Corn, Caucuses, Creative Writing … and Mental Health (Updated)

It was the first time I ever spoke about legislation on the floor of the West Michigan Annual Conference. As an introvert, I do not normally have a need to talk, but in 1997, after fifteen years of attending annual conference, I found my voice. We were discussing what benefits our conference health care plan would offer for mental health, and I had heard enough. Our family was struggling with mental health issues at the time, so I stood up and said, “I’ve been listening to many reasons why our conference cannot afford to add equal benefits for mental health as we already have for physical health. To me, this is not only discriminatory, but it also stigmatizes families who are dealing with addiction, depression, or other psychological illnesses. Will we have the courage to do what we need to do for our clergy families?” The conference voted to equalize benefits, and I went back to being silent.

Mental health is a significant issue in Iowa, although one might not think that from a February 27, 2018 US News and World Report, which honored Iowa as the #1 Best State in the US. The report noted that we usually think of Iowa as consisting of “corn, caucuses, and creative writing.” However, this report highlighted some real strengths of our state. We were #1 in infrastructure and broadband access, #3 in health care, #4 in opportunity, #5 in education, and #9 quality of life, leading to an overall #1 placement. Pretty encouraging, right?

Despite this honor, mental health services in Iowa were not addressed at all in the report. If they had been, the results might have been different. A 2016 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center ranked Iowa a dismal 49th out of 50 states in inpatient psychiatric hospital beds operated by the state (64 beds). The number of beds in Iowa has steadily decreased in recent years, culminating in a nearly 100 bed cut in 2014 when two Iowa mental health facilities closed.

Compounding the lack of inpatient beds is an increase in suicide in Iowa, especially in small farming communities. A United Methodist pastor of a rural, multi-point charge told me that in a recent year the first three funerals the pastor conducted were suicides of farmers. The suicide rate in rural America is 45% higher than in urban America. Depression often goes undiagnosed, especially in children and youth, the cost of health care is high, beds are often not available, and there are not enough mental health professionals to go around.

A poll taken earlier this year found that the top policy issue of concern to Iowans is mental health. In 2018 the Iowa legislature passed bipartisan legislation that has the potential to make significant changes in Iowa’s mental health system. These changes include required suicide prevention training for school employees, adding six regional “Access Centers” to provide 120 beds for persons in mental health or substance abuse crisis, and “assertive community treatment teams” that would assist those with serious mental illness to stay on their medication and continue treatment in their own community.

United Methodists in Iowa are doing their part to strengthen mental and emotional health in Iowa. In response to a resolution on Mental Health that was approved by the 2017 Iowa Annual Conference, we set up a Mental Health Task Force in early 2018. This was also in anticipation of continuing with our quadrennial emphasis on the Four Focus Areas of The United Methodist Church: Developing Principled Christian Leaders; Creating New Places for New Faces; Engaging in Ministry with the Poor; and Stamping out the Killer Diseases of Poverty, like Malaria.

The task force includes a lawyer for a healthcare organization; the pastor for our UM church inside the Iowa women’s prison; clergy who serve as counselors; laypersons who deal with mental illness within their families; a retired police officer who saw Iowa’s mental health system up close; a school teacher; and members of churches that have their own mental health ministry. Every one of these leaders is committed to improving mental health care in Iowa. This is the purpose statement that the Mental Health Task Force adopted:

Our purpose is to enlighten, encourage, and equip a network of United Methodists and others who are working to strengthen mental and emotional health in Iowa through unflinching, practical, transformative acts of engagement, caring and connection, including:

  • within their personal relationships and circles of care
  • within their own churches and communities
  • through civic and volunteer roles, and/or
  • by advocating for legislative change.

Knowing that mental health issues are a prime contributor to poverty, our task force began its work by offering two workshops at the 2018 Iowa Annual Conference. Both workshops were filled to overflowing, and a generous offering was received. As a follow-up, a series of Mental Health First Aid trainings have taken place in all of the districts.

