Wellbeing in Ministry
It's easy to only speak of mental health when it goes wrong, but what does good mental health look like, and what is the vision the Bible casts for mental health?
Perhaps we first need to talk about what we mean when we talk about mental health.
The World Health Organisation describes mental health as a
"state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community"
And within that framework, it can be helpful to think of mental health as a continuum. There is no binary line between mental health and mental illness, but rather a continuum along which we travel, sometimes multiple times a day. Mental Health First Aid England put together this really helpful graphic which demonstrates that not all emotions that may feel negative (sadness, stress) are signs of mental illness - they are a part of being human In the same way, the graphic shows us that having a diagnosis of mental illness does not mean we can never cope or flourish. We all have mental health, in the same way that we all have physical health - our levels of wellbeing will fluctuate throughout our life, month and even day!
Mental health is this complex mixture of realising potential, of being able to cope with what life throws at us, being able to work - whether paid or voluntarily, inside or outside the home, be a part of a community and have meaningful relationships.
There is something more though; where is God in the midst of mental health?
In the very first pages of scripture we see a vision for mental health and wellbeing that is God-given. In Genesis we're given these two accounts of creation, aren't we? And after the overview of Genesis 1 we zoom in a little for Genesis 2 where we see this beautiful picture of creation as it was meant to be.
Adam and Eve are given this beautiful garden in which they can flourish; we're told that trees that are planted are, 'pleasing to the eye and good for food', demonstrating our need for nourishment of food and our in-built appreciation of beauty.
It's all too easy I think for us to consider beauty as some kind of optional extra in our faith, something frivolous, but we see in this passage that we were created to appreciate beauty - and that experiencing the beauty of the world around us is good for us. It's something that clicked for me almost overnight when I turned thirty! Before then I had always been a resolutely "indoors" kind of person and whilst you aren't likely to find me trekking up a mountain any time soon, I did choose to go to a flower festival on my thirty-first birthday! I've learnt that there is something about being in God's creation which stills my soul, and I'm not the only one. The Mental Health Foundation conducted a study in 2021 which found that 45% of people in the UK found that visiting green spaces helped them cope with their mental health and 70% that being in nature improved their mental health, especially during the pandemic. Author Sarah Clarkson writes that, 'beauty offers us a theodicy of encounter' - when everything feels like it falling apart in our lives - the beauty of the world reminds us of God's power and gentleness.
The second thing God provides is purposeful work. Adam is tasked with working and caring for the garden - and naming all the animals - I tend to think we can imagine Adam having quite a lot of fun for thinking up names for the creatures he came across! We have reduced work to employment and are sometimes inclined to think of work mainly as a result of the Fall rather than pat of creation; but we were made to have purpose and shape our days. The work and roles we play throughout life feed in to our mental health.
Thirdly we see God create the first community, 'It is not good for man to be alone' are his immortal words. In the same way that God exists in relationship with the Son and the Spirit, so he ensures that Adam has someone for companionship and friendship with. This isn't just about marriage - although that's one expression of community - but about living well alongside one another and reflecting our relational God. We were never meant to do life isolated and alone, it's why these past few years have been so difficult, because we were made for one another. It's why at Kintsugi Hope we have wellbeing groups - because we recognise that wellbeing is not something we can have in isolation from others.
And finally, we see a freedom from shame. 'Adam and Eve were both naked and they felt not shame.' Now I'm not suggesting we all abandon our clothing (!) but shame was not part of the plan for humanity. The freedom of a life without shame is something I think few of us can even imagine; but shame is one of the greatest threats to our mental health and wellbeing.
There is loads more in this passage which fleshes out what good, positive mental health and wellbeing looks like; but these four things : beauty, purpose, companionship and freedom from shame sit at the heart of what it means to be human and what being mentally healthy looks like. We see it reflected in the technical definition of mental health given by the World Health Organisation that we saw at the beginning.
Shalom is our vision of mental health - but it's not promised that we will experience it in its fullness until we see a new heaven and a new earth - but hope is not lost for the here and now - because of Jesus.
So how can we look after our mental wellbeing in ministry?
The first thing is that we cannot have good mental wellbeing in isolation; and Professor John Swinton writes,
'The call of Jesus is to hear the cries of love and to move forwards in friendship and in perseverant love; a mode of friendship which destroys stigma and opens up space for all of us together to be fully human even in the midst of our wildest storms.'
We are able to respond to mental health struggles with friendship; both our own and those around us. Jesus reached out to the most marginalised in his society with friendship, he reached out to a hated Zaccheaus and walked alongside the hopeless Cleopas on the road to Emmaus.
Youth and Children's ministry is often a solitary job - even though you might feel surrounded by people - so one of the most important things you can do for your mental wellbeing is to gather together with other youth and children's workers, whether in person or online for mutual support and friendship. This also needs to extend to working practices, ensuring regular line management and supervision is available to everyone.
Secondly, ensure you care for your physical health. Our physical health and mental wellbeing are intricately connected, so doing things that benefit us physically such as getting outside, exercising in some way and having a regular eating and sleeping pattern will help you to better navigate trickier times.
Thirdly, make space for honesty in how you're coping, your relationship with God and what you're facing in your ministry. This might be through a mentoring relationship, some formal counselling or simply among colleagues.
Fourthly, get equipped with a working knowledge of mental health and wellbeing - whether that be formal training or hosting a Kintsugi Hope Mental Health Friendly Church Training Day, Mental Health First Aid or through your reading - mental health is one of the most prominent issues for children and young people - so whatever knowledge you can glean will be valuable for your own wellbeing as well as those you're ministering to.
Finally, make space for lament, both in your ministry and your own spiritual life. We don't have to present our "Sunday Best" for God, and creating a rhythm to offer what hurts to God enables you to both find a language for your emotions, but also make an offering of praise. You might find it helpful to use the church year; highlighting Advent and Lent as specific times of waiting and lament to introduce these concepts into your programme and allow time for them in your own spiritual life.
Rachael Newham is the Mental Health Friendly Church Project Manager at Kintsugi Hope (http://www.kintsugihope.com) and the author or two books; her latest, "And Yet : Finding Joy in Lament" was chosen as a Big Church Read. Prior to this she was founder of Christian mental health charity Think Twice. Rachel writes and speaks widely on issues of faith and mental health and you can find out more by following her on social media @RachaelNewham90