Creating Relational Sustainability Together

In a busy emergency room, chaos reigned as Sarah found herself in the throes of another anxiety attack. Her screams filled the air as she thrashed about, entirely overwhelmed by fear and confusion. A patient care technician (PCT) rushed to her side, attempting to manage her behavior with stern commands and attempts to restrain her. But Sarah grew more frantic, her panic escalating with each passing moment.

Enter Nurse Emily, a seasoned RN with empathy and understanding. Instead of meeting Sarah’s cries with force, she approached her with a calm demeanor and gentle voice. “I hear you’re terrified and don’t know where you are. Is that right?” she asked, mirroring Sarah’s emotions. Sarah’s response was immediate and raw, an affirmation of her feelings. Nurse Emily listened intently to Sarah, reflecting understanding and validation.

Slowly, Sarah’s cries softened. Her frantic movements subsided with Nurse Emily by her side, providing a steady presence of warmth and empathy. The doctors and PCT looked on in amazement as the once-chaotic scene transformed into a quiet calm, demonstrating the profound impact human connection has on mental health and well-being.

Sustainability & Flourishing

In previous articles, we looked at five domains from Dr. Amy L. Sherman’s book Agents of Flourishing: Pursuing Shalom in Every Corner of Society. This month, we finish our Flourishing Series with the final domain: the Sustainable. While the Sustainable domain includes our physical environment, the energy sector, and our climate, this article will focus on human sustainability and the impact a caring community has on the overall health and well-being of those in it. In particular, we will explore what this looks like for churches in a community.

Before we proceed, let’s define some important terms:

  • Shalom – Shalom means peace. Biblical shalom goes beyond peace to include God’s presence, universal flourishing, wholeness, joy, and delight. Complete shalom, flourishing, and sustainability will not happen until Christ returns to establish a new heaven and earth.
  • Flourishing – Isaiah 65:17-25 describes flourishing as the new heaven and earth characterized by God’s presence, joy, the fruitfulness of work, wholeness, and rejoicing.  
  • Agents – In her book, Sherman identifies the agents of change as the Church. Within the Church, there are communities of Christ-followers intent on loving God and loving others by being salt and light and working together for the common good of the community.
  • Sustainability – Sustainability involves businesses, communities, organizations, and churches with practices that promote a sustainable environment and care for the health and well-being of the community.

What Prevents Shalom?

While shalom, flourishing, and sustainability are the goal, there are obstacles. Sherman states that human brokenness damages God’s creation and His original design. The enemy has capitalized on this by sewing seeds of division, conflict, and lies that go against God’s original intent for His creation and humanity. We could summarize these obstacles as the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Silhouette of person looking out window

A Growing Need

In October 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General published Our Epidemic of Isolation and Loneliness. In this 82-page alarm bell, the Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek H. Murphy, states, “Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling—it harms both individual and societal health” and “the mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.” With a nod to the solution, this report also discusses the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community. More on that later. 

In response to the problem, several organizations came together on World Mental Health Day in 2023 for the Church Mental Health Summit 2023. The estimated attendance for the event was over 8,000, with 80 countries represented, demonstrating that the problem is widespread and the need significant.

Inside the Church, alarm bells are getting louder. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research’s Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC) tracked how clergy feel about their profession and congregations. Over the past few years, they’ve cited an increasing number of clergy reporting being burnt out and having thoughts of wanting to leave.  In 2023, out of 1,700 clergy interviewed, nearly 1 out of 2 clergy considered leaving the profession entirely or leaving their current congregation.

A recent article in Pew Trust Magazine states that if trends in religious switching continue, Christians could make up less than half of the U.S. population in just a few decades.

Inspiration from Mental Health Research

In the 1990s, Dr. Gary Sweeten established an in-patient mental health ward within a hospital. Within the ward, Dr. Sweeten did something unconventional. In addition to training the staff in compassionate, empathetic care, he also trained every patient in the ward.

Sweeten’s rationale was that a therapist might only be with a patient a few hours a week, but the patients are with each other 24/7. He believed that if they could show compassionate, empathetic care for one another, the community’s overall health would increase, and the patient’s recovery rate would improve. The results were astounding. Patient outcomes post-training far surpassed previous outcomes. This model of care was revolutionary in the mental health community. 

