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The Rev. Dr. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA Executive Director and Director of Caring for Clergy and Congregations

When I was still pastoring Calvin Presbyterian Church, I had met with a young couple who were joining our

congregation. They had mostly given up after months of searching for the right church. Finally, the husband said to her, “That’s it! No more church-shopping. I’m done with religion!” She begged him to try one more church, our church, at the insistence of her stepmother. He relented grudgingly. After the service they both decided we were “it”. I asked them what changed. He said, “I finally felt like I experienced God in church.”

Not everyone had these experiences with us, but enough did that we steadily grew over my 22 years there. What made the difference? We intentionally tried to cultivate the experience of God in everything we did. We recognized that people in our culture are yearning to experience God, and they’ll look elsewhere in the secular realm when they don’t find it with us.

Okay, but don’t people experience God through our typical Presbyterian worship? Perhaps, but those who do are literally a dying breed. Traditional churches are designed for experiences catering to generations that are passing away, not for people of today. Few pastors or laity stop to wonder what experiences resonate with today’s generations.

So instead of missionally asking how we change so they can experience God with us, we criticize them for rejecting the experiences we offer. In response, they tell us that they’re “spiritual but not religious,” and we fail to hear their blunt message that we’re “religious but not spiritual.”

Following a more spiritual path, our church emphasized the experience of God not only in worship, but in everything. We questioned everything we did, wondering whether it facilitated a potential experience of God. In worship we wondered: are people encountering God or something else? On boards and committees: are people engaging with God or something else? In education: are we teaching insights and skills helping people experience and engage with God, or merely giving them interesting information about God?

I wrote about the primacy of experiencing God in worship in my book, In God’s Presence (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010). It was a guide for congregations on transforming worship, but not in the ways we typically think about it. We re-envisioned worship as the church’s mission—its primary mission—grounded in a foundational question: what are people experiencing when they worship with us?

For example, Presbyterians are incredibly wordy in worship. Look at a typical bulletin. It’s crammed with words, yet we’re living in a culture where music, visuals, symbols, and verbal brevity are everywhere. So, we traded wordiness for more reflective, musical, and personal experiences. We renovated our sanctuary to include color, art, better sound and lighting, and an overall aesthetic. We revamped most of our worship by questioning whether each element of worship helped or hindered the encounter with God, substituting elements that no longer worked for more creative ones we believed were more experiential. To generate ideas, each year our worship team visited other churches who were doing something different and experiential—contemporary, emergent, African American, traditional Episcopal, and even a 2 ½ hour casual Jewish Shabbat service in which 80% was in Hebrew.

In our discussions afterwards we always asked, “Where did you/I/we experience God?” We then considered what might be adapted for our worship. These led to significant changes: replacing a static, traditional responsive call to worship with a Taizé chant and silent prayer; reading scripture at the beginning of worship rather than in the middle; integrating contemporary, blues, jazz, popular, Celtic, Taizé and other forms of music throughout worship; offering communion every Sunday in one worship service; and healing prayers in worship once-a-month.

The inspiration for cultivating an experiential church emerged out of an insight I had in the 90s. I realized that churches grow when we offer something people yearn for but can’t find anywhere else. Conversely, we decline when we don’t. Many churches have tried to adapt over the past 25 years, asking, “What can we do to attract younger people?” or “How do we change but not lose our present members?” or “How do we do more in mission, so people know we’re here?” These are the wrong questions to ask because they ignore what people are yearning for.

What the church offers is a primary, regular avenue for the experience of God in worship, classes, fellowship, ministry, mission, and even meetings. A missional focus is important, but we constantly compete with many, many other organizations and efforts that offer what we offer in mission. Almost everything we do missionally has a secular counterpart that often do it better. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be missional. I just think we need to view worship and spirituality as foundationally missional because they’re the experiences people most deeply seek from a church.

