability Ministry Leaders group we facilitate. 235 new members have joined the group this year, currently standing at 2048. 950 members have been added since November, 2018.

10. We continue to find new avenues to educate the church about mental health ministry. This article from Steve was featured in the Fall 2020 issue of Evangelicals magazine, produced by the National Association of Evangelicals. The Brink magazine, produced as a a devotional magazine for twentysomethings, featured an interview with Steve as the cover story for their Fall issue.

11. We continued to produce content that ministry leaders and families seek to access. Our website has had over 125,000 unique visitors this year through mid-November. Between our Church4Every Child and Special Needs Parenting blog, we’re approaching 4 million page views. Nearly 5,000 people subscribe to our blog posts. Over 22,000 follow our content on Twitter, with nearly 16,000 following our Facebook page for churches and 18,000 our Facebook page for parents.

12. We continued to build upon our relationship with the disability ministry team of the South Atlantic Conference of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. They’ve sponsored a broad range of trainings for their pastors and membership on mental health ministry and they report sixteen pastors have begun mental health initiatives in their churches this past year.

13. We’re honored to have been selected as one of nine ministry organizations to have been invited to partner with the Tim Tebow Foundation for Shine On, a ministry of the foundation dedicated to connecting new and growing special needs programs within local churches to world-class faith-based resources that train, guide, and support churches as they serve their local community of people with special needs. Formed by an ongoing desire to see churches worldwide extend their individual Night to Shine proms into year-round ministries, Shine On is an initiative several years in the making. When a church is simply looking to refine an existing ministry for those with special needs, or looking to build one from the ground up, we’re available along with the other eight organizations to offer both inspiration and assistance.

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14. We continued to field lots of consultation requests from churches, despite closures related to the pandemic. Beth received 81 consultation requests for general disability ministry issues and Catherine responded to 42 consultation requests for mental health ministry to this point in 2020.

15. We were invited to contribute to many podcasts in 2020. Beth and Catherine joined Tom Bump from the Kids Ministry Collective on special needs ministry during COVID-19. Beth addressed worship service inclusion in this podcast with Stephanie Holmes for Springbrook’s Converge Autism Radio podcast. Steve did this video podcast with Tony Kummer from Ministry to Children on disability ministry lessons the church might learn during the pandemic. Beth also took part in this video podcast sponsored by SOAR Special Needs Ministry on disability ministry in the new normal.

16. Beth has been active in development of a collaborative in Northeast Ohio of churches participating in Night to Shine events. The collaborative may serve as a model for church-based disability ministries to provide mutual support in other cities and regions.

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17. We’ve met with the producers of Unseen, a documentary intended to give an unfiltered, honest glimpse into the mental and physical struggles of special needs caregivers. The filmmakers seek to demonstrate how the exhaustion and isolation of special needs caregivers represent a public health crisis.

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18. Catherine was invited to serve as a contributor to the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission website. Her first post offered four suggestions for shepherding pastors during the coronavirus. Steve contributed posts on how churches might support mental health during the pandemic and Churches, Holidays, Pandemics and Mental Health, scheduled for publication during the coming week.

19. We’ve recently met with the Lutheran Foundation to plan mental health ministry education activities for 2021 and 2022. We’ve scheduled a webinar for March of 2021 on the barriers individuals and families face in being part of church.

20. Steve has continued to serve as a regular contributor to the Brian and Jannelle morning show on Moody Radio Cleveland. This segment on flattening the mental health curve during the pandemic was featured on Moody Radio last March. He also appeared on Mornings with Carmen LaBerge and The Ride Home with John and Kathy’s afternoon show on 101.5 The Word in Pittsburgh.

Brian and Jannelle (with a special appearance from Kathleen) at Moody Radio Cleveland
Brian and Jannelle (with a special appearance from Kathleen) at Moody Radio Cleveland

I’m tired from listing all the stuff our ministry did this year. But the need for the support our ministry provides isn’t going away and will only intensify as the calendar turns to 2021.

Our ministry team would very much appreciate your prayers and financial support as 2020 comes to a close. Families of kids with emotional, behavioral, developmental and physical difficulties have had an incredibly difficult time over the last eight months. Churches have struggled with all the changes resulting from social distancing. Our team has done an incredible job in helping churches help families this year while controlling costs as much as possible, but we’re currently running about $15,000 behind our expenses this year as a result of having to cancel our national ministry conference, Inclusion Fusion Live, after reducing our spending by approximately 30% from what was budgeted at the beginning of the year.

If you’ve taken care of your responsibilities to your local church, we’d appreciate any donation you’re able to provide. Would you consider starting a Facebook Fundraiser on behalf of our ministry? Online gifts have become an increasingly important source of support.

If you’re unable to give, but have been encouraged or supported by our ministry this year, we’d love to hear from you. The encouragement at this point in the pandemic is at least as impactful as the money.

From our Key Ministry team we extend our Best Wishes for a Blessed and Joyous Thanksgiving, looking forward to the time when we can all be together again with our families again.

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A plan to help hurting churches help hurting families

With all the upheaval we’ve all experienced over the past eight months, the most unsettled I’ve felt was the first Sunday my family and I attended a worship service inside our church’s building. I’d never seen the church so empty. I’d been worried about not having a place to sit thanks to the distancing requirements if we arrived a little late. I’d guess our main sanctuary was maybe 10-15% full when we could comfortably host 40% of our normal capacity with all the restrictions. This after two services (traditional and contemporary) customarily held during that hour were combined in one space.

I’ve heard similar stories from friends at other churches. The general consensus in our area is that attendance at worship services is around 30-40% of what it was before the pandemic. That’s consistent with these statistics from a prominent church consultant (Tony Morgan), reporting attendance nationwide of 36% of pre-pandemic levels. Obviously, lots of people will come back when the need for social distancing ends. But lots of people won’t. I’ll be taking a closer look at this podcast in a future post in which Thom Rainer (former President of LifeWay) predicts the typical church will lose 30-40% of its people as a result of the current disruption. In that same podcast, Rainer noted that 80% of 1,000+ pastors who responded to an online survey said they’re contemplating quitting. Our churches are in distress.

David Kinnamon of the Barna Group estimates 20% of churches will be closed within the next eighteen months. Fewer than 50% of regular church attenders ages 55 and under reported a preference for primarily “physical” church gatherings. While we’re likely to lose less committed people, the impact on church finances is inevitable. The larger issue for disability ministry centered around weekend worship will be the impact on the volunteer pool upon which these ministries depend.

Credit: Barna Group
Credit: Barna Group

We’ve been thrust into the most radical change in the way “church” is conducted since the Protestant Reformation. The future is very unclear. But God’s at work in the process. The statistics above suggest we haven’t exactly been successful as of late in discipling people if so many have left. A surprising number of church attendees aren’t interested in getting back to “normal” in attendance at weekend worship services.

