Inclusion Through Access: Discipleship in Love

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Brett Foote

Ever since I was welcomed into the Presbyterian Church (USA) as a 5th grader I have encountered the words “inclusion” and “inclusive”… a lot. As someone who has a brother affected by a cognitive disability and a mom who struggles with addiction and mental illness, these words meant good news and hope for my family. However, as I committed myself to studying the disciplines of disability studies, disability theology, and ministry with people with disabilities, I discovered these words were actually lacking depth. A colleague and friend, JJ Flag, who happens to have been born with cerebral palsy and requires a wheelchair to get around, shared this story with me recently and I believe it is illuminating.

JJ shared that growing up in his local church, there was no way for him to access the sanctuary for services because all of the ways into the sanctuary required stairs. Therefore, every Sunday he would get carried into the sanctuary by family or church members. This went on for a long time until one Sunday he noticed that they finally installed an elevator in the church. JJ was quite relieved to see the elevator, as in his mind, a barrier had been removed from in front of him to access the church. The worship space became accessible and therefore inclusive of him and his body. However, the pastor shared that JJ was more than welcome to use the elevator to get around but the reason they purchased the elevator wasn’t to include JJ. The congregation was an aging one so instead, the elevators purpose was to help alleviate the burden on their older members from the moving of coffins before and after funeral services.

An accessibility barrier was removed for JJ and because of that the church was for the most part, fully accessible for a person in a wheelchair. For JJ, the church and specifically worship, became inclusive of his body. Still, even with the accessibility and worship inclusion issues removed something was missing for him. JJ shares that even though there were no physical barriers in his way anymore, there was no love shown to him in the decision to install elevators.1 Likewise, there was no relationship to anyone in the church with him that brought that elevator into being. Love and relationship is where inclusion stops and discipleship begins. Through JJ’s story it is easy to understand how even though access provided inclusion there was still a sustained ostracism of the differently-abled through a lack of love.

The central mission of the church as stated in the PC(USA)’s Book of Order is: “in Christ, the Church participates in God’s mission for the transformation of creation and humanity by proclaiming to all people the good news of God’s love, offering to all people the grace of God at font and table, and calling all people to discipleship in Christ.” (emphasis added) It is also lifted up to the church in the Great Commission: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’”(Matthew 28:18-19 NRSV)

The mission imparted to Christians by Jesus is this act of discipleship of others, not just shared space for inclusivity and accessibility. In fact, Dr. John Swinton, writes that “Christian communities are not called simply to include people with disabilities; they may be obligated by law to do so, but this is not the nature or texture of their” mission.2 Therefore, it can be concluded that a Christian community is not built on including people for the sake of including them. Instead, the mission of the Christian community “is to learn to love God, and in coming to love God, learn what it means to love and to receive love from all of its members.”3 Love is the primary mark of a disciple and characterizes how disciples act towards others. Jesus is attributed to having said “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love.” (John 13:35 NRSV) Loving “is what disciples do, and that is what disciples expect other disciples to do.”4

Inclusivity has to do with access for all people…Discipleship has to do with love for all people rooted in access for all people which makes our spaces inclusive of all people.

1 Flag, JJ. Personal interview. 03/05/2018. Story shared with permission.
2 Swinton, John. Becoming Friends Of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship. 93
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.

Brett Foote is a recent graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and freshly ordained as Minister of Word & Sacrament in the PC(USA). Brett and his wife Laura have accepted a call to pastor United Presbyterian Church in Superior Wisconsin. They are avid coffee roasters and have a heart for inclusion and holistic ministry—especially toward those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

A Space for Stories

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, David Norse Thomas is curating a series featuring reflections on the 2019 National Gathering, which we held March 11-13 in Seattle. We’ll share the stories and insights of people who attended the Gathering in person and virtually (via our live stream), and experienced new life and a deeper sense of hope for the people of God we call the Church. What piece of the National Gathering has stuck with you? Where are you finding hope? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Rachel Cheney

This year during Youth Sunday, a sixteen-year-old girl stood in the pulpit. She was barely visible, given her small stature. From my view in the choir loft, I could see her knees trembling. Getting her up there was a challenge, but now she stood before our congregation and shared about her struggle with mental health issues. I watched the faces of the people in the pews; many nodded their heads in agreement, others looked surprised at her openness. “Anxiety is a relevant and personal battle many of us face,” she said passionately. “We need to start talking about it in the church.”

