So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. Isaiah 55:11
Last week was WinterFest, and the first Presbytery meeting of the year. As the week went on, more and more of us started to express what we were feeling. We were feeling great hope for the future of San Gabriel Presbytery, and even the whole PC(USA).
Though the Presbytery meeting was short, we honored and celebrated several members of our community. We named the loved ones who have gone home to the Lord since November, including pastors Andy Jarvis, Foster Shannon, and Louis Simmen; pastor spouses Stan Moore and Phyllis Little, and church members like Gerry Marks who, at 106, was the oldest member of South Hills; Bob Pitzer, long-time leader of Westminster Temple City; Benny Valle of Iglesia de la Comunidad; and Barbara McKenzie’s mother Lois.
But we weren’t limited to good-byes. We enthusiastically advanced Harlan Redmond to candidacy in the CPM process, welcomed Tom Eggebeen and Amy Mendez, and then elected Amy to COM and Karen Sapio to CPM. Because West Covina site pastor Bruce Myers is looking to retire in Colorado, the West Covina AC invited Amy to be the new site pastor, starting this month. And Presbytery leadership transitioned to Dave Tomlinson, new Presbytery Moderator, and Pat Martinez-Miller, Presbytery Vice-Moderator. Outgoing Moderator (and now Executive Commission Moderator) Deborah Owens gave a strong message about the work of the Presbytery as a part of the Matthew 25 movement, especially confronting and eradicating the systemic racism that has plagued this nation and our denomination. We made good progress last year, but there is still work that needs to be done.
So a big part of the hope comes from new friends coming into our community, and folks stepping forward as leaders. But I was most impressed with the WinterFest sessions, where I learned several new things. It felt to me almost revolutionary, as we spent the week talking about mental health—for longer and in newer ways than I have heard any presbytery do. I want to share a few highlights, with the caveat that what follows are the notes and reflections are my own understanding of what was shared, through my own lay person’s filters, so I apologize if I misquote folks. We are hoping to put together resources that will be better vetted by people qualified to do so, but here are a few thoughts to consider for now.
The term “neurodiversity” was mentioned by different speakers every night. Wikipedia describes it as “a challenge to prevailing views that certain things currently classified as neurodevelopmental disorders are inherently pathological” and that this approach “is especially popular within the autism rights movement.” It offers the church a new way to be inclusive, as the church can be a place where differing ways of perceiving and expressing our human experience can be a reflection of God’s creativity and the range of human giftedness. Much of the various discussions was in support of appreciating the infinite ways our brains work; I think Dr. Ryan Thomas of Greenhouse Therapy Center said there are as many brain states as there are stars in the universe. That means each of us is somewhere in the larger neurodiversity spectrum, but with our own unique combination of gifts and challenges. As Rev. Dr. Bethany McKinney Fox quoted, “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.
So then how do we assess mental health—or more specifically, mental unhealth? Rev. Dr. Sophia Eurich-Rascoe suggested that mental health is when one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions get one’s needs met. When one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions fall outside the customary range of experience AND cause disruption in inner and outer environments, that becomes unhealthy. Church leaders were encouraged to understand that this may have physiological or non-physiological aspects, and while we need to challenge the tendency to set narrow and rigid definitions of “customary” or “appropriate” behavior, it is acceptable to set boundaries. The question for us in the church is how to set the boundaries that Jesus would set, which may be more inclusive of diverse benign behavior, and more strict against behaviors that exclude or condemn people who embody the Christian life in new ways.
Another recurrent theme throughout the week was grief. This was expected, of course, as we have all been grieving many people, and many aspects of our lives this last two years. We even grieve the ways we haven’t been able to grieve in ways we’re used to. Dr. Janet Anderson Yang of the Heritage Clinic discussed the impact of the pandemic on older adults, including the loss of community, stimulation, and structure and routine. I was reminded how in-person Sunday worship provides things like structure for the week, purpose, and personal interaction in addition to spiritual inspiration and education.
We all need to be sensitive to grief, and find ways to process it, but Ryan Thomas suggested a new way of looking at grief is that it doesn’t go away, but it finds a place.
Conversely, young people are experiencing crises of hope, meaning, and connection, and it’s not clear how far-reaching this will be. One thing that was raised multiple times is the need for people of all ages to limit and curate, or be intentional and selective about, the social media and news we take in on a regular basis. Two positive alternates are upworthy.com and Daily Dose of Internet.
Dr. Thomas approaches mental health within the context of relationships. If we humans are designed to be in community, then how do our thoughts, feelings and actions impact the relationships that are important to us? Personally I had not heard this approach, but I found it very refreshing.
It also led Rev. Charlie Campbell, who is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist as well as pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church, to suggest that suicide is the ultimate cutting off of relationships. To me, this is the biggest impact of suicide, on those who are left behind. And speaking of suicide, we were told not to be afraid of asking about suicidal thoughts. Checking in with people, asking questions, and listening well to the answers can help folks know they aren’t as disconnected as they feel.
Finally, the question of what do you do when seeing someone needing intervention was not answered with simple formulas. We need to discern the best response given many factors, so we need to be aware of our own limits, the needs of the community, and the reasons individuals might be behaving in ways that disrupt the community, etc. And we need to be sensitive to disruption that enables us to witness to God in new and creative ways, vs. disruption that holds us back from following God’s calling.
I hope you agree that there is much we can learn to be more informed, sensitive, and compassionate partners in ministry, especially with our siblings who may be struggling with depression, grief, unresolved rage, or other behaviors and internal processes that impact their happiness or the health of the congregation. I am very grateful to our many colleagues for the opportunity to learn about this. The quote about God’s word not returning empty came to mind throughout the week. May we use all that we learn and be even more faithful and effective partners in Christ’s ministry.