Our team is wrestling with planning ministry for next year when nobody really knows for sure what church is going to look like twelve months from now or how much more of a hit churches will take from additional steps to control the pandemic over the next 6-9 months. It’s like the challenges a quarterback faces in throwing the ball to a spot where he anticipates his receiver will be based upon the receiver’s reaction to the defense being played.

This article from Tony Morgan was very helpful in helping me to understand how churches will operate after COVID. Here’s a photo from his post with a summary of his key points.

From Tony Morgan: Seven shifts I foresee churches will need to make as a result of this crisis:
From Tony Morgan: Seven shifts I foresee churches will need to make as a result of this crisis:

While we’re likely to find ourselves making stuff up on the fly again this year in response to need, these are some of our guiding principles for expanding disability ministry in a shrinking church in the years ahead.  

We’re preparing for a paradigm shift in which less and less ministry will be done by paid professionals. Pastors and church staff will transition from doing ministry to resourcing volunteers to do ministry. Established disability ministries that survive are more likely to do be led by highly motivated volunteers and new disability ministries will be established by volunteers. We need to give church leaders the resources they need to keep ministries going in the absence of funding and train leaders to launch ministries in churches that have the heart but are low on resources.

We need to empower the people of the church to identify and respond to ministry opportunities without expecting leaders to start a program. When Morgan refers to “simplicity” in his model, he means churches focusing on doing a few things with excellence versus operating lots of programs that compete for shrinking pools of money or volunteers. Churches won’t be starting many new programs. That means someone who sees the need for a Christian-based mental health support group needs connections with organizations to help them start a group, support their group and promote their group.. How might the people of the church provide respite care in their neighborhoods when a church doesn’t have the facilities or volunteers to support respite events? What does disability ministry look like for “microchurches?” How might we empower individuals with disabilities to start microchurches to reach their friends and neighbors who don’t have a church?

I’d argue that doing ministry is a much-underutilized strategy for churches struggling with discipleship. The model of coming to church to be “taught” by the professionals has clearly lost favor with generations younger than mine. People grow by doing. Encountering pushback in ministry forces people to pray, to turn to Scripture and to seek wise counsel – in other words, to grow spiritually. We can support churches as they pursue outwardly-focused disability ministry. How might we point churches to opportunities to share the love of Christ with members of the disability community who would never otherwise enter their buildings?

Promoting connectedness – This may be the most important component of our ministry plan going forward. We’re experiencing a mental health crisis along with a medical crisis in large part due to the disruption in relationships caused by the pandemic. How can we encourage and support one another in ministry? How do we support pastors and church staff who are experiencing enormous disruption in their work lives? That’s how we ended up partnering with another organization to host an Online Pastors’ Retreat accessed thus far by over 180 church leaders.

How can churches across a city or a region support one another in doing ministry? That’s a hot topic in our home region at the moment. How might churches pool their resources to support one another’s disability ministry initiatives? How might local ministry leaders support one another? Pastors and church leaders need to be better connected with disability ministry leaders. The people of the church need more connection with one another. If church were more like a family, far fewer people would be leaving.

Making high quality, live disability ministry training is at the top of our “to-do” list when the pandemic is over. If we do #IFL2021, it will look different than in the past and be designed as an “in-person” event. The small “c” church is doing a pretty good job of disability ministry on Sunday. How might we help churches see what it means to be connected to families from Monday to Saturday?

That’s what the churches and families we serve and the generous people who pray for and fund our ministry can expect in the year ahead.


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Speaking of the year ahead, our team would very much appreciate your prayers and financial support. Inclusion Fusion Live represented approximately a third of our ministry’s annual budget. That disappeared when everything closed down last Spring. Our team has done an incredible job in responding to needs this year, while controlling costs, but we’re currently running about $15,000 behind our expenses this year. Please consider a gift to our ministry after meeting your responsibilities to your local church.

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Caring well for persons with mental health struggles in our churches

The past six months have presented extraordinary challenges to the church – not the least of which has been caring for all of the people who are hurting as a result of social and economic disruptions associated with the coronavirus.

Last month, the CDC released a report describing mental health challenges experienced by U.S. adults during COVID-19. The statistics presented below represent a a four-fold increase in the prevalence of depressive symptoms and a three-fold increase in the prevalence of anxiety symptoms compared to a similar time in 2019. Rates of suicidal ideation in the preceding thirty days were more than double than reported in 2018.

Overall, 40.9% of 5,470 respondents who completed surveys during June reported an adverse mental or behavioral health condition, including those who reported symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder (30.9%), those with TSRD symptoms related to COVID-19 (26.3%), those who reported having started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19 (13.3%), and those who reported having seriously considered suicide in the preceding 30 days (10.7%)

Among some demographics, the numbers are truly staggering.

  • 74.9% of 18-24 year-olds and 51.9% of 25-44 year-olds reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom, as well as 52.1% of Hispanic respondents, 54.0% of essential workers, 66.2% who held less than a high school diploma and 66.6% of unpaid caregivers for adults at the time of the survey.
  • Essential workers had a 42% higher prevalence of mental health symptoms than non-essential workers, and adult caregivers were over 2.5 times more likely to report symptoms than non-caregivers.
  • One in four adults between the ages of 18-24 and 16% of adults ages 25-44 reported seriously considering suicide in the past thirty days. These numbers were 15.1% for Blacks, 18.6% for Hispanics, 21.7% for essential workers and 30.7% for unpaid caregivers of adults.
  • 21.9% of Hispanics, 24.7% of essential workers and 32.9% of unpaid adult caregivers started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19.

You wouldn’t know from the title, but our team has pulled together some remarkable resources for pastors and church leaders interested in supporting the emotional well-being of their people under the banner of our upcoming Online Pastors’ Retreat (OPR). Here’s a sneak preview of some of the content being made available under the banner of the OPR.

Heather Sells (CBN News) will interview prominent pastors and ministry leaders who discuss their personal experiences with mental health and share their observations about the best ways to minister to those navigating mental and emotional health issues. Guests include Dr. Jack Graham (Prestonwood Baptist Church), Amy Simpson (Author of Troubled Minds), Joe Padilla, (Mental Health Grace Alliance), Brad Hoefs, Founder of Fresh Hope for Mental Health and Dylan Dodson, (New City Church, Raleigh, NC). In a separate presentation, Pastor Dodson discusses practical strategies for walking through tragedies with people in your church.

Brad Hambrick (Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, NC) will be discussing how to use the Bible effectively with someone who has experienced trauma. His presentation has been designed for anyone who provides pastoral care with victims of abuse, first responders (police officers, medical professionals, etc.), persons serving in the military or couples who have lost a child.

Ben O’Dell (Mental Health Liaison for the HHS Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives) will introduce the Partnership Center’s Compassion in Action Guide – a compendium of resources, “best practices,” and innovative services to help pastors and other church staff to address mental illness in their churches and communities. The guide presents seven key principles to implementation of mental health support.

