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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - Sanctuary and Security

Our question this week is a tough one, and speaks to a perennial issue that pastors deal with - balancing the needs of one against the needs of many. Our colleague this week is in a particularly difficult spot. Read on.

I pastor a tiny mountain congregation, with a full sanctuary in the summer and sometimes only a handful of worshippers on winter Sundays. Among our congregants is a mentally disturbed man who has, in the past, been a summer visitor. He has lost his winter home and will be living here full time if he can find housing. (In the summer, he camps in the National Forest, and in the shoulder seasons, I believe he sleeps in unlocked sheds and garages.) He is a devout and articulate Christian with a debilitating problem. He has always participated appropriately. 

This summer, though, he is far less in control of his emotions and his actions, and today, a prayer concern about Social Security and income stability turned into a rant against Rick Perry and he threw a hymnal to the floor. After worship, an elder and I approached him to try to explain that his behavior was not appropriate for worship and to ask if he had a financial need with which we could help, and he grew even more agitated and said, "Just go ahead and shoot me." He has had similar outbursts in the community. Our best assessment is that, although he is overall not a violent man, he is capable of doing real harm. 

Throughout the summer, we have improved our security measures in many ways, and as much as it pains me, I now keep pepper spray under the pulpit, but we are approaching a season when, realistically, we may not have enough young, strong worshippers to subdue him.The nearest law enforcement is at least half an hour away. We are very much on our own in this.

Now our problem is twofold: How to safeguard the congregation during worship, and how to minister to this man. He depends on our food bank and many other services provided by church and community members, and he is certainly in our prayers. Realistically, there are no other "services" that we can bring to bear here, and often our only contact with him is on Sunday mornings. We don't want to abandon him.

I covet your prayers for both this man and for the worshipping community of which he has been a welcome part, and would appreciate any ideas you can offer. Is it ever appropriate to ask someone not to attend corporate worship? We are grieving our sense of "sanctuary," and don't know what to do.

Kathrynzj responds:
First and foremost - prayers ascending.
And some thoughts... I encourage you to contact that law enforcement that is 30 minutes away and ask them for their thoughts on the situation. If you are concerned for this man's privacy, then keep it fairly anonymous. As you are doing, keep in mind that when this man acts out it is not him, but his brain disorder. I hate that you may have to ban him from attending worship, but the safety of the rest of the congregation and you is at hand. Our society's treatment of mental illness is deplorable, but you cannot solve that by putting the congregation in jeopardy. 
I am sorry I don't have anything more concrete to offer. Does your denomination - either locally or nationally - have anything to offer? What about the county? 
And with that I go back to the first and foremost thing - prayers ascending.

Muthah+ writes:
One of the problems with being in small places is that there are not many resources.  I really understand your desire for this man's presence in your community and your own lack of ability to address his mental health needs.  But one of the blessings of the small community ministry is that everyone knows this guy.  Do you have basic health services in your town [ (i.e) emergency care, doctor's office]?  Check with them about how you need to deal with this person--don't ask about this man's condition because that is privileged info, but ask the dr's, nurses, etc.  how best to handle this man when he gets agitated.  Also, try to talk with the man when he is less agitated and ask him how you can help him.  Often in a more lucid moment, folks with mental health issues know of their problems and can talk about what it feels like to be afflicted with them.  They don't want your structures, but that is what he and you both need so that your congregation feels safe.  [Perhaps some of the revgals who have more experience with mental heath issues can chime in on how to deal with this situation.]
The pepper spray may never be used, but having it there may give you a feeling of security so that you can deal un-anxiously with any situation. Your refusing to become anxious in his acting out will be very important for the both of you.
Also, the next time the law enforcement folk are in town, ask them how they would handle him.  I can assure you they know him.  But mostly find a way that you can feel safe so that your congregation can feel safe.  Your confidence will give the congregation the courage to continue to reach out to the man.
I want to commend you and your congregation for being willing to reach out to this man.  Many congregations won't.  I believe that as communities of faith we must be willing to deal with those who 'don't fit in' in society as a part of our Christian commitment.  Jesus did address the needs of the demoniac.  He obviously needs medication but many folks find the meds so difficult to take and difficult to obtain.  But he finds something in your community that he values.  That alone may give you the leverage you need to help him. 
Also, if you can, let it be known to medical and law enforcement that you consider him to be a parishioner and when he is in hospital or jail (and he is going to be soon), visit him.  That will be the most important thing that may help connect your congregation so that they can help him stay on his meds.  Community support is the major key in helping the mentally ill.
Keep the faith, Sistah.  You are doing good work there.

