United Church of Christ in Norwell: A WISE Journey

United Church of Christ in Norwell: A WISE Journey

The Journey to Become Certified as a WISE Congregation for Mental Health, by Carl Ishihara and the United Church of Christ in Norwell Mental Health Team  

Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start. – Nido Qubein, President of High Point University

The United Church of Christ in Norwell (Mass.) WISE Ministry Team for Mental Health, which included the leadership of our pastor, Leanne Walt, started its journey to address the stigma of those suffering with chronic mental illness about four years ago. Our initial strategy back in 2020 involved engaging with community partners including Aspire Health Alliance (formerly South Shore Mental Health), South Shore PEER Recovery, South Shore Health, South Shore YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club of Marshfield and the Talking Information Center, to help our wider community be better informed regarding mental health.

Aspire CEO Antony Sheehan gave a kick-off talk after worship in February of 2020, attended by a group of 75 people. In his remarks, he guaranteed that those gathered would remember three things: 1&2) the personal faith witness of two members of our congregation who shared their own compelling, challenging, hopeful and inspiring stories related to their mental health experiences; 3) the message enshrined in Aspire’s organizational vision, “There can be no health without mental health.”

Like every journey, we have experienced some ups and downs. A scheduled in-person community mental health series, starting with a talk on chronic anxiety during the 2nd week of March 2020 was canceled due to the onset of the COVID pandemic as we closed our church to in-person worship. So, our Mental Health Team needed to pivot and find another path forward. We chose to develop a draft WISE Covenant Statement over the summer.

In September we sent out an on-line anonymous congregational survey to obtain feedback and help in assessing people’s needs related to supporting their mental health. Two presentations, on anxiety (October) and depression (November) were moved on-line featuring clinicians from Aspire and peer testimony from local chapters of NAMI. Mental Health First Aid training was added in an on-line format for anyone interested in October as well. Rev. Walt offered a series of sermons on mental health, each including a faith witness from a member of our congregation.

As we moved into 2021, we offered a book study on A Pelican of the Wilderness: Depression, Psalms, Ministry, and Movies by Robert W. Griggs. We created a series of experiential events fostering creativity for healing including Stars & Shells small group, ecumenical gatherings featuring poems from Rev. Ted Loder in his book Guerrillas of Grace and original songs by Christina Nordstrom (5/7/22, 10/6/22, 11/12/22); an Introduction to Watercolor Painting in the spring and an introduction to Journaling in the fall; as well as a self-guided outdoor labyrinth experience at UCC Hanover in May.

It would be nice if we had a magic wand that we could wave to resolve all the emotional hurt and trauma that we know exists within our midst and in our greater community. However, there are no quick fixes, and towards this end we wrote and were approved for a roughly $11K grant from our Community Engagement Fund to create collaborative and innovative systems of outreach and support. In the interim members of our ministry team continue to provide direct, personal 1-to-1 support for an increasing number of members of our church community. In this way, we as members of the Mental Health Team have increased our own self-awareness and self-compassion and have continued to learn and grow. During our Annual Meeting on January 29, 2023, our Covenant Statement was unanimously approved, and we became the 48th congregation to be certified as WISE for Mental Health!

Looking forward, we remain engaged and hopeful that our current system of mental health care, which has been chronically underfunded, has reached a tipping point from which a historic transformation to address persistent problems appears achievable. Chronic systemic issues have included high levels of unmet needs for care, underdevelopment of community-based support that can alleviate unnecessary emergency care or untrained police engagement, and marked disparities in access and quality of services.

Our work as a WISE Congregation for Mental Health is just beginning as we work to invest in relationships, build trust and help to facilitate compassionate care centered on each patient’s unique journey. 

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