Evan Owens (Reboot Recovery) will be sharing a presentation for pastors and church leaders designed to help those who minister with first responders and their loved ones assist them in healing from the moral and spiritual wounds associated with service-related trauma during a time in which COVID-19, civil unrest and a barrage of economic challenges have pushed many heroes to the brink

Dr. Matthew Stanford  (Hope and Healing Institute, Houston TX) will be providing an overview of their Gateway to Hope (GTH) training – an interactive, evidence-based, mental health awareness training and education program offered online free of charge to interested churches. GTH training equips pastors, ministry staff, and volunteers to identify mental health problems early, refer distressed individuals to professional care, offer evidence-based psychoeducational services on site, and provide a therapeutic community to support recovery. He will discuss how churches might use the training to enhance their ability to minister to those living with serious mental illness and their families.

We’re blessed to be able to share these resources, along with a comprehensive series of videos on developing a mental health inclusion strategy and interventions common among mental health-friendly churches. They accompany an extensive series of resources of self-care for pastors and church staff that compose the “retreat” portion of the OPR. We were blown away by the the willingness of so many prominent church leaders to contribute their time and wisdom to the retreat. Some of the speakers and their topics include:

Kay WarrenTruth, Sorrow and Hope in Mental Illness

Pete Scazzaro – The Emotionally Healthy Pastor

William VanderbloemenRebuilding Your Broken World

Michael Lyles, MDHow to be a Mary in a Martha World

More speakers and content will be announced throughout this week. The content and interactive discussions will be initially be made available on October 5-7, but all resources will be available for years to come. There’s no expiration date for access to the OPR.

Thanks to our partners at Amplify Social Media, the OPR is being made available at a very modest cost. Click here to learn more about the retreat, or here if you’re ready to register.

We’d love for you to learn more about caring for the people of your church who are hurting while getting yourself and your ministry colleagues support for your own mental health and the mental health of your family during a challenging season of ministry.

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In Mental Health and the Church: A Ministry Handbook for Including Children and Adults with ADHD, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, and Other Common Mental Health Conditions, Dr. Stephen Grcevich presents a simple and flexible model for mental health inclusion ministry for implementation by churches of all sizes, denominations, and organizational styles. The book is also designed to be a useful resource for parents, grandparents and spouses seeking to promote the spiritual growth of loved ones with mental illness. Available now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, ChristianBook and other fine retailers everywhere.

 

 

 

 

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The best at what she does

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9 (ESV)

Barb Newman is very sick. I want her to know how much our team appreciates the ministry she’s provided for many years to the kids and families of Zeeland Christian School, to churches and Christian schools through the work of All Belong, and to the entire field of disability ministry through her writing, speaking and teaching. I’m writing today because I want our friend to know how much we value her and the gifts she’s given to us and everyone else serving in the disability ministry field.

I felt very unsettled in the early days of our team getting out to conferences and networking in the children’s and family ministry communities after observing the extent to which ministry leaders in those areas were engaged in ruthless self-promotion and discovering that a lot of the teaching and content available at that time wasn’t very good. I came into ministry from a medical world in which excellence was demanded. I’d expected excellence would be a given in work being done in the name of God, but that wasn’t in many instances what I found. With regard to the practical, “how-to” of doing ministry with families of kids with severe disabilities, Barb’s writing and teaching was the first content that reflected a level of excellence in caring for and supporting individuals and families impacted by disabilities consistent with what I’d come to expect from my exposure to academic medicine.

I came to recognize Barb’s superior abilities as a teacher and have seen the ways in which God has used her extraordinary gifts to bless the disability community. Barb is able to talk about kids with incredibly complex conditions such as autism in such a way that pastors, ministry leaders, fellow educators and Sunday school volunteers are able to grasp the best ways to lend support while communicating the love of Christ. Her work has provided a foundation to others in the disability ministry field who have continued to build upon it. When I was working on Mental Health and the Church, I wanted the book to be as good as Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship and Autism and Your Church. She’s set the standard for the field.

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

Philippians 1:15-18 (ESV)

Barb has always been extraordinarily generous with her time and talents and actively sought to collaborate in any opportunity to advance the field of disability ministry and disability inclusion. She’s been a great encouragement to emerging authors and leaders. Her humility and willingness to work with others despite her superior abilities has greatly contributed to the spirit of collaboration throughout the disability ministry movement and served as an authentic reflection of Christ.

To Live Is Christ

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.

Philippians 1:18b-26 (ESV)

With all that said, I think Barb has done some of her most impactful ministry in the last three months, since being diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma of the uterus – a very aggressive form of cancer that metastasized to her brain. I’d encourage everyone to check out the journal Barb and her family have maintained since her cancer was identified nearly three months ago. In mental health ministry, we often find ourselves wresting with the implications of Philippians 4:6-7. Through her illness, Barb has been the embodiment of what Paul described as “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.” I’ll pray that if given the opportunity, the Holy Spirit will enable me to finish my race as well as Barb is finishing hers.

Here’s my favorite talk of Barb’s, from our Inclusion Fusion Live conference in 2018. She shared the idea of “puzzle piece learning” – a wonderful vision of what inclusion might look like in the church and in Christ’s kingdom.

While we’ll continue to pray that God would glorify himself through healing Barb completely of her cancer and giving her many more years of serving families with disabilities and the church, if he chooses not to do so we’ll be happy for our friend that she’ll be with Jesus forever in his kingdom along with many, many people who came to know him through churches and schools Barb trained to welcome them. We’ll also be comforted thanks to Barb’s generosity with her wisdom and knowledge, there are many gifted teachers and leaders prepared to continue her work.

Thanks Barb! We’ll see you soon.

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An event promoting mentally healthy pastors and churches

Church always has been a place where people can act foolish with little consequence — where people have the space to act out toward clergy in ways that aren’t safe to do toward their bosses or their spouses. Being a pastor never has been easy, but this is a new level of hell that pastors are living.

I came across the above quote in this article written by a pastor about the struggles of his fellow pastors in a Facebook post from a pastor who used to serve at my church highlighting the burdens that pastors and church staff have been experiencing while doing ministry in the middle of a pandemic. A study from the Barna Group in the early days of COVID-19 noted three in ten pastors (31%) say they are currently struggling the most with their emotional well-being, while a quarter (26%) say this about their relational well-being.

When I think about the families I work with through my practice and the leaders I come in contact with through our ministry, few professions have faced more adversity during the pandemic than folks serving on staff at church. I’ve previously referenced the Social Readjustment Rating Scale – a tool used to calculate the risk of medical illness based upon the individual’s experience of 43 potentially stressful life events in the past year.  The higher the score, and the larger the weight of each event, the more likely the individual was was to become ill. Consider what many in ministry have experienced so far during 2020 from the list of stressful events…

  • Business readjustment (39 “stress points”)
  • Change in financial state (38)
  • Change in responsibilities at work (29)
  • Spouse begins or stops work (26)
  • Revision of personal habits (24)
  • Change in work hours or conditions (20)
  • Change in church activities (19)

A recent study from the City College of New York and Duke University demonstrated that higher levels of spiritual well-being were protective against increased depressive symptoms in pastors, even when controlling for perceived emotional support.