So far, two hundred United Methodists in Iowa have been trained in Mental Health First Aid, which teaches individuals how to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders in one’s community. Topics include role-playing, stigmas, responding to alcoholism, opioid use, cultural sensitivity, suicide, mental health and incarceration, and cooperation with the law enforcement community. The bishop, appointive cabinet, and district and conference staff will be taking the day-long course in February 2019.

Watch for the Task Force to reach out to Mental Health First Aiders and local churches to encourage a range of specific actions on behalf of mental and behavioral health. This will include hosting conversations about mental health and creating a culture of welcome for persons and their families who are dealing with mental health challenges. Other ideas include:

  • Creating community coalitions of providers, police, judges, and others whose work intersects with mental health, to consider how we can do better
  • Connecting interested persons with training to serve as crisis line advocates around mental health or suicide
  • Advocacy at local, state, and national levels that will improve funding, access, and justice in the many ways that mental health intersects with public policy

The task force is also beginning to make connections with leaders in other states who are pursuing similar goals, so that we might learn from each other’s successes and efforts. If you’d like to know more or want to share your ideas, please be in touch with the Iowa Mental Health Task Force through the chair, Len Eberhart, at lendiane92@gmail.com, or with any of the leaders identified at the link above.

Corn, caucuses, creative writing, and mental health: they are all important to the state of Iowa. We will continue to improve in the area of mental health because we are committed to fullness of life for all people. And the Iowa Conference will continue to inspire, train, and equip volunteers because our faith compels us to advocate and take caring action on behalf of all of God’s children. Wherever you live and serve: how will you find your voice around mental health and substance abuse disorders? Let’s all work together!

Corn, Caucuses, Creative Writing … and Mental Health 

It was the first time I ever spoke about legislation on the floor of the West Michigan Annual Conference. As an introvert, I do not normally have a need to talk, but in 1997, after fifteen years of attending annual conference, I found my voice. We were discussing what benefits our conference health care plan would offer for mental health, and I had heard enough. Our family was struggling with mental health issues at the time, so I stood up and said, “I’ve been listening to many reasons why our conference cannot afford to add equal benefits for mental health as we already have for physical health. To me, this is not only discriminatory, but it also stigmatizes families who are dealing with addiction, depression, or other psychological illnesses. Will we have the courage to do what we need to do for our clergy families?” The conference voted to equalize benefits, and I went back to being silent.

Mental health is a significant issue in Iowa, although one might not think that from a February 27, 2018 US News and World Report, which honored Iowa as the #1 Best State in the US. The report noted that we usually think of Iowa as consisting of “corn, caucuses, and creative writing.” However, this report highlighted some real strengths of our state. We were #1 in infrastructure and broadband access, #3 in health care, #4 in opportunity, #5 in education, and #9 quality of life, leading to an overall #1 placement. Pretty encouraging, right?

Despite this honor, mental health services in Iowa were not addressed at all in the report. If they had been, the results might have been different. A 2016 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center ranked Iowa a dismal 49th out of 50 states in inpatient psychiatric hospital beds operated by the state (64 beds). The number of beds in Iowa has steadily decreased in recent years, culminating in a nearly 100 bed cut in 2014 when two Iowa mental health facilities closed.

Compounding the lack of inpatient beds is an increase in suicide in Iowa, especially in small farming communities. A United Methodist pastor of a rural, multi-point charge told me that in a recent year the first three funerals the pastor conducted were suicides of farmers. The suicide rate in rural America is 45% higher than in urban America. Depression often goes undiagnosed, especially in children and youth, the cost of health care is high, beds are often not available, and there are not enough mental health professionals to go around.

A poll taken earlier this year found that the top policy issue of concern to Iowans is mental health. In 2018 the Iowa legislature passed bipartisan legislation that has the potential to make significant changes in Iowa’s mental health system. These changes include required suicide prevention training for school employees, adding six regional “Access Centers” to provide 120 beds for persons in mental health or substance abuse crisis, and “assertive community treatment teams” that would assist those with serious mental illness to stay on their medication and continue treatment in their own community.

