Chapter 19: Clergymen in Mental Health Centers: One Parish’s Educational Counseling Plan by John B. Oman

Community Mental Health: The Role of Church and Temple
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr., (Ed.)

Chapter 19: Clergymen in Mental Health Centers: One Parish’s Educational Counseling Plan by John B. Oman

A round-faced toddler with wheat-colored hair bounded onto the stage and smiled happily at an audience of about seventy- five people. Behind him, although taller and two years older, his sister walked slowly and edged backward to a chair, sat down, and stared at the toes of her black patent leather shoes. The assembly could not see her face at all, only the perfectly even part in her hair and the twin ponytails tied with blue bows. Now and then she smoothed out her skirt or twisted the bracelet on her arm, but she did not look up.

"What’s your name?" the director asked the small boy, and was rewarded with a grin and the clear announcement that his name was "Tommy" and that he was "free years old." When the question was asked of his sister, she did not indicate any awareness but continued to study her shoes. So Tommy provided the director with her name -- Becky -- and age -- five.

The conversation between director and boy revealed that "yes, he and his sister fought sometimes," and they sometimes hit each other. Momentary contrition clouded the little boy’s face, but he brightened up, telling about the pet dog he had been promised.

As the two left the stage, Tommy was leading as before. The director turned to the audience and commented, "This is an obvious power struggle," then asked, "What’s the story here?"

A grandmotherly type raised her hand and said, "Tommy has found the ‘charm route’ to getting his own way. He’s obviously the boss in that home."

A father with two pre-teen children sitting beside him made the next observation, "He’s clearly the mother’s favorite. The little girl has given up. She’s the one who needs help first."

Some people in the audience remembered the first visit of Tommy and Becky and their divorced mother to the Wesley Methodist Church’s Parent Education Center. They recalled that the mother, trying to handle the overwhelming responsibilities of earning a living; finding competent, warmhearted babysitters; and being a double parent, had sought guidance from the Center. Several suggestions had been made to her at that time, including the director’s guideline: "Don’t interfere with the children’s fights. They are trying to involve you. Let them settle things by themselves, without you being judge."

The mother’s current problem was the difficulty of coping with the little girl, who repeatedly wanted to hug the mother, to follow her around, to literally cling to her apron strings. The consensus of the audience was that the child was conscious of her brother’s charm, his painless method of getting his own way by eliciting attention and smiles and the impulse to love him. She was plainly discouraged, and felt the need for constant reassurance. She should have this reassurance, the audience agreed. Becky must be made to feel secure in her mother’s love, must hear the words and see the approval in her mother’s eyes, but not pity, which would only reinforce her feelings of inadequacy.

After this case, two more parents and their offspring appeared on the stage and set forth their problems -- the parents first and then the children; the parents retiring to a room out of sight and hearing so that the children would not be influenced by their presence or their reaction to what the children said. The problems are varied: bedwetting, impudence, underachievement, exaggerated sibling rivalry, to name a few. How they are solved illustrates in classic simplicity and effectiveness the whole theory of education-plus-counseling at Wesley Church.

It is possible to learn from the mistakes of others as well as from one’s own -- this is the premise on which the Wesley program is founded. For activation of the program, Wesley depends upon an informed and dedicated laity. Over 10 percent of the membership is involved in one or more of the counseling-oriented courses of action fostered by the century-old downtown Minneapolis church.

The Parent Education Center, one of the newest of Wesley’s activities (not yet two years old) , has quickly developed into a community resource that draws observer-participants every Sunday morning and has helped families from all over the Twin Cities area through various problems and conflicts.

Based on the Adlerian theory that problems are best brought out into the open and that those who know will be far less judgmental than the troubled one fears, the counseling and education program has successfully proved that people do care and people will help.

The family with problems is required to attend two sessions of the Parent Education Center (held every Sunday morning, from 9:15 to 12:00, this block of time being divided into two periods to allow for church attendance) before registering and offering its problem for discussion. Sometimes mere attendance and observation will give enough insight so that the family can begin working on its problem.

There is no fee connected with Wesley’s Parent Education Center. The children are placed in the playroom where supervisors make notes on their behavioral patterns and attitudes. This is particularly valuable since the observations are made during a time when the children are not influenced by reacting toward parents.

The parents (or parent) take a comfortable place on the stage, which is raised about fourteen inches above the main floor. The audience is a vital part of this entire procedure. Composed partly of parents with problems, it also has a heavy preponderance of the laity in training which figures so strikingly in all of Wesley’s endeavors. As the parent outlines the problem, the director will ask questions and so will people in the audience. The director of Wesley’s Center is a pediatrician, but if a physician is not available, any member willing to immerse himself in study of today’s child-care and psychology literature, and who is of a mature state of mind, flexible, outgoing, and truly interested in people, can do the job. The director guides the discussion along the lines of sound personality and character development -- with no less an underlying thesis than the Golden Rule.