Our team had been wrestling with what we might do to be supportive of our brothers and sisters involved in ministry while helping them care for individuals and families inside and outside of their churches who are struggling during this time. We came up with the idea of an event focusing on pastors, mental health and the church combining an online retreat with a mental health ministry conference. We’re planning the event in partnership with a pastor and media consultant (Nils Smith) who has an established track record of success in creating events similar to this one  and has worked with our ministry in the past.

Our Online Pastors’ Retreat seeks to:

  • Provide resources and support to pastors and church staff to help them attend to their mental health needs and the needs of their families.
  • Promote the development of mental health ministry strategies guiding care and support to persons inside the church and outreach to individuals and families with mental health concerns without a church.

We reached out to colleagues involved with mental health ministry along with pastors and other church leaders recognized for their concern for clergy well-being when we came up with the idea for the retreat. We were blown away – and very blessed by the willingness of leaders of churches and ministries far more prominent than ours to participate in the event. Some of the folks who will be participating (in alphabetical order) include…

  • DJ Chuang (Erasing Shame Podcast)
  • Jack Graham (Prestonwood Baptist Church)
  • Brad Hambrick (The Summit Church)
  • Craig Johnson (Lakewood Church)
  • Pete Scazzaro (Emotionally Healthy Discipleship)
  • Heather Sells (Christian Broadcasting Network)
  • Greg Surratt (Seacoast Church)
  • William Vanderbloemen (Vandebloemen Search Group)
  • Kay Warren (Saddleback Church)

You’ll also recognize a number of prominent mental health ministry leaders who have been part of Key Ministry events in the past, including Jermine Alberty, Brad Hoefs, Joe Padilla, Shannon Royce, Amy Simpson and members of our Key Ministry team. We expect to finalize a few additional presenters leading up to the retreat.

The retreat content will first be made available on October 5th-7th. All of the sessions are pre-recorded and will become available to you on those dates. There’s no expiration date so participants may take as much or as little time to watch as you need. We’ve also set the retreat up to be accessed “on-demand,” whenever it’s most convenient for you to do so.  Binge watch like you would a series on Netflix, watch a little in the morning or over your lunch break, or take part of a morning each week to go through it a few sessions at a time.

While the content for the retreat will be available on-demand to be consumed in any order, the event is organized as if it were a three day conference.

Day One presentations are focused on self-care – how to recognize when you need help; how to maintain emotional health in ministry and how to do self-care with a pastor’s schedule.

The Day Two focus is on church care – basics on mental health for pastors and church leaders, understanding the need for staff and volunteers to be trained in Mental Health First Aid and supporting ministry colleagues and individuals and families within your church impacted by mental illness.

Day Three presentations address becoming a mental health-friendly church – introducing a model for developing a mental health inclusion strategy, three models of Christian-based mental health support groups, mental health ministry success stories and emerging mental health ministry models.

Since one of the things we miss the most about live conferences are the connections with the other speakers and attendees, we’ll be building opportunities for interaction into the retreat. There will be discussion questions for some presentations and opportunities to chat via Zoom with the speakers for others. We’ll have a section for comments associated with each presentation similar to the boards commonly used with online college courses. We hope the comments section for each presentation fills up with great insights, questions and engagement.

We’d like to encourage everyone we know who is actively engaged in ministry – pastors, church staff members and their spouses, parachurch ministry leaders and high capacity volunteers to join us as we seek to better understand how to care for ourselves, our families and the people we’re meant to serve in ministry in the midst of a pandemic, economic crisis, a highly divisive culture and social unrest. We’ve sought to keep the cost as modest as possible so that as many pastors and ministry leaders as possible may take part. Check out the retreat website or click here through September 23rd for a $39 “early-bird” rate to access all of the presentations and resources our gifted leaders and speakers have assembled.

Hope you’ll be able to join us in October!
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In Mental Health and the Church: A Ministry Handbook for Including Children and Adults with ADHD, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, and Other Common Mental Health Conditions, Dr. Stephen Grcevich presents a simple and flexible model for mental health inclusion ministry for implementation by churches of all sizes, denominations, and organizational styles. The book is also designed to be a useful resource for parents, grandparents and spouses seeking to promote the spiritual growth of loved ones with mental illness. Available now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, ChristianBook and other fine retailers everywhere.

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The five kids I’m most concerned about this fall

Sad boy, sitting alone, gazing out a window

While much uncertainty remains about the status of sports and other extracurricular activities in our home region, most districts have announced back to school plans. Only 38% of Ohio students will be returning to school for full-time, live instruction as the new academic year begins. A quarter of all students will be 100% remote at the beginning of the year – disproportionately kids in urban school districts whose learning was most severely impacted when in-person instruction ended this past March. Others will be engaged in “hybrid models” in which they’ll attend school in person on select days of the week and engage in virtual learning from home on others. The bottom line is that over 60% of kids will be spending part if not all of their time at school online when classes start in the next few weeks.

We see kids with a wide range of presenting problems in our child and adolescent psychiatry practice. Some of our patients actually did better emotionally after schools closed last Spring. Kids with social anxiety were much happier when everyone was encouraged to stay at home and isolate themselves from others. Some patients with academic problems were happier because performance expectations went out the window in most school districts when the pandemic hit. Homework became optional and grading was often extraordinarily generous. School closures and social distancing reduced opportunities for the relationship drama that often leads to depression, self-injury and suicide attempts.

With that said, I’m anticipating the coming school year will be much, much worse when it comes to children, teens and mental health concerns. The reality is beginning to set in that the pandemic is going to be with us for a long time. Our practice expects many kids won’t set foot in a classroom for the entire school year. Parents and public officials are going to demand higher academic standards. We have no research on the impact of such prolonged school closures on an entire generation of kids. The strain on families to support their children’s education while maintaining their jobs will be immense – if they still have jobs. Consider the grief so many kids will experience this year – not simply the loss of family members to COVID-19, but grief from lost experiences. Opportunities to participate in sports, play the lead in the musical, go to homecoming or prom, visit prospective colleges, host or attend birthday parties or take school trips. Missing out on Sunday school, youth group, family vacations and time with grandparents. The list is endless.

Boy wearing a mask while doing school from home on a computer

Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels

Based upon my observations from thirty years as a child psychiatrist and experiences with kids and families, here are five groups of kids I’m most concerned about this school year.

Kids with OCD. My patients with OCD need to be busy. With greatly shortened school days, elimination of extracurricular activities and lack of access to friends they had far too much time to obsess on negative thoughts and fewer distractions from their perseveration. Many spiraled down into intense episodes of depression. Over 60% of teens with OCD will experience at least one episode of depression by age 18. I’m most concerned about suicide in my patients with OCD. They will likely require more aggressive treatment if in-person school and extracurricular activities are shut down for an extended time. Some patients who have responded well to therapy alone may need medication. Others may need more frequent or intensive therapy.