United Methodists in Iowa are doing their part to strengthen mental and emotional health in Iowa. In response to a resolution on Mental Health that was approved by the 2017 Iowa Annual Conference, we set up a Mental Health Task Force in early 2018. This was also in anticipation of continuing with our quadrennial emphasis on the Four Focus Areas of The United Methodist Church: Developing Principled Christian Leaders; Creating New Places for New Faces; Engaging in Ministry with the Poor; and Stamping out the Killer Diseases of Poverty, like Malaria.

The task force includes a lawyer for a healthcare organization; the pastor for our UM church inside the Iowa women’s prison; clergy who serve as counselors; laypersons who deal with mental illness within their families; a retired police officer who saw Iowa’s mental health system up close; a school teacher; and members of churches that have their own mental health ministry. Every one of these leaders is committed to improving mental health care in Iowa. This is the purpose statement that the Mental Health Task Force adopted:

Our purpose is to enlighten, encourage, and equip a network of United Methodists and others who are working to strengthen mental and emotional health in Iowa through unflinching, practical, transformative acts of engagement, caring and connection, including:

  • within their personal relationships and circles of care
  • within their own churches and communities
  • through civic and volunteer roles, and/or
  • by advocating for legislative change.

Knowing that mental health issues are a prime contributor to poverty, our task force began its work by offering two workshops at the 2018 Iowa Annual Conference. Both workshops were filled to overflowing, and a generous offering was received. As a follow-up, a series of Mental Health First Aid trainings have taken place in all of the districts.

So far, two hundred United Methodists in Iowa have been trained in Mental Health First Aid, which teaches individuals how to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders in one’s community. Topics include role-playing, stigmas, responding to alcoholism, opioid use, cultural sensitivity, suicide, mental health and incarceration, and cooperation with the law enforcement community. The bishop, appointive cabinet, and district and conference staff will be taking the day-long course in February 2019.

Watch for the Task Force to reach out to Mental Health First Aiders and local churches to encourage a range of specific actions on behalf of mental and behavioral health. This will include hosting conversations about mental health and creating a culture of welcome for persons and their families who are dealing with mental health challenges. Other ideas include:

  • Creating community coalitions of providers, police, judges, and others whose work intersects with mental health, to consider how we can do better
  • Connecting interested persons with training to serve as crisis line advocates around mental health or suicide
  • Advocacy at local, state, and national levels that will improve funding, access, and justice in the many ways that mental health intersects with public policy

The task force is also beginning to make connections with leaders in other states who are pursuing similar goals, so that we might learn from each other’s successes and efforts. If you’d like to know more or want to share your ideas, please be in touch with the Iowa Mental Health Task Force through the chair, Len Eberhart, at leneberhart@gmail.com, or with any of the leaders identified at the link above.

Corn, caucuses, creative writing, and mental health: they are all important to the state of Iowa. We will continue to improve in the area of mental health because we are committed to fullness of life for all people. And the Iowa Conference will continue to inspire, train, and equip volunteers because our faith compels us to advocate and take caring action on behalf of all of God’s children. Wherever you live and serve: how will you find your voice around mental health and substance abuse disorders? Let’s all work together!

Exercising the Discipline of the Whole Church

I learned two things about The United Methodist Church before I ever dreamed of one day becoming a United Methodist pastor. First, when a large United Methodist church in Connecticut hired me to be their part-time Director of Music while I was pursuing a graduate degree in sacred music, I said to myself after a few months, “I love the people of the United Methodist Church! They are faithful and fruitful, and they were willing to take a risk and hire a kid like me to shepherd their music program.” I stayed for five years.

Second, two District Superintendents traveled to Yale Divinity School to visit Gary during his last year as he was preparing for his first appointment in Michigan. Then they turned to me and said, “Laurie, we know that you are pursuing ordination in the General Conference Mennonite Church, but if you ever want an appointment in the West Michigan Conference, just let us know! We’d love for you to be one of our pastors.”

I never forgot their gracious invitation and eventually took them up on the offer, receiving my first appointment in Michigan as a pastor in good standing of another denomination. Six years later, I transferred my ordination credentials from the General Conference Mennonite Church to The United Methodist Church.

