California church develops mental health ministry

California church develops mental health ministry

Congregation learns how to be more sensitive to people with mental illness.
Donald E. Skinner


As Unitarian Universalists strive on Sunday mornings to be welcoming to everyone, there is one group, says the Rev. Barbara Meyers, that is not quite sure it is welcome: those who have mental health problems. And that makes Meyers’s ministry an uncommon one.

Meyers is a community minister endorsed by the 110-member Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fremont, Calif. She has created a ministry that consists of educating people about mental disorders using a curriculum that she authored entitled The Caring Congregation Handbook and Training Manual; working with those who have mental health problems; and working for mental health justice.

She has been down that road herself. In 1978 she had postpartum depression and was hospitalized briefly. It was frightening, she says, to be around others who had mental illness. “I didn’t want to be anything like them.” She recovered with the help of a psychiatrist and medication. Then eight years later when she had to be hospitalized a second time for a recurrence of major depression, she’d learned to look at “those people” differently. “The first time they were frightening to me,” she says. “The second time they were all God’s children, unique, precious human beings.” It marked a lasting change in her vision of the world and herself, and it was a vital step in her recovery.

Meyers asks us to consider how we act with people in our congregations who are depressed or have other mood disorders, who have panic attacks, who might be suicidal or have post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, or attention deficit disorders. And, as activists in the larger society, she asks us to consider working for the rights of all people with mental health problems, including those with serious disorders, those institutionalized, and those in prison.

Meyers has an exercise she asks congregations to do when she is a guest minister. “First I tell my own story. And then I ask people to stand up if they or someone they love is living with mental illness. Invariably 80 to 100 percent of people stand up.”

To those who don’t think their congregations have people with mental health issues, she says, “Our congregations are full of these people. Many times they’re sitting there suffering in silence because they’re not sure if they’re welcome. When I ask people to stand up it’s a tremendously powerful message for those who are suffering silently.”

But aren’t we all afraid of a mentally ill person creating a disturbance? Meyers advises recruiting people who will be “angels” and sit with them and be present with them. “These angels can also lead them outside and sit with them there if necessary,” she says. She encourages every congregation to have a disruptive behavior policy so members know what to do if there is a disturbance. “You need to be able to tell someone that what they’re doing is not allowed in this congregation.”

Greeters are trained to be welcoming to everyone, says Pat Rodgers, a member of the membership committee at Mission Peak. “We don’t treat people with mental disorders any differently. Barbara did teach us how to welcome people by asking questions that are sensitive. For example we say, ‘What brought you here today?’ rather than, ‘Have you lived here long?’ The first question tends to bring out spiritual aspects while the second question is just making conversation.”

“One woman had just had brain surgery and was upfront about having memory problems,” Rodgers says. “I just told her, ‘Oh well, I have to carry a notebook too.’”

Meyers is a community minister, which is one of three categories of ministry recognized by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. The other two categories are parish ministry and religious education ministry. These last two work primarily within and for congregations. Community ministers generally are employed outside a church setting. Typically they do healing or justice work, serving as chaplains or in a wide range of social service and social justice organizations.

Community ministers go through the same process as other ministers to gain UUA fellowship. To remain in fellowship they are required to have a relationship with a UU congregation, district, or UUA-associated organization. Such an association, called an “endorsement,” benefits the ministers by giving them places that support them spiritually and provide social connections. The congregations gain by connections with ministers who are engaged in the community.

Meyers spends a quarter of her time working at a local mental health center in Fremont; she works directly with people who have mental health needs and is responsible for pastoral care when Mission Peak minister the Rev. Chris Schriner is on sabbatical; she leads classes on mental disorders, helping people understand how they can be more supportive of people who are ill; and she does more traditional ministry by preaching and leading rites of passage.

She also engages in mental health social justice opportunities in the community. She is working with a group educating police on how to handle psychiatric emergencies. She writes letters to the editor and op-ed pieces. When Tom Cruise was in newspapers in 2005 suggesting that Brooke Shields should have treated her postpartum depression with vitamins rather than an antidepressant drug, Meyers helped educate Fremont readers about the validity of drug therapy. “Whenever I have a letter in the paper, people call me about their problems, and I’m often able to refer them to community resources,” she says. “And some come to our congregation and to the mental health support groups we offer.”

Meyers has also presented her curriculum to two classes in the church’s 40-member religious education department. “The purpose was to help them be more comfortable with and have a better understanding of people who might be different from them in some ways,” says director of religious education Sally Ahnger. “And they learned ways to ask questions that show sensitivity and to not be afraid to ask questions.”

Meyers and others at Mission Peak have created mental health pages on the congregation’s website with resources for congregations that want to be more welcoming to people with mental disorders. It includes information about her curriculum, including how a copy of it can be obtained. Other parts of the website include a description of mental disorders, the relationship between Unitarian Universalism and mental health, how to care for difficult people, news articles about mental health, and ways to get involved with work on mental health issues.

Meyers believes community ministers who focus on mental health are rare. “I haven’t found anyone else who does precisely the kind of thing I do.” Jeanne Lloyd, president of the Society for Community Ministries, a professional organization for community ministers, says there are at least eight other community ministers who do some type of mental health ministry ranging from the Rev. Denis Meacham, who has an addictions ministry at First Parish in Brewster, Massachusetts, to the Rev. Rick Klimowicz, who is clinical supervisor at a homeless shelter. Several others practice psychotherapy.

Meyers’s ministerial income comes from several sources: from the mental health center where she works, from leading workshops, from teaching a class on mental health and religion at Starr King School for the Ministry, from preaching, from contributions to her ministry, and from weddings and memorial services she does in the community.

In addition, her congregation is the recipient of an 18-month, $3,200 grant from the Fund for Unitarian Universalism to help educate UUA districts about her curriculum, from which she receives income. The grant involves training people to be leaders of the curriculum in at least two districts outside of Meyers’s own Pacific Central District. She is in the process of deciding which districts will be covered. At 2006 General Assembly she will give a GA Planning Committee-sponsored workshop on her curriculum and expects this will generate interest from several districts. Additionally, the grant involves setting up a financially self-sustaining structure for advancing the curriculum throughout the congregations of the UUA.

The first time she taught her mental health curriculum at Mission Peak, 25 to 30 people participated. From that, a group of eight created a Mental Health Task Force. The task force helps coordinate the congregation’s mental health support groups, created web pages, and is working to publicize its work in the larger community.

The theological basis for Meyers’s ministry starts with her belief in Unitarian Universalism’s First Principle about the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Her role model is Dorothea Dix, a Unitarian mental health reformer in the 1800s. “Most of what she did was to live out her religion in the world. That’s what I hope I’m doing,” Meyers says.

Meyers can be contacted at or through the Mission Peak congregation. see below for links related to this story.

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