Kids with autism spectrum disorders. My patients with autism are most dependent upon an established routine. School is also essential for acquisition of social skills. Consider a few challenges students with autism will experience as school begins…

  • Sensory issues with PPE – masks, shields and other protective equipment.
  • Processing social cues when teachers and classmates are wearing masks.
  • Getting adequate preparation for entering back into a very different school routine at a time when educators are still figuring out the school routine. Opportunities to visit schools and meet teachers prior to the first day of class and social stories will be especially important for successful transitioning.

They often experience challenges similar to kids with OCD with perseveration on negative thoughts when they have too much free time. Significant regression developmentally or more frequent or severe episodes of aggression are two signs that their educational and mental health treatment needs should be re-evaluated.

Kids with ADHD. Most of my patients with ADHD had significantly more difficulty maintaining focus for school on a computer screen last Spring than they did in a classroom. They’re exposed to far more potential distractions at home. Schools struggled to provide support with organization and planning remotely that many of our kids with ADHD and their families depend upon. More importantly, the structure (predictable expectations, rules and routine that enable them to devote more cognitive resources to important tasks at hand) they depend upon will be non-existent in too many school districts at the beginning of they year. Too much free time was a challenge for them back in April and May. Procrastination became a larger problem. With a shortened school day and no extracurricular activities many kids from our practice sensed less urgency to  do homework at a specific time. Many struggled greatly with not knowing where to find their assignments or how to turn them in when the transition to online school took place.

Parents of kids with ADHD need to recognize that the treatment needs of their children may be very different if they’re attending school from home and are encouraged to discuss the issue with professionals serving their child. I have patients who will have different medication plans this fall for virtual school and in-person instruction because their needs are so different at home as opposed to a classroom.

Kids with dyslexia or other learning disorders. Without the one-to-one and small group instruction with specially trained teachers or private tutoring (where available and affordable), they’ll likely fall further behind their peers educationally and struggle more with self-confidence.

Kids with anxiety disorders. Children and adults with anxiety tend to overestimate the level of risk in new or unfamiliar situations – a situation that clearly applies this fall whether the child will be going back to a bricks and mortar school or doing school from home. The more kids can visualize of how school will be different this fall, through in-person tours, videos from teachers, and video or pictures of what to expect on the bus, during recess, lunchtime, gym, transitions from class to class and during their actual classes, the easier re-entry into school is likely to be. Kids with a history of separation anxiety are likely to have a more difficult time returning to in-person school the longer they’re away.

What do parents need to keep in mind this Fall in looking after children with a history of mental health treatment or vulnerability to emotional, behavioral or academic concerns? Here are three thoughts:

  1. Treatment approaches that worked in the past may not work this year. There are too many psychological and environmental factors at play. Our practice expects to see a lot of kids who had been effectively managed to this point by their pediatrician or primary care physician.
  2. Parents need to be diligent about addressing their personal mental health. We see this all the time – parents attend to the needs of their children when they won’t take care of themselves. Your kids learn how to manage difficult times by watching YOU. You’re best able to care for and support your children when you’re the best you can be.
  3. Kids who haven’t needed mental health services prior to this year may need them now. Here’s list of eleven simple signs that a child may be suffering from a mental illness, developed by the Mayo Clinic with support from the National Institute of Mental Health. The list aims to help separate warning signs of illness from typical moodiness and occasional disruptive behavior like defiance, aggression, and impulsivity. Presence of one or more of these signs indicates a child or teen is in need of care.
  • Feeling very sad or withdrawn for two or more weeks
  • Seriously trying to harm or kill himself, or making plans to do so
  • Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason, sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing
  • Involved in multiple fights, using a weapon, or wanting badly to hurt others
  • Severe, out-of-control behavior that can hurt himself or others
  • Not eating, throwing up or using laxatives to make herself lose weight
  • Intensive worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities
  • Extreme difficulty in concentrating or staying still that puts her in physical danger or causes school failure
  • Repeated use of drugs or alcohol
  • Severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
  • Drastic changes in her behavior or personality

 

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Ministry in a post-Coronavirus world

 

Church as we knew it before the second Sunday in March is never going to return to “normal.” Two developments from the past fourteen days illustrate the extent of disruption resulting from closures ordered to reduce spread of the virus.

The Barna Group released results of a survey conducted in late April and early May indicating one in three practicing Christians (defined as people who identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month pre-COVID) has stopped attending church during COVID-19. Out of that sample, slightly more than half of the respondents had exclusively viewed online services from their own church or supplemented their church’s online worship with content from other churches. The statistic I would find most alarming as a church leader is that 46% of practicing Christians were exclusively viewing content from other churches or not engaging online at all with the church they had regularly attended.

An interesting and somewhat counterintuitive finding from the Barna study is that the demographic most likely to maintain engagement with church online were “Boomers” – (adults between the ages of 55-74 for the purpose of this survey) while 35% of “Gen Xers” (ages 37-55) and half of “Millennials” (ages 22-36) have stopped attending church altogether, despite their greater familiarity with the apps and technology necessary for online engagement.

The ranks of “committed Christians” will shrink significantly following COVID-related social distancing. I’d hypothesize a subgroup of Gen Xers and Millennials will come back when we’re able to minister effectively with kids whose primary motivation for attending is their desire for their children to have a foundation in the faith. Many who attended out of habit won’t be coming back after establishing a weekend routine that doesn’t involve church. One comment I hear with surprising regularity in my social circles is of boredom during worship services because they’ve “heard it all” already – one possible explanation for why nearly a third of survey respondents reported checking out other churches online.

Unrelated to COVID, I’d expect to see many leave the church in parts of the country where membership serves as a networking tool and indicator of social status. Being part of a church is more likely to be a hindrance than a help career-wise in the coming decade, especially for attenders working for large corporations and those in industries where support for a Biblical sexual ethic is problematic – technology, academia, social services and the legal profession, to name a few.

Photo courtesy of North Point Ministries

 

The second bombshell that dropped early last week was the announcement by Andy Stanley, the highly influential pastor and founder of North Point Ministries that the megachurches affiliated with their ministry decided to suspend in-person adult worship services for the remainder of 2020. Subsequent to Andy’s announcement, the Barna group’s weekly survey reported that 5% of pastors don’t expect their churches to resume adult worship this year. Here are three excerpts from an interview Andy did earlier this week for Christianity today reflecting the thinking behind the decision.

Here is where I think the church needs to think about this: As a local church, we have limited time, limited staff, and limited resources; it makes no sense to focus our staff time and resources on creating a subpar environment on Sunday morning for a nine and 11 o’clock service that only 20% of the people may attend.