Parents are urged to develop an atmosphere of mutual respect; to communicate on levels of fun and recreation as well as on discipline and advice; to allow a child to learn "through natural consequences" -- that is, by experiencing what happens when he dawdles in the morning and is permitted to experience the unpleasantness and embarrassment of being late to school; to encourage the child and spend time with him playing and learning (positively) rather than spending time lecturing and disciplining (negatively) , since the child who is misbehaving is often merely craving attention and if he gets it in pleasant, constructive ways, he will not demand it in antisocial ways; to avoid trying to put the child in a mold of what the parent thinks he should do and be, or what other people think he should do and be, rather than what his natural gifts and tendencies indicate; to take time to train the child in basic skills -- to bake a cake, pound a nail, sketch or write or play a melody -- including those things the parents know and do well and are interested in. Even if the child is not talented along the same lines, he will appreciate having the parent share the art, skill, or knowledge with him in a non-demanding way.

If the children are teen-agers, they often appear on stage with the parents and join in the discussion of the problem. But if the children are pre-teen and younger, it is deemed best to present them apart from the parents.

After hearing both sides or all sides (grandparents and the public school teacher occasionally appear, too) , the director and audience offer a number of suggestions to try during the forthcoming week. The Recorder for the Center keeps a written account of these recommendations, along with a progress report. The parent, on subsequent visits, tells what worked and what did not work, and why. From time to time, reference is made to earlier notations, so that the analysis is a comprehensive one.

Misbehavior is generally separated into four goals: the child is striving for attention, power, or revenge, or he feels inadequate and wants to be left alone. Examining the periphery of the problem generally reveals which goal the child is either consciously or unconsciously seeking and the all-important question of why he is seeking it.

The same stage comes into use later in the day as Wesley’s public psychodrama is presented. Again, the laity is in charge here, with directors of psychodramas -- for the most part lay members of the pastoral care program -- conducting these dramatic interpretations of daily problems.

The audience comprises not only Wesley members, but a wide-ranging cross section of the Twin Cities community -- students, housewives, professional men, teachers, and preachers. Again the underlying scope of the program is both counseling and educating. Almost everyone present learns something and takes home some insight to use in interpreting his own life. Later, if problems arise requiring more help and more objectivity than he can muster, he will have a background for the type of counseling done at Wesley and will be more ready and able to benefit from it.

Public psychodrama grew out of Wesley’s group counseling program. The principle of a church-sponsored group-counseling program is quite widespread now, but Wesley’s group counseling dates back more than a decade. It is an outgrowth of the continuing philosophy that church work is done not just by the minister and the official board, but by a committed congregation following a plan of "tithing of time" which can be as meaningful and productive as the tithing of money . . perhaps more so, considered in terms of involvement and in repair of people’s modus operandi.

Helpful as group counseling proved to be, with each troubled person in the group (about ten persons) finding himself strengthened, aided, and cared for by the other members of the group, sometimes there were exasperating dead ends -- psychological impasses where it seemed that the counselee had developed a blind spot and simply could not visualize his problem objectively, or from any other viewpoint than his own. Nor could he state it adequately, sometimes -- whether because he was living inside it and could not, therefore, accurately state its dimensions, or whether he simply lacked the word power to make his fellow group members see what was taking place in his life or what had already taken place.

Public psychodrama was found to be the answer to these and other problem situations. For one thing, it was often found that participating in a psychodrama would give enough insight for a person to begin a practical and progressive onslaught against his own problems.

Psychodrama is a simple device, yet in its very simplicity it often serves many complex human difficulties, doubts, and problems. "God is love" is a simple credo, yet in action its outreach is enough to change the world and every life within it. Putting God’s word to work in as many situations as possible is what the counseling program attempts. Its ways and methods are simple, basic. Help is the key word.

Psychodrama is simply the acting out of a situation, rather than the recounting of it in words. Its principal value lies in its focus. The person with a problem begins to explain the situation as he sees it: "So then my mother-in-law asked my wife, ‘What’s he going to do about the promotion?’ and I’m sitting there like a piece of furniture, wondering why she doesn’t ask me what I’m going to do. Why does she need an interpreter? I speak the language!" The psychodramatist intervenes at this point, "Don’t tell us what happened; act it out. No, don’t you be yourself in this case -- take your wife’s role."

A cast from the audience is quickly assembled so that everyone involved in the original situation is represented on stage -- the man and wife, the mother-in-law, a teen-age daughter. The man in this case may play several different roles, changing them in mid-conversation, so that the question he asks as a daughter is answered by himself playing his own mother-in-law. Sometimes the person with a problem chooses (or is advised) not to play his role at all, but to watch and listen. Through dramatization, he is unequivocally removed from within his problem. He has no choice but to see it from other viewpoints. What he sees may vary all the way from his wife’s childlike dependence upon her mother’s opinion, the mother-in-law’s hesitancy to ask him a question directly for fear of his explosive reaction, to the mother-in-law’s attempt to downgrade him in his daughter’s eyes because of her wish to have a more vital part in her granddaughter’s life. Or it may be a combination of factors. Seeing the problem through other eyes, however, gives a fresh outlook, and the man begins to take the measure of his problem.