How do we tell whether what we’re doing helps people experience God? By asking and assessing. Invite outsiders to our worship and church to assess us, and ask afterwards, “what was your experience of God in our worship, in our church.” Create informal focus groups, get feedback from visitors, and try to look at your church through others’ eyes. The key is to realize that what people experience with us determines their engagement (or disengagement) with us.

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The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA

I think a lot about the state of our collective mental health, especially in this age of growing mental health needs and the rise of mass shootings. Over the past decade Samaritan’s witnessed a significant rise in people seeking mental health services. It’s led to a shortage of therapists and long waiting lists for some counseling centers (we’ve worked very hard to ensure that we have minimal wait lists).

Most people blame the pandemic for the higher demand for counseling, but that’s only part of the story. We noticed a rise in demand even prior to the pandemic. We also noticed a rise in anxiety disorder diagnoses from 15% to 28% between 2017 and 2019. That’s a remarkable increase, and it happened prior to the pandemic. Why the increase?

I think it’s because of the massive polarization of our culture. I liken it to growing up in a household of angry, arguing parents who constantly attack and accuse each other. Who would expect children growing up in that environment to be healthy and happy? We would expect them to be depressed, anxious, angry, misbehaving, and/or self-abusive.

Over the past decade our culture has experienced a surge in rude, aggressive, crass behavior from leaders, media personalities, and more. We are inundated with angry, attacking accusations on cable, social media, and personal interactions. We live in a culture where abusing each other publicly is now commonplace. We hold no one accountable to it. In fact, we gravitate toward it.

It’s clear that humans are entertained by conflict. From soap operas to reality TV, Twitter to Facebook, cable news to talk radio, podcasts to politics, we gravitate toward conflict. The self-righteous anger it generates may stir us, but it also demeans, denigrates, and slowly deteriorates our lives. How can we be healthy when toxicity constantly encircles us like a cawing congress of crows?

Lately I’ve been studying the typical mental health profiles of mass shooters. There are significant commonalities among them that reflect how the ways we speak to each other can harm or heal us. Most have grown up in abusive homes and were bullied at school. They’ve struggled to fit in and have felt increasingly isolated, hopeless, and rejected. As they’ve become more self-loathing, our culture of division and polarization teaches them to turn their anger outward into a searing hatred of others—toward schoolmate who bullied and rejected them, workplace bosses and colleagues who they felt demeaned them; women, minorities, and others who they believe have replaced them. They want to be noticed, even if it’s by being a mass-murderer (often asking, “Do you notice me now?”). They are a twisted microcosm of a culture that’s becoming increasingly aggressive, crass, and rude.

I’m really not saying that cultural rudeness is solely responsible for mass shootings. I am saying that cultural crassness and rudeness slowly deteriorates our collective mental health, which leads to greater incidences of rage and emotional/physical violence. By tolerating and participating in our societal anger, we are making our country mentally unstable.

I don’t expect this article to change our world, but I do want to offer you ideas on how you personally can change your part in it. First, I would encourage you to learn from Samaritan’s incredible therapists and coaches. Every single day we see clients who are struggling. Some are easy to like, others can be prickly and difficult. It doesn’t matter what they’re like, our therapists and coaches look for what’s best in them. Like the biblical Samaritan, we see them as people who are struggling and need compassionate companions committed to helping them heal and grow. This is a lesson for us. Even with those who are difficult, strive to see what’s good and find ways to respond to them with kindness. Don’t give in to our cultural crassness and rudeness because it will never improve things. If it did our therapists would spend all day yelling at and insulting our clients.

Second, adopt a perspective of respect, even in, or perhaps especially in, conflicted situations. Stop tuning into and imitating social media, cable news, talk radio, and political posturing. Consider adopting what I call the Platinum Rule (the Golden Rule one step further). Don’t just treat others how we want to be treated. Treat them better. Respond to rudeness with respect, crassness with kindness. I’ve had two significant experiences with how effective this can be.