What we can do for the community is to reallocate assets and resources, to serve the community, to get more involved with our community charities that we support all year long, and to raise money for organizations. This is an incredible opportunity for the church to be seen doing good. This is important. It is not enough for the church to do good. The church must be seen doing good.

The communication has been, we love you too much to open the doors on Sunday morning, let’s focus on doing stuff for the community, but at the same time we’re doing not just zoom groups. Our middle schoolers meet in driveways. We call them driveway groups. We’ve encouraged people to come to the campus, bring their chairs, circle up, have your small group in the parking lot and the grass. So the church is not closed. We’ve just suspended our Sunday morning gatherings.

Change that would have occurred gradually over the next ten years will take place in the next 12-24 months thanks to the disruption from COVID.

Serving in the medical profession, I’ve had lots of experience with disruptive change. COVID may be the third major disruption in the field since I graduated med school 34 years ago, the first being managed care and the second the corporatization of medicine. The extent of disruption to the day to day work of ministry caused by COVID is going to take a heavy toll in terms of both physical and mental health for pastors and church staff. To compound the challenge of needing to rethink pretty much everything they do, church leaders will also be impacted by:

  • Less money. Between the folks no longer contributing because they drifted away from church and the tens of millions of people who who have lost jobs or businesses, financial resources are likely to become much tighter in years ahead.
  • Fewer volunteers. Volunteers are the currency of ministry to the extent that it’s impossible to run a church without them. Who teaches Sunday school? Runs the nursery? Hosts youth group? Our church (pre-COVID) did great respite nights for families of kids with disabilities. Hosting 80 kids might require 200+ volunteers. Where are they coming from?
  • The challenges of doing ministry in a culture increasingly composed of hostile, secular people.

In many ways, Key Ministry offers a useful model for what ministry might look like after COVID. Huge mission. Dependent upon a relatively small staff and an even smaller budget.

Based on our experiences, here are some thoughts about the approaches of churches likely to survive and thrive after COVID and how our team is planning to navigate the months and years ahead.

Churches in a position to impact their communities when this is over will need to become very good at identifying people with gifts, talents and vision for ministry and resourcing and empowering them to do serve where God has uniquely placed them vocationally and geographically. Our team is continually on the lookout for leaders with new ideas on disability ministry and eager to provide them with opportunities to share ideas and influence a larger audience. If I’m leading a church, I’m looking for members and attendees with ideas and opportunities for doing good, offering ministry staff to come alongside them and allocating my missions budget to support them.

Thriving churches will effectively integrate “face to face” ministry and online community. Our experience has been that online relationships become more meaningful and impactful when we have opportunities for interaction in the physical presence of one another. The next time we’re able to do a live and in-person ministry conference, we’re going to be building in more opportunities for church staff and volunteers and family members to hang out with the speakers and authors whose work they follow online. For a church, this might mean hosting special events where predominantly online attendees get to spend time with pastors and staff who represent the “face” of the ministry. It might mean providing child care and supports so the parents of kids with disabilities in online small groups occasionally have the opportunity to get together in person. It might involve a roundtable discussion of that week’s sermon led by a pastor that can be joined either in person or virtually by online attendees. The more leaders you can identify to represent your church online, the less likely they are to experience interaction fatigue.

The church needs to develop more sustainable career models for ministry leaders. Burnout is likely to become ubiquitous among pastors and church staff over the next 12-24 months. If I were running a seminary, I would want every one of my graduates to have the necessary knowledge and experience to support themselves and their families outside of paid ministry work for an extended period of time. In the course of my day job I’ve come across far too many situations where leaders have given all they have to give to the point of becoming utterly ineffective who find themselves unable to step away from ministry because their families would be destitute without a paycheck. As we look to grow our ministry team going forward, our team will continue to depend upon co-vocational staff who will be able to continue to serve in ministry during times when we wouldn’t otherwise have the funds to pay them.

Where does that leave our field? The background for this discussion is that we need to understand what churches are going through to appreciate their ability to minister with families impacted by disability and how they might minister most effectively. As our team plans for the remainder of this year and a 2021 during which COVID will likely continue to cause extreme disruption to large group activities, here are some of the approaches we’re considering:

A focus on building relationships with church leaders – perhaps through providing care and support. Pastors and church staff should be thought of as “first responders” during the pandemic. The lack of resources for pastors and their family members struggling with mental health issues is a disgrace. In the same way that pastors with children or grandchildren with autism and other developmental disabilities were the original champions of special needs ministry, church leaders with firsthand experience with mental illness are most likely to appreciate the need for inclusive ministry.

We envision getting out on the road as soon as it’s safe to do so and setting aside more time for one to one conversations when we do do. COVID hasn’t changed the need for pastors and church leaders to access high quality disability and mental health ministry training within a half-day drive of where they live getting out and meeting leaders in person. We’ll also plan more opportunities for face to face interaction at big conferences. 

We’re going to be spotlighting individuals, churches and organizations doing disability ministry outside the walls of the church. The church is open wherever and whenever the people of the church are sharing the love of Christ with someone in need. At a time when Christians and Christianity are viewed negatively by large segments of the population, the people of the church need to be seen doing good!

We’ll continue to seek out leaders who are developing innovative approaches to disability ministry in the midst of COVID while expanding our ability to put their ideas in front of as many pastors, church staff and volunteers as possible, while maintaining as much flexibility as possible. The ability to rapidly change direction during this time is critical. Carey Nieuwhof, the influential pastor and blogger recently said that “agility is the new superpower.” Strategies will change, but the mission remains the same.

God’s going to use this time for good. The other day, I saw these tweets as part of a thread from Beth Moore and found them to be a good description of where we’re at as a church. We’ll be OK.

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Join the Key Ministry team on Wednesday, July 22 at 12:00 PM as we talk with Shannon Royce, Esq., head of the Center For Faith & Opportunity Initiatives in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Shannon will discuss “Compassion in Action,” a newly published guide designed to help churches and other faith communities care well for individuals living with mental illness. We’ll also talk about other initiatives from The Partnership Center to help churches support the mental health needs of the people within churches and the local community.Learn more or register here:

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A new mental health resource for churches from an unlikely place

For the last 2 ½  years, Catherine and I have had the privilege of being part of a most unlikely and extraordinary group of religious leaders and Federal government officials looking at how congregations from America’s diverse faith traditions might better care for and support individuals and families affected by mental illness, organized by the Office of Faith-Based Partnerships in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  This past week, HHS released a resource developed by the group that we highly recommend to churches of all Christian traditions.

Compassion in Action: A Guide for Faith Communities Serving People Experiencing Mental Illness  is available as a free download through the HHS website.  The guide is organized around seven key principles applicable in all faith traditions that offer a way for spiritual leaders to address mental illness in the communities they serve. The guide also identifies concrete houses of worship might take to “put their compassion into action.”

Each of the seven principles is accompanied by a set of action steps informed by the wisdom of the 75 faith leaders, academics, caregivers, and mental health professionals experienced in addressing mental illness in their own communities, accompanied by a compilation of resources applicable within and across faith traditions. 