Group around campfire

The Church as a Loving, Healing Community 

Before this, Sweeten joined the staff of a large church in Cincinnati. While there, he saw the burden his fellow pastors were carrying. They would spend 10 to 15 hours a week counseling church members. Exhausted and stretched to the limit, Sweeten knew it wouldn’t be long before these pastors burned out. In response, Sweeten offered to help. First, he would train the staff on warmth, empathy, compassionate care, and skills for renewing the mind (Romans 12:1-2). But he didn’t stop there. He would offer the training to the entire church. Just as yeast permeates bread, he believed that fostering a culture of empathy and support would lead to a healthier, more sustainable community.

As the congregation practiced these skills, something remarkable happened. Equipped small group leaders started giving emotional support and guidance to their members, and small groups became safe spaces for vulnerability and growth. Pastors who used to spend 10 to 15 hours a week in counseling sessions saw their load dwindle to zero as church members leaned on each other for support and encouragement. With church members helping to carry the load, pastors could focus on their primary roles and responsibilities. Church attendance also grew as more people discovered this healing, therapeutic community.

Skill Training and the Adult Learning Model

While skill training may be unique in the Church, it isn’t elsewhere. Imagine a football team that only watched films and read the playbook but has yet to get on the practice field to work on skills. Imagine the Navy Seals only training in the classroom but never going to the shooting range or on the jiu-jitsu mat. How sustainable would that football team or seal unit be without actual practice?

Skill training happens anywhere people want to develop and grow. If relational skill training worked for Sweeten’s congregation, why wouldn’t it work for churches in our community? What would it look like if every church in Central Arkansas invested time and effort in training their people in relational skills? Would we see a difference? Would we see more pastors unburdened and thriving? Would we see more life-giving relationships and communities with abundant healing and joy? Would the enemy find it harder to cause division, spread lies, and steal our joy?

When to Seek Professional Intervention

We started this discussion with a story of an RN who was able to show love to a person suffering from an anxiety attack. We followed that with an example of one church that implemented therapeutic relational skill training that increased the overall health and vibrancy of the community. While this example is encouraging about what everyday people in a church can do, there are times when professional intervention and in-patient care are necessary. Consider the chart below on the 5 Levels of Care.

LevelAssess the Level of Pain, Trauma, or StressApproximate % of PopulationEvaluate How to Help
5Acute Emotional Pain needing Acute Help5%In-Patient Care (Refer)
4Chronic problems and Emotional Pain causing life issues10%Professional Therapy (Refer)
3Ongoing issues and problems that cause disruptions50%Caring Community, Peer Support
2Mentally Healthy, but some life issues need support25%
1Very Mature & Mentally Healthy10%

While 15% of cases require a referral for professional care, a caring community trained in peer support skills can handle most cases (85%). Experts in the field say that the tipping point to creating a healthy and therapeutic community is when 30-40% of the community has peer support skill training.

Group praying together

Creating Relational Sustainability Together

Together, we can build a flourishing community. Together, we can create relational sustainability by equipping churches and their leaders with practical skill training and cultivating environments where all members can flourish and experience actual shalom. 

At the heart of sustainability is the well-being of our leaders and the cultivation of a caring community that promotes mental health and wholeness. By equipping leaders with the skills needed to navigate conflict, provide peer support, and communicate empathy and love, we can create a sustainable environment for healing and growth. 

There is healing power in the presence of another, especially one skilled in communicating empathy and compassionate care. When communities invest in the care, support, and relational skills necessary to address the mental health and well-being of others, they create a sustainable environment for flourishing.

Preventing Leadership Burnout

Every organization is a reflection of leadership. That axiom remains true today. If we want more shalom, flourishing, and sustainability in our churches, we must ask ourselves as leaders, “To what degree am I experiencing this?” Are we humble enough to say, “It starts with me”? That nearly one out of every two clergy have considered leaving the ministry, their congregation, or both should be a wake-up call for us to take action.

CityChurch Network exists to help churches work together for the good of the city. One way we do that is by partnering with organizations taking action to help pastors and churches build sustainability for generations to come. Recently, we partnered with local sponsors to bring the Relational Peace:  Preventing Leadership Burnout event and workshop to Little Rock on April 11, 2024, from 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM. Nothing could be more critical for the sustainability of the church than the well-being of the men and women called to the ministry. 

You can learn more about this event and register for it here.

Pete McIndoe — Relational Peace Team

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