For about ten years I wrote periodic op-ed pieces for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. After one I received a blistering email criticizing everything from how terrible I must be as a pastor misleading a congregation to how awful I am as a person because of my beliefs. I wrote back a very respectful email positively commenting on his passion, summarizing his views, and asking him to simply consider my perspective born out of my experiences. He wrote a heart-felt apology and said something to the effect of, “When I wrote that it never really occurred to me that you were a real person with real feelings.”

Last year I received an angry email responding to an op-ed from 8 years earlier, saying “I hope you’ve evolved from your stupid opinion from 8 years ago.” Again, I responded respectfully and compassionately, stating how I understood his point of view and just had a different perspective. He not only apologized, but it led to a series of emails back and forth as he asked me to help him discern what to do about moving his family to take a new job in a new city, and how to be the father of a toddler.

Finally, respond to conflict to collaboration. Look for commonality in disagreement rather than differences. I’ve always found that when we do this, we can transform conflict into collaboration that leads to greater creativity and community.

I wish we all had the power to change our world into one that nurtures mental health. We don’t. But we can change our part of the world and nurture better health in the people we know.

Blessings to all.

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How Therapy and Faith Led to Self-Discovery

By Rachel E. Neelley

A long time ago in a galaxy not so far away, I was married to a not so good man. Several years into our marriage, I began writing a series of books. They came to me in a dream, and they wouldn’t stop pinging around my head. I was so proud, and I was so jazzed and I said to him one day after almost finishing the first book, “Someday, I’m going to have these books published and tour around the country and be a successful writer.” His response was, “Yeah, and I’m going to be an eighth-degree black belt and pigs are going to fly.”

I wish I could say that this was the first and last time he hurt me like that. Yet I still stayed with him, believing that my marriage vows were more important than my emotional health or life success. I was desperate to continue growing, despite him constantly holding me down. I was a flower tended by a gardener who kept me rooted in fetid soil, watered only enough to keep me alive. Thriving was never going to happen in this relationship. He ended up finding someone at work who interested him more than me, and then he decided it was time to leave our marriage. I was cast off, alone, lost, confused, and deeply wounded.

While I was dealing with the shock of being on my own, I realized that I needed to find help to become the person I always believed I could be. The path to life and purpose led me to two simultaneous destinations: therapy and God.

Therapy taught me to set goals that I could work toward, including the realization that my married years were a battleground that I had to heal and grow from, and pursuing a better version of myself. Also, it helped me reach a life-long goal that you are witnessing right now. I am now a published writer with this article!

God taught me to understand that my struggles don’t define my life but can transform me into an instrument of healing for others in their darkest times. Most importantly, God provided me with the unconditional love that I was starved for. And God allowed me to realize that deep love comes from within.

The combination of emotional and spiritual healing refreshed my body and soul in a miraculous way. My mindset shifted from the negativity that had been ingrained in me through years of an abusive marriage, to an attitude of gratitude with a knowledge that I could accomplish anything I ever dreamed of because I had the power within me, thanks to how I was heavenly made. I got my college degree and renewed my relationship with music—something that I had put aside at the request of my then-husband. I prayed daily, saw a therapist weekly, and became someone I truly loved to say hello to in the mirror every day. In addition to my weekly job, I also play trumpet and other instruments at my church, where they encourage me to constantly heal and grow.

I hope that this writing touches your soul. I hope that, if you are in the position I was once in, it gives you comfort and strength. You are so worthy of all the beautiful things in this world. I’m telling you this because I’ve been there. I’m telling you this because if I can blossom after being held down for so long, I have no doubts that you can too. Healing is like climbing a mountain. It’s hard work and sometimes painful, but even a fraction of the way up, you can look back over your shoulder and marvel at the progress you’ve made. Your therapists, coaches, and mentors are your guides up the mountain, cheering you on, reminding you of your abilities when you forget. And then, at the summit, the magic happens. After taking in the astounding view of your life, you become a guide for the next climber. You get to share your wisdom, your pain, your struggles. And it is truly a sight to behold and an experience worth the climb. Each day is a new opportunity. So lace up your hiking boots. I’ll see you at the summit.

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