A Psychologist in a Church

A couple of weeks ago I ran into an old colleague - someone I haven't seen since we were training together ten years ago. Apart from exchanging the usual news about our families, we also chatted about what we are both doing work-wise now. That's how it came up that I am now working in a church rather than in the traditional clinical role he had assumed I'd ended up in. It wasn't long before the question I'm always asked came up: "What on earth are you doing working in a church?"

It's a good question to ask and it got me thinking. As someone with a background in medicine and then psychology, this isn't somewhere I would ever have expected to end up working if you had asked me all those years back when I was studying. Plus anyone who has known my own frustrations over the years with the way that the church in general can sometimes treat people with mental health problems might be pretty surprised to hear I ended up working for one.

I guess at the root of why I do what I do is a vision. A vision for what the church could be for all those who are struggling with their emotions and with things life has thrown at them. The church is unique - nowhere else could I find such a varied group of people, from all backgrounds, with all kinds of life experiences, representing different ages, races; men and women, children, adults and teenagers, all under one roof. Nowhere else can you find a bunch of people with such an amazing potential for what they could do and be, with God working through them. In church we can form meaningful friendships and relationships, experience a new kind of 'family', grow and learn about ourselves in a safe environment and start to see ourselves the way Jesus sees us. We can learn from others, pray to the God of the universe and know that we are heard, worship and connect with that God through the Holy Spirit and be changed as a result. It's all pretty awesome and as a psychologist and a Christian I find it immensely exciting. I have spent years studying and researching the way the brain works - particularly where emotions are concerned as this is my main area of interest. But I also have the Bible - this amazing document inspired by God who was the creator of the brain itself. More than that, in parts of the Bible we get to see Jesus - God in a human form, using the body and brain He designed. I love to see what we can learn from that and how the things the Bible teaches us can link in with the secular understanding we have to teach us how to get the best out of life - and talking and teaching about this is what I really love to do.

In spite of all this, the reality is that church is often an incredibly hard place to be if you are finding life tough. Jesus said that he had come for those who were sick; those who needed help to find the things so often absent in our world - hope, happiness and real fulfilment. I have worked my whole career with people who desperately need to find the things Jesus can bring them. But time and time again I have spoken to those people and the message is the same - in their times of deepest need they find church very difficult. Many cannot or do not come. Some come but find themselves feeling condemned or guilty and leave feeling worse. Most feel unable to be themselves in church and find themselves creating two versions of who they are - the person they are in church and the person they are the rest of the time who struggles to make it through the day. On top of the problems they already had they then have to deal with the fact that it feels like their faith - which they instinctively know should be helping them - actually seems to be making things worse. Some have had very difficult experiences with well-meaning Christians trying to help, but instead displaying their lack of understanding of what it really is to fight depression, or anxiety, or eating disorders or whatever it is.

So that is where I work. A place with tremendous power and potential but also where there are some big challenges as we look at how to help people to access them. Church offers the most amazing possibilities if we manage to pull together and live the way God intended before sin and everything else messed it up. But we come to church not as people who have grown up in Eden, but people who are living in the real work now - with difficult experiences, bad decisions, hard lessons and all kinds of tough stuff affecting who we are today. Into this comes God, who promises to make us new people. We cannot neglect to cover issues around our emotions and common struggles like stress and depression when we are trying to help people negotiate that journey of life changing with Jesus.

My work in the church is incredibly varied. As a church we aim to be proactive in supporting those with emotional problems - from those who are clinically unwell and in treatment through to the average everyday people in our congregation - like the rest of the population statistically 1 in 4 of them will face a mental health problem in their lifetime, and meanwhile other issues such as stress affect almost everyone. We work to support people, help them to access other professional help if they need it (including how to negotiate the often bewildering array of support offered by a GP and other local services) and provide extra support and crisis care if they need it.

As a church we also work hard to bring emotional health issues to the forefront of what we do as a church. As people living and working in the real world we know that emotional health is tricky, so amongst the usual topics covered in teaching we have preached on topics promoting good emotional health, including subjects like how to cope with stress and what emotions are and how to handle them. We cover the Biblical perspective but also offer practical advice. Meanwhile we're constantly looking at what we can do to help people feel more relaxed within church - from the moment they arrive and throughout our services. We're thinking about how we can make church more accessible and exploring some new projects aimed at offering some extra support and input for people who are feeling on the edge. We're always on the lookout for people who need a bit of extra care - perhaps if they are feeling upset or distressed in services. This might mean offering them someone to pray with, or something less directly spiritual like making them a cup of tea - even if it-s in the middle of the service. Something this simple can make the world of difference if you are feeling alone and insignificant. We also have a number of projects that go out to people where they are in the community. In particular we are involved in providing pastoral care and mentoring support to local schools and are working with the local authority to see how we can expand this.

So what on earth am I doing working in a church? Well it makes perfect sense to me. I would say to my colleague that working here gives me an amazing opportunity to be involved with people in a way that I wouldn't have in a more formal clinical setting. This presents its own challenges of maintaining professional boundaries and is not always simple, but I know that we can make a real difference here and I love watching the transformation God can bring to people's lives. I personally feel that my clinical skills fit in perfectly with the supernatural things that are involved in helping people change. Most of all I believe that the church has a responsibility to help and support people who are trapped in such dark places. Jesus said that he came so that people could have 'life to the full' (John 10:10). Many who are confined and limited by their own emotions are kept from experiencing this and I feel it is part of our role as leaders to help them to find the light. I know that the combination of good and effective treatment, caring support from real people and of course the power and love of God can bring people safely out of situations which seem from a human perspective to be utterly hopeless. I believe God brings (to quote an often used verse!) 'a hope and a future' (Jeremiah 29:11) to many people who feel they have neither and I am privileged to be a part of that.
Kate Middleton, 07/08/2009