The guide is an excellent resource to share with pastors, elders and ministry leaders as an educational tool on mental illness and a spark to discussions on ways churches might better care for and support affected families. Consider it background reading for leaders prior to implementation of a mental health strategy based upon the model presented in Mental Health and the Church.

The HHS Partnership Center has a webinar –  The Seven Principles for Faith Communities Addressing People Experiencing Mental Illness and Their Caregivers offering an overview of the principles in the Guide scheduled for Tuesday, June 23rd at 12:00 PM. Free registration is available here This is the first segment in a webinar series intended to encourage more faith communities to walk with and provide community for a lifetime to persons impacted with mental illness.  

I’d shared previously that the HHS initiatives represent a small component of a much larger effort initiated by a law passed at the end of the previous administration – The 21st Century Cures Act. Through this Act (Public Law 114-255), the Interdepartmental Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee (ISMICC) was established to recommend actions that federal departments can take to better coordinate the administration of mental health services for adults with a serious mental illness or children with a serious emotional disturbance. Leaders serving on ISMICC came to recognize the large body of evidence that religious belief is associated with significantly better mental health outcomes.

Much of the credit for this amazing work rests with Shannon Royce. Shannon serves as Director of the Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives at HHS and has a long history of mental health advocacy. We became familiar with her work while she led Chosen Families, a non-profit organization that championed the needs of families impacted by “hidden disabilities.” She is a longtime advocate for mental health ministry within the Southern Baptist Convention, her home denomination.

Through our participation in these initiatives I was encouraged to encounter very good people in the government highly committed to supporting children and adults with mental illness and their families. All of this work was done by an incredibly diverse group of leaders, many of whom come from religious traditions both within and outside of Christianity very different from our own. This interfaith effort stands out as a beacon of hope at a time when the divisiveness in our country around the function and role of government is overwhelming. 
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Our team at Key Ministry has assembled a COVID-19 resource center for churches and families. Find trainings and resources created by our team, along with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Faith-Based Partnership Center, the Centers for Disease Control, Saddleback Church and others. Check it out today.

 

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Why families think online church is indispensable for disability ministry

One unanticipated blessing of the disruption caused by COVID-19 is the appreciation we’ve gained for being gathered together for worship.

We’ve also had a relatively brief taste of what church is like for families caring for children with intellectual, developmental, mental health and complex medical disabilities. For the past three months they’ve been on a level playing field with the rest of us when it comes to taking part in worship, fellowship and Christian education activities, eagerly accessing ministry available online. Many legitimately fear they’ll be left behind and quickly forgotten as church life gets back to “normal.” The church can’t let that happen.

I’d argue that online church services, small groups and Christian education have become indispensable disability ministry tools over the last several months. Many of the families our ministry helps churches serve strongly agree. Here are three reasons why.

Life may not return to normal for them for a very long time.

Before the virus had spread widely throughout the U.S., we anticipated the disability community would be more severely impacted  by COVID-19. That’s proven to be true. A recent study reported that children under 18 with intellectual or developmental disabilities were nearly nine times more likely to contract COVID-19 and sixteen times more likely to die from it than age-matched peers. Adults with autism and other developmental disabilities are twice as likely to contract COVID-19 and twice as likely to die when they become infected, while those  living in group homes have a COVID-19 mortality rate four times that seen in “neurotypicals” who become infected. A researcher from the University of Colorado described COVID-19 as the “perfect storm” for persons with Down syndrome as a result of the the immune dysregulation caused by trisomy 21.

Evana Sandusky is a speech and language pathologist who serves in special needs ministry while raising her daughter with Down syndrome. She writes here of her concerns as churches transition back to in-person worship. The bold type is hers.

I cannot wait to go back to church, but it will not be anytime soon. My daughter is medically complex and falls into the at-risk category. To put her health history briefly, she sees a cardiologist for two different heart conditions and a pulmonologist for four different lung issues. For a number of reasons, our family will be avoiding situations that have substantial crowds for some time.

The idea of staying home to protect our daughter is nothing new for our family. At different times, our daughter’s medical team has suggested that we conduct school at home and avoid crowds for varying amounts of time in order to minimize risks for her. With COVID-19, we will be listening to those team members again on how to safely return to those riskier parts of life.

There is something I would like to remind people as churches reopen: do not forget about the at-risk families. I know everyone is excited and grateful to be reunited in person again. As you gather together to sing and pray, please remember that not everyone is there with you. You may feel happy to return and elated that things are becoming more normal. However, there are families like mine that are still muddling through without the sense of community at church services.

She expresses a hope that families like her won’t be forgotten during the return to church.

For those returning to church, pray for families like mine. Ask God to give us more strength to sustain us through the isolation that has been happening. Reach out to help us make those connections that we cannot do from a computer screen. Please remember that your whole church body is not completely together yet.

How can we deprive our families of the ministry supports we used to get through quarantine when their ongoing isolation is likely to persist for many more months?

Online ministry is effective for outreach and few people groups are more in need of outreach from churches than families of kids with disabilities.

Many of my friends in disability ministry have seen this slide, but it demonstrates the impact of common mental and developmental disabilities in children on family church attendance.

Six months ago an argument could easily be made that most churches didn’t know how to do ministry with people who are cut off for one reason or another from church. That argument is no longer valid. Online services, small groups and Bible studies were a lifeline for untold millions of Christians unable to gather over the past three months because of COVID-19. Why can’t they continue to be a lifeline for:

  • Families who continue to isolate because of COVID-19?
  • Families who can’t leave the house because they can’t find or can’t afford sitters or respite care?
  • Families in which parents never attend church together because they take turns serving as caregiver?
  • Families who choose not to leave the house because the process of transitioning their kids to church is so difficult that parents are exhausted by the time they arrive?

Many churches streamed services over Facebook and encouraged members to invite friends and neighbors without a church. What about continuing to stream services while encouraging members to invite those unable to attend church because of physical, developmental or mental health disabilities?

Many families impacted by disability are describing more joyful, impactful and meaningful experiences of church than they had before COVID-19.

Dr. Janyne McConnaughey is an educator and trauma expert who promotes effective educational, spiritual, and therapeutic methods for the healing of inadequate attachment and childhood trauma. I came across this post of hers in which she described her experience of online church as a trauma survivor as our ministry team was preparing to host one of her webinars.

The book explained how many church experiences are difficult for those who are struggling with mental health–especially anxiety. I deeply understood this problem at many points in my life. While reading, I wondered what it would feel like to be able to experience church online? Not just streamed services, but relational connections all through the week. Could I convince anyone to try it?

Then came a pandemic. What my church (Bethel Church of the Nazarene) has provided during this time has involved me in ways that I truly needed, but was struggling to access by walking in the door. (Healing is a life-time commitment.)