Next question: What can he do about it? Again, psychodrama will help him choose a more constructive course of action so that his interpersonal relationships will be more pleasant, more enhancing of individual worth.

During the psychodrama there may be not only role-reversal which means that each person may assume different parts in the life-drama, but there may be, quite often, an alter ego. This person will sit or stand beside the protagonist and will express feelings he may have but hesitates to express openly.

While parent-education, group-counseling, and public psychodrama are performing their life-shaping functions, another phase of the Wesley program is beginning where life ends. The Healing Fellowship of Christian Friends was organized three years ago when it seemed that there was a gap in the ministry of the church after the initial period of mourning had passed. Bereaved persons, assisted through the first few days and weeks of grief, were still in need of sustaining help when relatives had departed for distant homes and friends were not in day-today attendance. A one-to-one new friendship was devised to close this breach in Christian fellowship. A group of fifty volunteers was assembled, trained, and consecrated into this service during a special ceremony at a Sunday morning church service.

When death occurs, a volunteer (or sometimes two) is assigned to the bereaved. His job is to sustain and comfort. He begins by asking the two most therapeutic questions: When did it happen? and, How did it happen? Then, Tell me about it. He encourages talk about the deceased, about the death, about that part of life shared by deceased and bereaved. Only by going back to the beginning of that shared life can the bereaved begin to reclaim the investment in that life and prepare for emotional reinvestment.

The Christian Friend supports the bereaved in the decisions that were made at the time of the funeral services. Did I do the right thing? is a recurring question, and the Friend does his best to assure the bereaved that his decisions were honestly based. Someone to talk to, confide in, and rely on makes grief therapy a personal thing, developed to fit each individual’s needs. A Friend may find himself arranging a birthday outing, helping to fill out insurance claim forms, taking the bereaved to visit the grave site, responding sympathetically to a phone call, helping to find new living quarters for the bereaved.

Throughout all this, the Friends of the Healing Fellowship not only aid sorrowing persons to survive a bereavement without becoming psychologically crippled, but find that they, themselves, in the process of helping others, are finding deeper and more profound interpretations of the Christian life than they could in any other way.

The Healing Fellowship of Christian Friends preceded the establishment of the Academy of the Lay Ministry by about two years and, along with group counselors, formed the nucleus of all the laity interested in forwarding Wesley’s programs. The Academy of the Lay Ministry offers opportunity for service in several categories: volunteer group counselors, grief therapists, coffeehouse workers, teachers of parent-study groups, psychodramatists, pastor’s assistants.

In the letter which volunteers received, it was emphasized that the Lay Ministry involved real dedication and work: "This is not ‘just another committee.’ I hope you will be very honest in the decision I am asking you to make, for I want only those who will be wholeheartedly committed to the tasks of Lay Pastors. Otherwise a polite ‘yes’ on your part will hamper more than help."

Sometimes the Academy has all-member sessions of training; sometimes the sessions are confined to a single area of service (although all members are invited and welcome to sit in) The group counselors will be briefed and have refresher courses by various experts, including members of the staffs of the University of Minnesota. The grief therapists will hear visiting lecturers from one of the local seminaries or perhaps hold discussion sessions on current literature in the field. Coffeehouse workers are trained to encourage reticent, timid people to express their feelings in conversational groups. Teachers of parent-study groups prepare to conduct the small groups which have developed as offshoots of the Parent Education Center’s Sunday morning program. Psychodramatists study new techniques in their work. Pastor’s assistants are coached to do their work more effectively -- that is, devoting one hour a week to visiting in the homes of members and prospective members (a total of 1,080 calls during 1967)

Wesley’s coffeehouse, "The Cup," has been operating for two and one-half years in the basement of the church, with its own private entrance around the corner from the Sanctuary entrance. A dedicated husband and wife manage The Cup, which is open each Sunday from 5:00 P.M. until 11:00 P.M. About twenty-five volunteers serve under their direction as conversationalists with lonely people who come to the coffeehouse for fellowship, or as workers to man the food counter, which serves coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and pastries at a nominal cost.

Almost any time one comes into The Cup, he will find informal discussions going on around the red-and-white checked cloth-covered tables in this dimly lit room. At 7:00 P.M. there is always a program, carefully selected by an imaginative program chairman, who gives many hours each month to contacting speakers and discussion leaders in order to insure a varied program that will appeal to all age groups and interests. An advertisement was placed in the local paper inviting critics of the church to come and voice their criticisms and discuss them at the coffeehouse. A Karate exhibition, folk-singing, representatives of various religious and political affiliations, advisors in budgeting finances are but a few of the programs presented. Everyone’s opinion is important, and people soon learn that it is safe to speak up freely in this permissive atmosphere.

All of Wesley’s outreach has produced a synergistic effect -- many times greater, because of the combination, than the sum total of all the individual programs. People have learned and helped others to learn, and with such learning has come an improved pattern of living, a life-style with Christian reference.