The days that followed brought a flood of emails and calls from congregants who heard her message and wanted to express their own struggles with mental health. Her boldness opened up new possibilities for conversation in our church. It took courage and honesty on her part, but it also required that the church make room for her young voice to be heard.

One of the most impactful ideas from the NEXT Church National Gathering centered around the importance of giving our youth space to share their stories. In a workshop designed specifically for youth ministers and leaders, Shelley Donaldson led a candid conversation on the obstacles and gifts of doing youth ministry today. While the first part of the workshop was devoted to time for us to bond over our shared failures and frustrations, the latter half was spent thinking about ways to integrate youth ministry into the broader church. Too often, it seems that our youth programs are sequestered from the congregation. This only fosters the harmful idea that youth are not interested in church, and even worse: that the church is not interested in our youth.

Even though we did not arrive at any earth-shattering solutions for this problem, I left with a simple but profound insight: the church belongs to the youth today. It often seems that we are waiting for our young people to grow up, go to college, spend a decade absent, and then come back to church when they have a couple of kids. Instead, the church belongs to them exactly as they are today. It belongs to our sixth graders who exclusively ask unrelated questions, our eighth graders who feel endless pressure to fit in, and our seniors who want to act grown up but still love playing dodgeball.

When we listen to the voices of our youth, we communicate to them that they are a valuable and essential part of the church. Our congregations should be guided by the stories and ideas of our young people. Though this is impossible when our youth are rarely involved in our services. By creating an inclusive environment for our youth, we meet them wherever they are in their story.

I left the NEXT Church National Gathering committed to lifting up the voices of our young people, hearing and sharing their stories, and looking for opportunities for the church to grow towards them during their faith journey. This past Sunday, thirteen eight graders stood in front of the congregation. Each of them begged me not to make them share first. But, despite their trepidation, each one gave a part of their faith statement. It was a holy moment. Going forward I hope we can keep creating places for the stories of our young people.

Rachel Cheney is a Youth Director in North Carolina who is passionate about ministry with students, healthy living, and outdoor adventures.

Resurrection is Not an Argument

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Jen James are curating a series featuring videos from National Gatherings and suggestions for how they might serve as resources for ministry. We’re revisiting speakers from this most recent National Gathering in Seattle as well as speakers from previous years. Our hope is that inviting you to engage (or reengage) their work might invite deeper reflection and possibly yield more fruit. What is taking root and bearing fruit in your own life and ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

As we start Eastertide, this testimony offered by Ken Evers-Hood at the 2019 NEXT Church National Gathering is a beautiful reflection for the Easter season. It would be appropriate as a personal devotion, for a a group of church professionals or clergy, or for a staff team to watch and reflect on together. Please note that in this talk, Ken shares a piece of his own #metoo story, which may bring up memories for others.

At the start of his testimony, Ken shares that he was nervous about focusing on depression, but then he realized that if he could offer vulnerability that might help anyone who is feeling lost then it would be worth it.

What is one area in your ministry in which moving toward increased vulnerability might help someone who is feeling lost? What is at stake for you in moving toward that vulnerability? What is at stake if you do not make that move?

Ken’s testimony offers four layers of how he understands how to do ministry with depression.
The first layer is to care for your soul. He encourages all church leaders to have a therapist, a coach, a group with whom you are honest.

What care for your soul are you currently practicing? What care does your soul long for?