And Sharon offers:
First, please take a second or two to recognize the gifts already present in this most challenging circumstance. You are an aware and caring pastor who is very intentionally seeking to balance some tricky things like security, welcome, and everyone's well-being.  Your congregation has been patient and kind.  Somewhere in the process of addressing this, making a more complete inventory of assets (God's gifts) might be helpful.
Next, this seems to be a man who is living with a mental illness. Mental illness is regularly misdiagnosed and frequently misunderstood as something the person can do something about by trying harder.  The stigma and the silence create more fear for everyone.  The man may is disruptive and scary acting but, unless there is evidence that he is violent toward people, he may be harmless in that way.  Reasonable caution is certainly called for and contingency plans put in place for a variety of emergency scenarios that could occur in any congregation.
Can he be talked to when he is more lucid?  Could he be part of creating a plan for what happens when he gets agitated?
A resource that you might indeed have is a group of people who could add some action steps to their care about this man. In one congregation, a single mom had two special needs children who weren't able to attend church.  A "support circle" was put into place for her.  Most people in the congregation didn't even know this group existed. The pastor facilitated getting it going, provided oversight, and it was totally "off the grid" -- that is, it was not part of any structure of the church and no one else knew who was on it or what they did or talked about.   The "support circle" met about once a month and the agenda was determined by the one being supported.  It was a time just for that person to feel supported, to talk, to troubleshoot, to get ideas, etc.  She received their time and attention in whatever way was helpful to her.  
The final option:  I do think that there are instances where it can be determined that a particular person doesn't fit with a particular congregation and then needs to be encouraged to go.
I hope there is something that fits for you in the responses you get today.  And I pray that you find clarity and courage in taking the next steps.  

Thank you, matriarchs, for your thoughtful and thorough responses! Some rich wisdom here. What would the rest of you share? Let's continue the conversation in the comments section.

And, as always, if you have a question you'd like the matriarchs to address, please send us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. What a hard situation--prayers for you!
    I live in the suburbs, so our context is different, but we had a similar situation a few years ago. A member with a mental illness chose to go off his medication occasionally. The final time, he became so threatening and so inappropriate that we did have to ask him to leave. He had taken to calling members and staff at home in the middle of the night, and even appeared at the home of one member who had been kind to him in church in the past. He was violent in words and menacing in action, and ultimately there was an order of protection put in place to safeguard several of us who were his obsessions, which included the church building. It was not an easy situation.
    From that experience, I'll just say: do everything you can to avoid being alone with him, and ask around to learn ways to defuse the situation when he is having an episode or outburst. And if the situation escalates, ask for help from a professional, even if that means removing him from your worshipping community. Continue to pray, and if the professionals think it won't cause problems you can visit or have people bring food, but sometimes helping someone into a healing environment (in our case it was a LENGTHY involuntary inpatient program) is the best thing we can do for them and for the church.

  2. Questioner, here. I'm going to remain anonymous in this thread because of the potential to both shame and enrage this man, who is much loved by our congregation. Thank you for your ideas, and especially for your prayers.

    We have used up all the "easy" solutions. We have several health-care professionals and one retired federal law-enforcement officer, so we are better equipped that some congregations might be, but in bad weather, our winter attendance can drop to single digits and the half-hour response time turns into, "As soon as the snowplow goes through." Apparently, in our state, it is very difficult for an organization that is neither law enforcement nor health care to initiate the process of involuntary treatment. Our sheriff has recommended we bar him from worship, but until very recently, our leadership felt strongly that was not the way we were called to witness to our beliefs. It's still not, and we have no way real to enforce it, but I now worry that we are endangering our worshippers just by gathering.

    So, we will continue to pray for a way to help this man regain his balance, and always make sure we have an exit route.

    Blessings to all.

  3. Such a complex and difficult situation. Prayers for you and your congregation.

  4. Anon, You will continue in my prayers. I agree with Teri, you may just have to ask him to leave. It sounds as though you have exhausted most of your avenues. Mental Health issues are so difficult folks won't stay on meds. Make your decision in prayer and be peaceful in your soul.


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