Then this Daniel became distinguished above all the other high officials and satraps, because an excellent spirit was in him. And the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom. Then the high officials and the satraps sought to find a ground for complaint against Daniel with regard to the kingdom, but they could find no ground for complaint or any fault, because he was faithful, and no error or fault was found in him. Then these men said, “We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God.”
Daniel 6:3-5 (ESV)
Ten or so years ago, I was introduced to Shannon Royce while at McLean Bible Church presenting at one of their Accessibility Summits. At the time, Shannon was serving as President of Chosen Families, a non-profit ministry for families living with hidden disabilities, with a focus on autism and mental health concerns. She was one of the first leaders I met in the disability ministry community with an appreciation and awareness of challenges families impacted by mental illness face in being part of church. She was quite gracious and humble, and it was some time until I fully appreciated her accomplishments as a champion for families in our nation’s Capital.
Shannon is an attorney by training who worked as an advocate for parents in conflicts with school systems after having served on the staff of Senator Charles Grassley. She was the Director of the Washington office of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission while serving as an early champion of mental health ministry within her denomination. Four years ago, she was appointed Director of the Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, responsible for building partnerships with community and faith-based organizations, which help HHS serve individuals, families, and communities in need.
One of the tasks HHS became engaged in was implementation of the 21st Century Cures Act – a law passed during the final weeks of President Obama’s administration to accelerate medical innovation and spur cooperation among different agencies of the Federal government in addressing major disease states, one of which is mental illness. Shannon’s office became engaged with the interagency coordinating committee addressing mental illness because of the abundant evidence that participation in religious activities and communities has profound impacts upon mental well-being.
One manifestation of Shannon’s giftedness is her ability to recognize how complex systems and organizations might be leveraged in order to do good. A little over three years ago, I found myself sitting in my car in a parking lot outside Akron Children’s Hospital on a conference call Shannon had organized with a number of other faith leaders wondering where her efforts were leading. I came to discover she’s a true practitioner of three-dimensional chess as I witnessed her plans unfold.
One of the byproducts of Shannon and her team bringing together faith leaders and mental health professionals from a broad array of religious traditions was the opportunity for Christians engaged in mental health ministry from different cultures, ethnic groups and denominational traditions to be introduced to and connect with one another. Before Shannon used her connections and resources to bring people together for these larger government initiatives, our team was connected to a handful of other churches and leaders actively seeking to advance mental health inclusion and ministry in the church. After taking part in her efforts, those connections probably increased by a factor of ten. We met folks from historically Black churches and folks from the Hispanic community doing great work who we may never have otherwise come across and gained a better understanding of the possibilities for mental health ministry.
One of the people I met in-person for the first time as a result of Shannon’s work was Janet Parshall. Without that introduction, I doubt Janet would have served as the featured speaker at our disability ministry conference two years ago and shared this incredible talk that’s now been viewed over 21,000 times. I met Kay Warren for the first time at the same meeting in Washington. Kay and her husband have probably done as much to advance the cause of mental health ministry in the church as anyone. But I’d put Shannon right up there with them. Collaboration between mental health ministry leaders is at least five years ahead of where it would have otherwise been without her efforts. There’s no way we’d have been able to pull together the resources for our online pastors’ retreat without the folks we met through her.
I consider myself blessed to have had the opportunity to observe the grace, maturity and self-control Shannon displayed in living out her faith and leading with excellence in the midst of a city where intense hostility to her values is a daily reality among those seeking power and influence. In that way, I consider her to be a modern-day Daniel. We need more people like her willing to enter into the centers of political and cultural power if we are to stem the steep decline in Christianity’s reputation and influence in America. I would aspire to conduct myself in the medical profession as well as Shannon has while serving in government.
Shannon’s last day in her position was this past Friday. We should hope and pray that the new administration in Washington would appoint someone like her to assume her responsibilities. I’m interested in what God has next in store for her as our faith enters into a modern-day form of cultural exile, not dissimilar to the exile that Daniel was part of during the sixth century B.C.
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Jeremiah 29:5-7 (ESV)
I suspect Shannon would be pleased if the fruits of her work continue to be disseminated. Here’s a link to Compassion in Action: A Guide for Faith Communities Serving People Experiencing Mental Illness. In searching for video of events our ministry took part in through Shannon’s office, I came across this conversation featuring her, Rick Warren and Dr. Frances Collins (Director of the National Institute of Health) on practical ways Christians and other members of faith communities can demonstrate concern and hospitality to their neighbors during COVID-19.
On behalf of our entire ministry team, I’d like to extend our thanks and congratulations to Shannon for the work she and her team accomplished during her time at HHS and for the excellence she demonstrated in living out our faith during her time in Washington. We pray that God will bless you and your family abundantly!