The second layer Ken points to is the strange, unexpected grief of ministry. He says, “When they need us to show up we have to be professionals who show up and they don’t need our mess and yet we are human and we have it and so we discover the strange, unexpected grief of ministry.” He tells the story of a colleague who lost his faith in resurrection during Holy Week.

What griefs do you carry in your ministry? What crises of faith haunt you? How do you carry those griefs? Where do you process those crises of faith? What promises of our faith uphold you in those times? What people help to hold the faith with and for you?

The third layer is what happens when it is the church itself that is hurting us. Ken shares of his own experience with a church leader abusing power and engaging in misconduct. Ken says, “The scars are healed but I don’t believe they will ever be gone.”

What accountability do you have in your own ministry context and in your own professional life to maintain healthy boundaries? If you have been hurt by someone in power in the church, how have you shared your experience? What people and places have believed in you? What cultural changes can we make as a church to prevent this kind of misconduct from finding a place in our communities? Pray for those who have these scars.

The fourth layer Ken addresses is that healing does happen. In each of these layers, Ken shares poems that have come out of his own struggle and care for his soul —
Theodicy (6:55-8:16)
Resurrection is not an argument (11:21-12:54)
Cassandra’s daughters (15:20-18:14)
Not running but dancing (20:08-24:49)

Listen to any of the poems a second and third time. What word or phrase catches your attention? What truth might it be speaking to you? What promise? What challenge?

2019 National Gathering Testimony: Ken Evers-Hood

Ken Evers-Hood, pastor of Tualatin Presbyterian Church in Tualatin OR, gives a testimony presentation on ministry with depression at the 2019 NEXT Church National Gathering.

2018 National Gathering Ignite: Linda Kurtz

Linda Kurtz, student at Union Presbyterian Seminary, gives an Ignite presentation about her experience completing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at a behavioral health hospital.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. How might you mark this in your own context? How might you minister to those impacted by mental illness?

Commissioned by Our Mental Illness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During July, Erin Counihan is curating a month of blog posts exploring Mental Health and Ministry. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Marielle (Marz) Evans

Even after all this time, it is still hard to say it.

It is hard to confess, to admit, to say aloud: I am mentally ill.

Maybe it is hard because it feels somehow dishonest, like a white lie that excuses my little quirks. Because, on my meds, I function and behave most of the time like a perfectly normal, if not high functioning, adult woman.

Or maybe it is hard because it feels too true — because I know how it is to live inside my own head, to worry about whether I’ve missed a dose of my meds, to not being able to tell my husband what is wrong because I don’t know what is wrong— it just is. I know the struggle all too well and it’s hard to say that things aren’t okay. I struggle with that black hole of depression that threatens to swallow me whole and I grapple with the high of mania that promises roads paved in gold but ending in ruin.

And I struggle with opening my mouth and saying words like: bipolar, anxiety, depression, and saying words like: me, in the same sentence.

I had a dear friend tell me once that me being honest about my bipolar disorder changed the way she looked at mental illness and gave her the courage to step into counseling for the first time. And that’s the best result I could ask for. If my story can battle the stigma against the mentally ill in any small way, it was so worth it.

But I’ve also had a dear friend tell me that she couldn’t handle me, handle my illness, my mood swings, my panic attacks. I’ve lost friendships because of my brain chemistry. Because of being an emergency. Because I was too much to deal with. Because their versions of Christianity don’t have room for a person like me — a crazy person.

And so, with the hope of encouraging others but walking with those wounds of rejection and hurt still healing on my heart, I shyly confess that I am stable, I am happy, I am in love and I am mentally ill.

And I may be forever. My brain chemistry may never be correct (and I thank God for my meds every single day).

But here I am, saying it aloud. Because these things are worth talking about, even if it terrifies you. Because we, all of us — whether you are clinically depressed or just having a bad day — need to be reminded that we aren’t alone in this. And we must — MUST — remind each other that our diagnoses, our diseases, our disabilities do not define us.

