State of the Family 2020: Relational Poverty in Church

State of the Family 2020: Relational Poverty in Church

Part 1 of a 3-part series for State of the Family

By Whole Life | 7 July 2020

This is the first article of a three-part series for State of the Family 2020.

What is Relational Poverty?

A Bible teacher and missionary once commented that almost every problem in the world is a problem of relationship. Teachers dealing with behavioral issues in students often tell us the problem stems from home. It’s not uncommon for a parent who presents an issue with their child to belie tension within their marriage. Whether a person believes in marriage as a permanent institution is typically shaped by their experience of relationships.

When families were home-bound 24/7 during Circuit Breaker, it tested the strength of their relationships with one other and with their various communities, including the Church. Many were reminded that relationships require time and effort that busy Singapore living makes easy to take for granted.

Thus, in examining the state of the family in 2020, we explore the issue of relational poverty and its implications on individuals, families, communities, and society. For clarity of discussion, we will define relational poverty as “a lack of deep, genuine and healthy connectedness with others”.

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35, NIV)

The Bible undergirds the importance of Relationship. Our faith is itself established on the basis of a reconciled relationship with our Maker. God created mankind for relationship, thus the saying that “no man is an island”. Family thrives on relationship. The way we live out our relationships can demonstrate hope and healing to a broken world in need of love.

This article highlights the issue of relational poverty in the Church. We explore how it affects ministry leaders and members, and share insights from the following leaders of different churches and ministries:

  • Pastor Chua Seng Lee – Deputy Senior Pastor at Bethesda (Bedok-Tampines) Church, co-founder of Christian Mental Health Advocates and married with two young adult children
  • Pastor Ian Toh – Senior Pastor at 3:16 Church, married with four children
  • Timothy Weerasekera – Full-time ministry staff at Cornerstone Community Church, single young adult

We also release results from the Mental Health Survey for the Church 2020 conducted earlier this year to understand the state and knowledge of mental health amongst ministry leaders and church staff.

Relational Poverty in Church – Does it exist, and why?

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24-25, NIV)

We need deep relationships amongst believers to mutually encourage and support one another, to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds”.

When asked on his view about the state of relationships in the Church, Timothy notes that “churches provide incredible social networks for the important feeling of community belonging, for mentorship, and for the building up of one’s social capital in a broader sense”.

While the opportunities to foster close relationships amongst church members are plentiful, the truth is that not every member is closely connected with the church community. Consolidated results from the Whole Life Inventory 2016-2018 – a multi-dimensional instrument for churches to assess the health and needs of their congregation in the five different areas of faith, identity, relationship, sexuality and values – revealed that only 75% of respondents agreed that “I feel that my church is like a family”, and 71% of respondents could “talk to someone in church about my personal concerns or family problems”.

Timothy shared that this could be attributed to the lack of deep relationships in the Church. “In some circles where ‘church’ is pursued for the sake of religious ritual in the absence of a focus on building the relational ecclesia, relationships invariably become superficial.”

Pastor Ian added that the program-centric nature of the modern-day church may hinder intentional relationship building. “In my experience, it is easy to fall into a program-centric or missional relationship between the church and her members. Churches can be more vibrant and dynamic when they see themselves as a “family”, whereby the activities amongst members transcend planned church programs.”

Viewing church as yet another “program” in our weekly calendar is tempting, due to the busyness of the average Singaporean. Demands from work, school, family and life in general force us to organise our days and weeks into neat schedules so that we have enough time to fulfil all our obligations and tasks. With church services now moved online, there is little to no chance for the informal and casual interactions that happen when we meet physically in church, resulting in lost opportunities to deepen bonds if we are not intentional in meeting up online or physically in small groups during this season.

Implications on Church Ministry and Leadership

Impact on Mental Health

The responsibility of facilitating community and relationship building seems to fall on those serving in ministry – pastors, full-time ministry staff and lay leaders, who themselves have to care for and minister to church members. As they conduct pastoral care and counselling, they tend to take on the struggles of another person (or in some cases, multiple persons simultaneously), and end up carrying a very heavy load.

Pastor Seng Lee highlighted that because of the nature of such ministry work, it is difficult – and most of the time, inappropriate – for these ministry leaders and staff to share their own struggles with others. “To protect the confidentiality of the members, these leaders have to keep a lot of the things they go through to themselves. It is not a healthy thing to do, but it is the wisest thing to do, so that they avoid stumbling other members.”

Shouldering these struggles on their own could be taking its toll. Results from the Mental Health Survey for the Church 2020 highlights:

  • 23% of respondents “have trouble sleeping”.
  • 21% of respondents “feel nervous/tense/worried most of the time”.
  • 20% of respondents “don’t find the same pleasure in activities that I used to enjoy before”.
  • 13% of respondents “feel sad most of the time”.
  • 10% of respondents agreed that “the thought of ending my life has been on my mind”.

