Creating Spaces for Conversation and Companionship

Creating Spaces for Conversation and Companionship

07 November 2023 by Revd Rachel Greaves-Brown in Isolation, Mental Health.

This blog was originally shared by Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries in January 2023, and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

Creating places of Sanctuary

St John’s church is located in Hoxton, East London.

It’s a vibrant and creative district, yet among one of the most under-resourced areas in the country.

Revd Rachel Greaves-Brown says that the congregation reflects the diversity in the wider community, which presents unique gifts and challenges for the church.

“At St John’s they ‘say it like it is.’ And I love that; you know where you stand with people.

The diversity is a big gift, and the warmth of welcome.

I’d say it’s the best hospitality I’ve ever received.”

Into this context, Rachel ran The Sanctuary Course: a free study guide for small groups, designed to raise awareness and start conversations in local churches regarding mental health.

The Sanctuary Course helps address the question that many of us ask: ‘how can a church become a sanctuary—a place where individuals living with mental health challenges feel safe, supported, and a sense of belonging?’

Developed in consultation with mental health professionals, theologians, and people with lived experience, it’s an eight-session course which explores key mental health topics and examines meaningful ways to offer companionship, support recovery, and promote wellbeing.

Space to Speak of Experiences

Rachel reflects on how spending time running this course impacted the community at St Johns:

“I really saw God at work through the journey that the whole group went on through the sessions. There was huge growth in self-awareness and understanding [of mental health]. We were given language to put to our experiences.

It can be challenging to encourage people to believe they are valued and important. I think that’s one area The Sanctuary Course can speak into.

If you feel like you haven’t had a voice, that’s going to have a knock-on effect for your sense of value and worth. The course encouraged people to speak out about their experiences.”

Being seen, heard, and known by your community can positively impact your wellbeing and mental health. And the conversations didn’t stop at the end of the course.

“One of the participants said that we don’t hear enough about mental health and the Bible.

So that sparked a sermon series, called ‘Margins to Middle,’ looking at people in the Bible who’d been stigmatised or pushed to the margins - not just because of mental health, but also due to gender, social status, and disability.”

Modelling Vulnerability

One of the greatest impacts of the course for Rachel was the opportunity to be honest about her own experiences - and seeing the way her vulnerability impacted and encouraged others.

“Brene Brown talks about the power of vulnerability and how being brave always involves vulnerability.

Even though I had some fear about saying something, for me the benefits outweighed that fear - knowing the difference it can make for other people.

When people in positions of leadership speak about mental health, it can reduce the feeling of isolation, and the more people can see that living with a mental health challenge doesn’t have to be a barrier to their calling in life or their relationship with God.

“If you have a leader in your church saying, ‘I’ve experienced mental health challenges,’ that helps others to believe they don’t have to hide or feel ashamed. They’re more able to reach out for help and support.

I spoke about my own mental health in a sermon, and I had people coming up to me afterwards saying, ‘I really want to do The Sanctuary Course when you next do it.’”

Interesting in running a Sanctuary Course?

Rachel offers some helpful insights for anyone planning to run the course:

1. Lead with someone else, if possible

Leading with a fellow church member, Irene, was one of the best things for Rachel about doing the course.

“It was a delight to get to know Irene and see her get to a place where she was confident. Seeing her confidence grow over the course was really rewarding.”

Co-leading is an opportunity to invest and mentor someone else, and it creates sustainability - for the group to have a life of its own and keep growing beyond the church leader.

2. Have a clear timetable and format

Think through the logistics for your group. Ask: How will this work best for my group? You could meet online or in-person. Pick a time that group members will be able to attend most consistently, and set the calendar for the eight sessions of the course. The course material is very flexible and easy to fit into what works best for your context.

“Online worked well for us since our group was made up of single parents, members of the congregation living with disabilities, and busy commuters. I would say it’s important to get people together in-person at some point.”

3. Arrange an in-person meal after the course has finished to reflect together

Ask how people have put what they’ve learned into action.

Consider how you can continue the conversation about mental health in your community, as well as what practical help you can offer. Your group members could be potential leaders in beginning new ministries and programs of support.

Journeying Together

Overall, Rachel is a big advocate now.

“The Sanctuary Course is a gift to churches - to help dismantle the stigma and prejudice around mental health. It lends itself to creating safe, supportive, and hopeful spaces where participants can experience transformation in their relationship to their own mental health and how they support others.”

Rachel’s insights are a great reminder of the companionship that can be found in gathering a group of people together, and how essential companionship is for both Christian community and mental health recovery.

A final comment from Rachel: “Do the course!”

For more information about running The Sanctuary Course, interested facilitators can access the facilitation guide and other facilitation information on the Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries online resource portal.

Revd Rachel Greaves-Brown

Rachel Greaves-Brown

Reverend Rachel Greaves-Brown is a priest in the Church of England. Rachel is Post- Ordination Training Advisor in the Diocese of London, and she continues to be attached to St John’s Hoxton where she was Associate Vicar.

View all posts by Revd Rachel Greaves-Brown

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