I am not a bipolar woman.

I am a wife, a pastor, an artist, a darn good cook, a writer, an aunt to two amazing littles, a mediocre iPhone photographer, a terrible but shameless dancer. I am a Princeton Seminary graduate, an honors student (in too many ways), a lover of summer-ripe cherries and old rocking chairs and porch swings and those bottle cap candies that taste kind of like soda. I am a mom to my puppy, Eliot, who is more monster than dog and who believes that he is also the size of a mouse and can sit comfortably on our laps.

And I have a diagnoses. Of bi-polar, for which I take daily meds that help me not let my serotonin and dopamine levels determine how my life goes.

It is not who I am, or what I am. My bipolar is a part of me. Just like that slightly annoying scar in the middle of my chest from when I had chicken pox as a little kid. It is not my fault, or my parent’s fault, or red food dye 40’s fault (in my humble opinion). It is life – just with more extreme ups and downs.

So if you are where I often am, and finding it hard to say aloud that you are hurting, struggling, scared, scarred, sadder more days than you are happy— then take heart. Truly — take heart. There are many of us, and we are not alone.

And please, if you can, if that black hole that threatens to swallow you from within will allow just a little bit — have grace with yourself. And allow yourself the grace of letting someone in. Into the mess and the madness. Into the mood swings and the medication diaries. Into the altogether hard and the sometimes hopeless. Into the mental illness that doesn’t define you but certainly feels definite.

You don’t have to shout it from the roof tops, but I invite you to maybe tell a friend. Tell a pastor or a mentor or a professor who you know won’t laugh you out of the room. And if you don’t feel safe with any of those, find a therapist. Yelp them, Google the good Lord out of them, look up whether they’ll be a fit. You are the only one who knows you inside and out, so don’t feel like they are going to fix you.

Because the truth is: you don’t need fixing, you need a safe place to say aloud the things that are hard to say.

Have grace with yourself, and you’ll get there. Some days will be harder than others— just ask my husband and friends and mentors. Some days will be so good that you’ll completely forget you ever had a diagnosis from the DSM. Those days you’ll forget to take your meds — because: what meds!?— and then you’ll wake up in the morning with a headache and take them right away and everything will be okay. Or maybe it won’t. Because meds don’t make real life go away. And sometimes real life is sorrow and lament and quiet and hard. And a handful of chemicals isn’t going to take away the pain and the sin of this broken world.

I want you to know that you are not alone. That your sadness doesn’t define you. Nor do your meds. Your panic attacks don’t either, nor how long you’ve been sober (although sobriety is certainly something to celebrate). Psychological diagnoses don’t define us anymore than type 1 diabetes or turf toe does. They are all chronic illnesses. They are all not our fault.

I may have a hard time saying aloud what I want to say sometimes. I may struggle to speak up about my experience of living life with chronic anxiety and persistent mood swings.

But I refuse to be silent about this. About the fact that there is hope, and there is healing, and that we have the choice to believe that some of the best days of our lives haven’t happened yet. I refuse to shut up about why cooking a meal for friends is nearly as effective for me as my mood stablizer, or why writing is a version of therapy. I refuse to be silent about being a pastor and being a patient of a psychologist and psychiatrist because those two can happen together and it will be okay. I refuse to be silent in telling the world that stories, your everyday stories, matter. Your stories and your scars and your big scary dreams all matter because they bring something new and needed to the table of grace. We have an opportunity to see our diagnoses, our depression, our daily meds or weekly therapy sessions (or both) as the commissioning they are. We are commissioned by our mental illness to go out into the world and show them, tell them, sing at them, dance for them, preach to them that we are not defined, we are not limited by our diseases.

So, where ever you are in your journey, say this aloud with me: this is living thing is an adventure worth taking. And there is a mission field to serve that needs people like you and me, to bring the Gospel that Jesus didn’t come to the perfect, but to the sick and that God has a place for those of us who come into His kingdom with a bit of a limp.