Lack of Social Support

Research shows that social support plays a key role in protecting a person’s mental health1, thus highlighting the importance of receiving support from family, friends and colleagues. However, results from the Mental Health Survey for the Church 2020 suggests that this support may be lacking for some ministry leaders and staff:

  • 11% of respondents do not have a “family member/mentor/friend that they can openly and honestly share their problems with”.
  • 15% of respondents do not have “someone in church they can talk to about personal concerns or family problems”.

This suggests that some of our ministry leaders and staff could be struggling alone with various symptoms of mental illness, whether due to perceived stigma surrounding mental health issues and/or the possible consequences of admitting one’s struggle.

Pastor Seng Lee explains, “For leaders struggling with mental health issues, they may be afraid to admit these struggles to senior leaders, some of whom may not be too familiar with the nature of such issues. An undesirable outcome could be them losing their jobs, and so they may be hesitant to open up about their struggles.”

Of particular concern to Pastor Seng Lee were his fellow pastors. Survey results revealed that 20% of pastors who participated in the survey said that they do not have “someone in church they can talk to about personal concerns or family problems”.

“This is not an uncommon issue; I have worked with some pastors who are struggling with this. They are unable to talk to anybody in their church about this for various reasons, and have been struggling with anxiety alone.”

What Can We Do?

Support for Church Leaders

Both Pastor Ian and Timothy reminded us that it is important for church leaders to have their own support. Considering the nature of the struggles church leaders face, it is appropriate for this support system to comprise of co-leaders and trusted friends.

“Church leaders ought to build lateral relationships amongst co-leaders in the broader Church, as well as a network of close friends in their own church laity,” said Timothy.

Sensitivity and discernment are definitely needed when sharing struggles concerning the situation of other church members, especially if sharing with someone who is not in a church leadership position. This does not mean a church leader should shy away from seeking a close community, as just having the social and relational support of trusted individuals will help to lighten the perceived load on a struggling leader’s shoulders.

Openness and Equipping on Mental Health

85% of the respondents to the Mental Health Survey for the Church agreed that “my church needs to do more to address mental health issues”, highlighting a gap that the Church should address.

Pastors Ian and Seng Lee shared that there is room for improvement in attitudes amongst church leaders with regards to struggles relating to mental health.

“While most pastors are sympathetic to the struggles of another pastor, there can be a greater openness for pastors to seek counselling. There is also a need for more education of pastors in the area of mental wellness,” said Pastor Ian.

Pastor Seng Lee believes that proper equipping regarding mental health issues will help church leaders and those involved in ministry to understand the true nature of these struggles. This will lead to more openness in dealing with such issues personally, increase understanding towards fellow church leaders and members with similar struggles, and enable them to better support one another.

“There is a need for us to understand the human makeup. You cannot help someone struggling with mental health issues if you don’t know enough, much like how you cannot operate on somebody if you don’t know anything about surgery.”

Professional Help and Support

Christian Mental Health Advocates, co-founded by Pastor Seng Lee, speaks into the mental health space for Christians and seeks to provide professional support in this area. The group is currently consolidating trusted professional resources to help church leaders deal with mental health issues, and connecting with Christian counsellors and psychiatrists.

“We are working with several groups to provide professional support in this area. Mental Connect and the Association of Christian Counsellors (Singapore) have recently come on board,” said Pastor Seng Lee. “We are also working with other groups to provide training courses, so that we can help church leaders who are looking to equip themselves and their ministry leaders in this area.”

Lastly, Pastor Seng Lee highlighted that one of the aims of Christian Mental Health Advocates is to provide the necessary support for church leaders who are themselves struggling with issues related to mental wellness.

“We hope that Christian Mental Health Advocates will become a safe, trusted community of friends that pastors can come to if they need support, with experienced mentors to journey with them.”

Relational and Mental Health for a Strong Community

Building strong relationships within the church community will contribute towards resolving the issue of relational poverty. While pastors and ministry leaders continue their work in ministering to and strengthening the church community, they should be mindful of what the Word of God reminds us in Acts 20:28 (NIV), "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood."

Investing time and effort in relational and psycho-emotional self-care is part of this task of “keeping watch over yourselves”. This starts with building deeper relationships with co-leaders and trusted friends.

In a standard flight safety brief, passengers are always reminded that should oxygen masks be deployed due to the loss of cabin pressure, they should first put on their own oxygen mask before proceeding to help others. This will ensure that the passenger is able to cope with the drop in cabin pressure and give them the capacity to help others in need.

In the same way, if we want strong relationships to exist throughout the church community, church and ministry leaders need to first have the space and capacity to build healthy relationships for themselves, thereby increasing their capacity to better reach out to and care for other church members. An important step in this process is to help the Church better address mental health issues – for church leaders themselves as well as to support their members facing similar struggles. When church leaders care for others out of a full love tank instead of an empty one, this will go a long way in helping the Church build and sustain deeper, authentic relationships at every level.

1. The role of sources of social support on depression and quality of life for university students

© 2020 Whole Life. All rights reserved.

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