“The context in which we develop the spiritual maturity of our congregations must be the transformation of our communities.” Mike Regele, The Death of the Church.
I went to church last night; the pastor spoke on being prepared for the coming of Christ, and a prophetic vision he had several years ago regarding the people who would be coming to church in the near future. Waves of people unlike those we are accustomed to seeing in the seats around us during a weekend service; people you would normally see downtown in line for the buses, or at the Civic Center waiting for social services to help them reassemble the shreds of their lives after personal crisis. (And the often accompanying public humiliation.) The people who make it so very hard to complete the OASAS forms, because their problems don’t quite fit the boxes, and their strengths are relegated to a section of the very last page. Many of my clients are Christians who are well aware that it would be extremely unwise to share anything about their personal struggles with a church leader, or even a pastoral counselor. If they did, they are afraid that they would never be taken seriously as people worth investing the time and energy to disciple them.
Several years ago, a woman I know called the church for help with her son. The woman was a new Christian, who had been visiting the church, and was greatly helped and encouraged by the teaching. Her son was suicidal, and the woman did not know whom to turn to for help; her first instinct was to call the church. When she called, and stated that her son was threatening to kill himself, the very first thing that was said to her by the receptionist was: “Are you a member?” This is inexcusable. To my knowledge, she was not offered prayer, support, or to be connected to pastoral care. So, no, as the pastor said last night, we are not ready. If the majority of my clients were to walk in to church tomorrow, with all of their piercings, tattoos, and sometimes oddly colored hair, would they be respectfully led to the front and allowed to sit with the leaders? Highly unlikely. Would they be allowed to speak to the pastor after service? Probably not, as the ushers are well-trained in sleight-of-hand moves such as quietly (but obviously) making sure that only certain people are allowed to ‘bother’ the pastor. If you have ever stood and waited to ask the pastor about something he just taught on (why in the world would I ask someone else?) and been smoothly re-directed (or even more humiliating, turned away) to someone who doesn’t know the answer to your question, you know what I’m talking about. This is not what the Bible means by “calling and separation”. For someone like me, even just going forward is an effort that takes considerable contemplation, and if I do by some miracle get to say something, what is so well-organized in my head is rarely what I hear coming out of my mouth. I don’t believe I have ever gone up after service without coming away feeling like a complete idiot who can’t formulate a coherent sentence. It is always an embarrassing, dehumanizing experience. People with so-called mental health issues (like depression and anxiety) scare the hell out of the leaders; even more so, the ushers. When I was struggling with severe PTSD after my divorce (on top of my less severe, but equally inconvenient social phobia) God help the usher who tried to put me in the middle of a row, far away from an exit.
A major factor in systems-centered family therapy is that the therapist takes a role within the family unit in order to disrupt the family dynamics, and unseat the tightly held notion of “she/he has a problem and if you could just fix her/him we could all go back to being a happy family.” The unspoken rule: please don’t address our issues, because as you can see, we obviously don’t have any.
We do this in church. The people with obvious issues (depression and anxiety become obvious over time, if the person is at all consistent in attendance) are referred for counseling with a pastoral counselor that they cannot afford. Which is how most of them end up sitting in front of me. (I don’t make a lot of money.) We as a church are so not ready. If Syracuse is literally going to be a City of Refuge in the coming days, is it wrong to think it should be an outgrowth of the church? Admittedly, most pastors and ministers are not trained as trauma therapists. Our church has a better-than-average understanding of psychological terms and concepts, but not so much the practical application of those terms and concepts. Even so, we are more fortunate than most. But far too often, concepts such as differentiation are misconstrued to the point that we are cold and unloving; we build walls, not boundaries. This will not work with the people in the community, and they will come to church on the weekends, but will still end up in line at the Civic Center on Monday.
What struck me personally last night was the fact that I, too, am not ready. My own recent personal crisis has made me self-absorbed and spiritually weak, when it should have strengthened me and woke me up. I myself am not as aware, or willing to be inconvenienced because, well, I have things to do. I have bills piling up; things in the house that need attention, kids who need taking care of, and a car that at some point in the near future is going to stop for a red light and just…..stop. Which means I may be standing on a corner with the rest of the waves of humanity, hoping God will send someone to help me. Except for the fact that if I truly am a minister of God, I am supposed to be there to help them.
“There is so much more we would like to say about this, but it is difficult to explain, especially since you are spiritually dull and don’t seem to listen. You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.” -Hebrews 5:12