I have met more people than I did in a year. I conducted a Zoom Bible Study and Scott attended a Zoom hangout with the pastor. And then there were times of worship (where my back didn’t hurt while standing). I got to watch both the adult and children’s messages and watch my grandson play cello on a synchronized video. And then last week, I invited a friend from England to attend with me.

Honestly, I will be sad to return to “normal.” I feel like (as the book suggested) that my time online will help me to feel more a part of the church when I return, but there are so many things I will miss. I understand it has been hard work for the staff, but their creativity and dedication has not gone unnoticed.

For those who long to be together again, I want that for you. There were times in my life when I would have felt exactly the same. But anyone who says that their right to worship together has been withheld from them, may have missed the best opportunity of all time. The pandemic forced churches to think differently, and for those who struggle with traditional formats, this has been a gift.

The church has not been hindered–I am grateful for my church leaders who have kept us both connected and safe! Thanks for proving it was possible!

We asked families served by our parent support ministry if online church (worship services, small groups, Christian education) has been helpful to them and whether they want churches to continue online services after life returns to normal, along with asking about the negatives of having church online? Here are some of the comments they shared.

We love online church. Our daughter with special needs cant go often to church so one or both of us stay home. Our church didn’t have online services until this pandemic. Now we can be a part of our services every week. The podcasts arent the same. And they didn’t include the worship, which is so important.

Church is my son’s happy place. Online services help us stay connected and not feel so disconnected.

We have missed live church. While our church does not have a special needs ministry per se (although we would love that!), the children’s ministry has the ability to have volunteers stay with our kids and any other children who were overwhelmed in a dedicated room. It allowed my husband and I to worship without worrying about our kid. While we have tried to keep our kids occupied so we could watch a Sunday service, inevitably something would always come up with one or both and we would get pulled away.

My kids have really enjoyed the online church services because going to church in person is so hurtful to them. They both have autism, and no one really engages them in conversation at all, other than to say hello. They feel ignored.

My family has truly enjoyed the laid back on the couch watch service when it fits best for us online services. Yet I truly love being able to worship with our congregation. I enjoy having the option and hope it continues so that if one of the kids are sick we can still enjoy the service without being split up, especially during winter months!

Being parents to a total care son we have loved online church..

I miss the singing and the personal connection to people. Many in our small church are older and don’t have internet connection, so we are looking forward to having parking lot services together as soon as possible! I have enjoyed hearing the sermons on-line though. Discussing the sermons with others helps get them into my long-term memory and apply them to my life..

If your church is has an online presence and an interest in disability ministry, your online presence needs to be a critical component of your disability ministry strategy.

For more on this topic, I included an entire chapter in Mental Health and the Church on the topic of developing a church-wide communication strategy that incorporates online ministry.

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In Mental Health and the Church: A Ministry Handbook for Including Children and Adults with ADHD, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, and Other Common Mental Health Conditions, Dr. Stephen Grcevich presents a simple and flexible model for mental health inclusion ministry for implementation by churches of all sizes, denominations, and organizational styles. The book is also designed to be a useful resource for parents, grandparents and spouses seeking to promote the spiritual growth of loved ones with mental illness. Available now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, ChristianBook and other fine retailers everywhere.

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Race, reconciliation, disability and the church

Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

Ephesians 2:12-16 (ESV)

If we’re to have any hope of putting our society back together, the church will have a very large role to play in that task. A good place for us to start is by showing concern and support for some of our friends and neighbors who are going through an especially difficult time.

In my job as a child and adolescent psychiatrist I get to witness lots of pain and sadness. In that context, the extent of the hurt and fear and many of our African-American friends and neighbors are experiencing is overwhelming.

Even after 30-plus years of working with kids and families, I never fully appreciated the level of fear common to parents of Black kids that something bad will happen to them because of their race. In the last few days, I’ve seen story after story after story in my Facebook feed about police showing up at their homes after their child went door to door looking for pet-sitting jobs or was simply playing in the neighborhood. Stories of parents having to have a different kind of “talk” with their teens when they get their first driver’s license.

I’ve learned of concerns of parents raising Black kids with disabilities that I never knew to ask about before. A woman who writes for our ministry described her terror when her son with autism left their yard and climbed into a car appearing very similar to hers in the driveway of a neighbor who is a combat veteran with severe PTSD. We know that African-American families impacted by mental illness may experience unique challenges in approaching their churches for care and support – a huge consideration at a time when anxiety and depression are present in record levels and members of the Black community are at heightened risk for mental health issues as a result of trauma, toxic stress and fear of profiling while wearing face masks.

Everyone’s struggling right now, but our black friends and neighbors collectively have it worse. Blacks are more likely to have lost jobs because of COVID-19 related closures. They have all kinds of elevated risk factors for the virus, including a lack of health insurance, disproportionate representation in frontline jobs, living in densely populated areas and living in multigenerational households where it is more difficult to take precautions to protect older family members or isolate them when they’re sick. The latest overall COVID-19 mortality rate for Black Americans is 2.4 times as high as the rate for Whites and 2.2 times the rate for Asians and Latinos.

Yesterday morning a psychologist friend reached out to me who had been broken by a recent experience. To put this in context, she’s an expert in trauma who runs an orphan care ministry and makes several trips to Africa each year to serve children of parents who died from AIDS, or political strife. In her role as an organizational coach she’d recently been invited to work with a predominantly African-American church. Here’s a portion of the story she related to me…

My brain is mush. I heard back from a 70 year old sweet lady. Her daddy and MLK senior worked together joining the black universities of the south. I just listened for about three hours last night to the pain she feels and how the black community feels paralyzed and in chaos right now. We unpacked that for awhile and why the current hurts are more crippling than the past. She said a few key leaders would like to talk to me as well to try to unpack the pain and find their way forward. I feel very unqualified after seeing through her eyes and humbled that I am who they are wanting to speak to.

After hearing about her witnessing her great grandpa’s lynching in the front yard and watching her family take his body down and so much more …. I’ve realized I’ve lived in a bubble.

I rescheduled my patients today so I could be at the Black Lives Matter rally in Chagrin Falls, It’s the least I can do to show my support for the families raising Black kids served by our practice. I also want visitors from outside our town attending the rally today to know there are Christians living here who will welcome them and help them feel safe when the boarded up windows throughout our downtown might convey a different impression.

Our ministry will be sharing content on the influence of race and ethnicity on the experience of disability. You can expect to hear from a number of our writers and speakers, as well as new voices from outside of our organization through our blogs, roundtables and webinars.

I’ve been most impacted by the stories shared by friends and neighbors over this past week. We’d like to extend an invitation to our ministry followers, especially our African-American friends to share your experiences of disability as a person of color or member of an ethnic minority. Your stories, which you can choose to share anonymously, will help churches better understand how to welcome and minister with people of all races and ethnicities impacted by physical, developmental, intellectual or mental health disabilities.

We know the lives of our Black brothers and sisters are precious to God. It’s important they know their lives matter to us.

 

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