Marielle Evans

Marielle (Marz) Evans is a recent graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary who is serving at a non-profit for youth development in Austin, TX

The Rhythm of the Lord’s Prayer

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During July, Erin Counihan is curating a month of blog posts exploring Mental Health and Ministry. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Matt Gaventa

I always know when Philip’s in church, because the Lord’s Prayer throws him off every time.

Admittedly, it’s not a large congregation: on most Sunday we’re not two verses into the opening hymn before I’ve taken a mental attendance of everyone in the pews. But just in case I’ve missed him, the Lord’s Prayer is when Philip – which is not his real name – makes his presence known.

He can’t quite say it in time with the rest of us. He can’t quite keep the rhythm. If I speed up, he slows down. If I slow down, he jumps ahead. I lead the congregation; we go along more or less like we always do; but Philip just goes by his own beat.

It’s a very public act, of course, breaking against the conventional rhythm of the corporate prayer. There’s no hiding. Everybody in the orchestra knows when the trumpet is off the beat. And I know that it disturbs the sacred harmony of that moment for more than a few members of our congregation. This is ritualized stuff. It’s not just the rhythm of a prayer; it’s the rhythm of  devotional Christian life, it’s the metronome of Sunday morning that threads our faith journeys together. So much changes, but we always sing the Doxology, and we always say the Lord’s Prayer. These things stay constant, and the bit nobody wants to say out loud is that he is getting in the way.

Nobody will admit that at the door, of course. We have nothing if not the hospitality of a small church anxious about its future. Before church, Philip is greeted with a friendly smile. We know his name, and we know where he likes to sit. Afterwards, he’s always invited to coffee hour, and I know somebody will always find him with friendly conversation. But during that hour of worship, I also know that it feels different. I see it on faces in the congregation; maybe I even see it in my own heart. The Lord’s Prayer comes along, and there goes Philip, and I can hear us asking despite ourselves, “Why can’t he just say the words the same way as everybody else?”

Of course, Philip can’t follow the beat of the prayer because he’s mentally ill. He needs to be able to hear his own voice. He needs to be able to use his own words. It hardly surprises me that he wants to march along to the beat of his own drum. What surprises me more profoundly is that any of the rest of us manage to say the prayer together in the first place. After all, Philip is hardly the only one who brings his demons with him on Sunday morning. Perhaps the only difference is that Philip wears his on the outside.

About a year ago, I preached a sermon to this congregation on mental illness and my own family history with clinical depression. It was a more personal testimony than I am accustomed to giving from the pulpit, and it was terrifying, but I thought it was right for this long process of learning to trust and be trusted by the people I have been called to serve. It was the last conscious step in telling them my story, which is, among other things, the story of a son who survived his father’s own crippling depression, one who knows that shadow a little too well.

One of the predictable-in-hindsight consequences of that sermon was that more than a few members of the church came forward to tell me about their own hidden battles: anxiety, mood disorders, depression, suicidal thoughts. All of those demons of mental illness that stay nicely hidden underneath the surface – and it turns out that they live in every corner of my church. It turns out that more than a few of us are bringing the demons of mental illness into the pews of Sunday worship. It turns out that the ability to come to church and stay on the beat in a corporate liturgy is no guarantee of mental health.

It turns out that Philip is in good company. We just don’t want to admit it.

Of course there are real differences between Philip’s diagnosis and the hidden struggles of those with anxiety disorders or clinical depression. Not all mental health disorders are created equal. For a start, Philip lives his struggle in the public eye, while depression and anxiety cling to the shadows — and of course that’s just the beginning. But now I know, more than ever: come Sunday morning, we’re all sitting in the same pews. We’re all gathering around the same baptismal waters. We’re all sharing at the same table.