It was because of the graciousness of the Cabinet and Board of Ordained Ministry of The West Michigan Conference that I am a United Methodist today. The United Methodist Church is not an insular denomination, closed in on itself and unwilling to embrace other religious groups. In fact, United Methodists are on the forefront of ecumenical and interfaith relationships, as we seek to work together to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

  • Did you know that there are 24 pastors from other denominations who are serving under appointment in United Methodist local churches in Iowa? Additionally, there are four pastors serving from other Methodist denominations.
  • Did you know that there are 23 yoked/union/federated/multi-point charges in Iowa, which means that one or more of the churches is United Methodist and the other is of a different denomination? All but one are located in small towns or rural settings.
  • Did you know that the United Methodist Church has an Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships, which is located in the Council of Bishops Office in Washington D.C.? The staff includes a part-time Ecumenical Officer, who is a retired bishop, an Ecumenical Staff Officer for Leadership Development, and another Ecumenical Staff Officer for Faith and Order and Theological Development.

Episcopal leaders in The United Methodist Church are mandated to lead the denomination in ecumenical and interreligious ministry. When new bishops are consecrated, these words are shared during the examination of episcopal candidates, “You are called to guard the faith, to seek the unity, and to exercise the discipline of the whole church; and to supervise and support the church’s life, work and mission throughout the world. These are high and holy callings.”

The Book of Discipline 2016 also emphasizes our call to share Christ’s love throughout the world by partnering with other religious groups.

  • “The United Methodist Church is a part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ”. (UMC Constitution, Article IV 4 “Inclusiveness of the Church”)
  • “Christian unity is founded on the theological understanding that through faith in Jesus Christ, we are made members-in-common of the one body of Christ. Christian unity is not an option; it is a gift to be received and expressed.” (Our Theological Task: Ecumenical Commitment, ¶105 BOD 2016)
  • “In the name of Jesus Christ, we are called to work within our diversity while exercising patience and forbearance with one another. Such patience stems neither from indifference toward truth nor from an indulgent tolerance of error but from an awareness that we know only in part and that none of us is able to search the mysteries of God except by the Spirit of God.” (The Present Challenge to Theology in the Church, ¶105 BOD 2016)
  • “The Church expects the Council of Bishops to speak to the Church and from the Church to the world and to give leadership in the quest for Christian unity and interreligious relationships.” (¶ 422.2, BOD 2016)

© Global Freedom Network

From the very beginning of the Methodist movement, we have been in relationship with Christians of other denominations in order to exercise the discipline of the whole church, and John Wesley was always eager to dialogue with other Christian groups. Even when Wesley disagreed firmly with those of different beliefs, he always wanted to stay in relationship.

United Methodists lead the way in ecumenism. United Methodist clergy almost always participate in local ecumenical/clergy organizations. The UMC also has formal, full communion relationships with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, AME Zion Church, African Union Methodist Protestant Church, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Uniting Church of Sweden, The Union American Methodist Episcopal Church, and The Moravian Church, Northern and Southern Provinces.

Here are other resources and ways to exercise the discipline of the whole church.

  • “One in Spirit,” An Ecumenical Curriculum for Local Congregations” (six-week study)
  • UMEIT (United Methodist Ecumenical and Interreligious Trainings) There are different types of training resources, including for youth and young adults.
  • United Methodist Ecumenism 101 Brochure
  • The United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church have completed a proposal for full communion, A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness, which will be voted on at the 2020 General Conference.
  • The staff of the Council of Bishops and the General Board of Church and Society have partnered together to begin a new interfaith scriptural study group in The United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill. The study is using a practice called Scriptural Reasoning, which is a tool for inter-faith dialogue where people of different faiths come together and read and reflect on their scriptures.

In a country and world that seems increasingly polarized, it is more important than ever that United Methodists exercise the discipline of the whole church by engaging their neighbors of different denominations and religions in common ministry. May all Christians together use this prayer from the Book of Common PrayerGracious God, we pray for thy holy catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.(William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1645)