When liturgy and worship become the work of the people, space for the sacred stories of those living with mental health conditions begin to have space in the collective experience. Isolation can break down and connection can be formed as people begin to understand the deep humanity of their pew neighbor. Remember that worship is a collective act and the collective is only truly inclusive when all can participate in a meaningful way in the act of worship.
Liturgy is by definition the “work of the people” and yet it so often falls to the clergy or church staff to produce a worship experience that people can experience as little or as much as they desire as they sit in the pews. It is a more rarified experience in our congregations in the mainline Protestant traditions to find a church in which the liturgy does indeed rest on the shoulders of the congregation. But, when such a congregation is found, the members of the community often take ownership of their faith in deeply vulnerable and expressive ways. The liturgy program at First Church Somerville, UCC in Somerville, MA, just outside of Boston is detailed in the book Standing Naked Before God by the Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette. (Molly Phinney Baskette, Standing Naked before God: the Art of Public Confession (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2015) I trained as a Student Minister at First Church Somerville and experienced first hand the powerful experience of a lay person confessing publicly, inviting people into their own stories with vulnerability and courage, offering assurance, and inviting people into grateful giving. This practice transforms the nature of communal worship altogether, from what can sometimes become a performative consumer product into a sacred space of honest growth and connection.
Worship can be a source of grounding and a way to remind ourselves of who we truly are, as individuals, as part of a larger group, and as beings made by God. Worship can reduce our self focus as we consider God, creation, and others. Worship can help us to offload guilt, worry and anxiety– resolving it through the assurances of God’s Grace.
Worship can be a healing and therapeutic experience for many who live with mental health conditions. It is also an opportunity to face reality and to exist for an hour in the liminal space of God interacting with our present time and space. The worship experience is also a time to invest in oneself and one’s own spiritual path and journey, through reflection, rest, breath, relationship to self/ God/ others. Worship is a space to have as a spiritual safety net as the ups and downs of life roar on outside the sanctuary of worship.
Beyond the creation of intentional worship liturgy opportunities and programs, many pastors still wonder how to actually foster welcoming and warm congregational cultures. Many local church ministers and lay leaders hope that their congregation is one in which human dignity is upheld and yet still struggle to alter the behavior of the church bully or the formation of various coffee hour cliques that exclude rather than include.
Pastors long to go to sleep at night knowing that their flock is being nurtured mind, body, and spirit. If you are a minister or lay leader feeling overwhelmed by the idea of your church culture changing, know that you are not alone in that feeling. Breathe and rest. Reach out for help from congregations that are a few steps ahead of you. Take inventory of the good that is already happening in your community and build on that.
- Did your church book club recently read a book with a mental health theme? Build on that.
- Did you recently preach a sermon in which you mentioned that you have seen a therapist in your own life? Build on that.
Celebrate the small wins and build steadily towards the Kindom of God that we are all called into. Have courage and know that you are not alone in this work.
Begin with worship.
Begin with preaching a sermon that talks about depression, anxiety, therapy, or
Begin with praying for those living with mental health conditions.
Begin with a local therapist being your guest speaker during worship.
Begin with a book study of an entry level mental health text during coffee hour.
Begin with your own internalized stigma and your own life and story.
Begin with asking yourself–
Where has mental health and illness been a part of our worship life so far?
How can it be a part of our worship life moving forward?
Begin with worship.
Rev. Dr. Ciarán Osborn (he/him)
Rev. Dr. Ciarán Osborn is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, serving in the Boston metro area. He has served as Pastor of several UCC churches in the Boston area as well as in clinical Chaplain positions. Throughout his ministry, Rev. Ciarán has officiated weddings, baptisms, and memorial services in the wider community.
Rev. Ciarán also lives with chronic mental health conditions. He writes, teaches, and preaches regularly on the topics of mental health, mental illness, and faith. Rev. Ciarán writes for the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network. Ciarán is a board game nerd and hiking and Krav Maga enthusiast. His family lives in the Boston area and they share their life with numerous dogs and chickens.