And we’re all coming to the Lord’s Prayer with the same fear and trembling. For some it’s the rhythm, and they just can’t keep the beat. For others, it’s in the words, it’s this staggering sure faith in a God who gives daily bread even to those lost in the shadows. I wish it could be as easy to notice those who cannot say the words at all as it is to be disturbed by the one who can only say them in his own time.

Nonetheless, this Sunday, we will try again. We come back, every Sunday, each in our own way. We come back every Sunday, each by our own path. We come back, every Sunday, and the prayer throws us off every time.

gaventa_matt_631wMatt Gaventa serves as pastor at Amherst Presbyterian Church in Amherst, VA.


I Didn’t Know How

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During July, Erin Counihan is curating a month of blog posts exploring Mental Health and Ministry. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Erin Counihan

I didn’t know how to talk about it.

I was finishing my last semester of seminary and looking for my first call, writing cover letters, updating my sad little website, and horrible pause-filled Skype-interviewing my future pastor heart out. I had worked up a standard set of non-threatening, but honest answers to the big theological issues I was certain to be asked on worship and sacraments and hospitality and marriage and ordination standards. I had most of the conversations covered and rehearsed, but all the while I carried a desperate stress and raging pounding in my heart because I didn’t know how to talk about the one thing that I thought would actually keep me from getting a job.

I am a parent to a kid with mental health needs.

I am a parent to a kid with mental health needs and I had no idea how to share this, how to talk about this, without judgement on my kid, or my own parenting, with kind, hopeful church people. With kind, hopeful church people looking for a pastor.

I didn’t know how to explain what our life is like. I didn’t know how to warn them that we would never be that perfect pastor’s family, not that the perfect pastor’s family really exists anywhere, but I wasn’t sure how to them that we weren’t even going to try to come anywhere close to fitting that image. I didn’t know how to share our history. I didn’t know how to clue them into our struggles. I didn’t know how to explain all the appointments and medications, diagnoses and treatment programs, behavior modifications and safety plans, but most of all the potential outbursts and disruptions. I didn’t know how to tell them about off-meds days, and didn’t want to scare them away from missing all her wonderful days. I didn’t want to say too much, in case they might see her as just her diagnoses, but I didn’t want to say too little and leave them unprepared or worse, to have my kid feel like it was a secret.

I didn’t know how to ask them for understanding and support, for middle of the night phone calls and weekend check-ins. I didn’t know how to tell them how very much I needed to find a church family where my kid could be her full self and be fully loved and celebrated. I didn’t know how to tell them how much I needed a church that wasn’t afraid of dealing with mental illness; a church that wasn’t afraid of dealing with us.

I never really figured out how to say all of that in a non-threatening, but honest way, so instead I blurted it all out, through some tears, during my on-site interview at the perfectly messy and lovely church that God picked out for us. Together, we are learning to be less afraid of that conversation. They’ve welcomed us and have already walked with us through the successes and struggles of our reality. And when much later, months after I was installed, on a bad week, I was brutally honest and told them my biggest fear, that the pastor’s kid would have a mental health emergency at church and it might cost that pastor her job, the now dear and beloved chair of that PNC told me in no uncertain terms: this church can handle that.

I’m still scared to talk about it. I am still worried that people will judge my kid. I am sure they’ll judge my parenting. And if I feel that way as the pastor, I can imagine there are others in our churches who feel that way too.

I don’t think we talk about mental health in church enough. I’m sure we don’t do enough to support individuals and families with mental health needs. I am not sure we know how. I know I don’t know how.

I want to do more. To help my own kid and all of God’s kids. So, I’ve asked a couple of friends a colleagues and perfect strangers to share their thoughts about what churches can be doing, what churches are doing, and what churches might do more of, to be more open to and supportive of those with mental health needs. I look forward to listening to their experiences, to hearing their suggestions, and just engaging in the conversation.

Because I’m trying, but I still don’t know how to talk about it.


Erin Counihan serves as pastor of Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, MO and will be curating the NEXT Blog this month.