Healing was clearly a major part of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Early in his preaching and teaching, we read of him healing “every disease and sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23). Jesus healed the blind and mute. Jesus healed the socially marginalized of his day; a woman with an issue of blood, a 12-year-old girl (Mark 5:21-43), a man born blind and suspected of sin (John 9:1-34).
In our role as disciples of Jesus Christ, then, part of our calling is to be healers. The UCC Book of Worship contains healing liturgies, where healing language abounds. Let’s look at one of the places in congregational life where we can make an impact in the ministry of healing.
In 2014, Dartmouth College began implementing a program called InShape for people with mental illness. The program basically began as a response to the fact that people with Serious Mental Illness (SMI) were dying 15-30 years earlier than the general American population. When researchers dug deeper into this statistic, they discovered that the causes of death were overwhelmingly related to obesity, diabetes, tobacco use, uncontrolled high blood pressure, and heart disease; and much less directly to the symptoms of the mental illness itself.
InShape is a program where people with Serious Mental Illness are paired with a fitness mentor and “is based on principles of social inclusion and community integration.” Mentors meet weekly with participants, goals and methods are discussed, free gym or YMCA memberships are provided, and participants meet regularly with other participants and mentors to celebrate progress.
The results have overall been positive, with participants seeing improvement both in their exercise/diet habits and in dealing with the symptoms of Serious Mental Illness (which was not a direct aim of the study). The authors of the study “A Pilot Evaluation of the Inshape Individualized Health Promotion Intervention for Adults with Mental Illness” believe that part of the program’s success is its reliance on “integrated, community settings.”
It sounds to me like congregations can help be part of those “integrated community settings.” Perhaps God is calling congregations of the United Church of Christ into this kind of healing ministry. Although American culture has a long way to go, awareness of Serious Mental Illness is on the rise and people are better informed. Information on recovery, therapy, and mental health is much more available than it has been. Courses like Mental Health First Aid training teaches non-specialists how to help our neighbors, fellow congregants, and friends who may be experiencing a mental health crisis.
Congregations can call their local Office of Behavioral Health or Office of Mental Health and inquire if InShape (or a program similar to it) is offered in your local area. Grassroots organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness or Recovery groups would be happy to talk with congregations about partnering with their programs. Congregations could offer their space for Mental Health Awareness or training meetings.Congregations could also sponsor free or reduced cost gym memberships. Perhaps there are other ways congregations can support “integrated community settings” and live out our calling to be healers, like our Lord Jesus Christ.
Rev. Joseph Hedden is Pastor of Emmanuel Reformed (Hill’s) United Church of Christ in Export, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. He serves as Dean of the Penn West Conference Academy for Ministry and also chairs the Global Missions Team for the Conference.