Chapter 2: The Church’s Role in Creating an Open Society, by Frank M. Bockus

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

Chapter 2: The Church’s Role in Creating an Open Society, by Frank M. Bockus

Our society is faced with a crucial task; right now we are not doing much about it. Futurists tell us that we face a world of ever more rapid and complex change. Moreover, they predict that the mentally healthy individual of tomorrow must be flexible and open-minded. He must be capable of constant adaptation to changing conditions.

Preparation for life in a constantly changing culture will require a new kind of education. Schools and colleges place their stress on cognitive growth, and well they should. Life in our technologically oriented economy demands a person with rational know-how. But if the character ideal for tomorrow is the open self, how are we to train such a personality? Today we leave his development virtually to chance, to informal and almost willynilly patterns. We must begin now to construct human development systems that equip persons for openness and flexibility.

As children grow up, families provide most of the basic resources they need. Not the least of these inputs, in addition to material requirements, are the resources of personality and character development. Here it is that individuals internalize the assumptions and attitudes which dig into their minds and shape behavior. Children learn their parents’ outlook and way of life not so much by what they say, though that is important, but by what their elders do. Through almost unnoticed, everyday encounters and emotionally charged expectations, parents reveal their deepest beliefs and practices. This is the hothouse environment of character development.

The parent of today feels himself in a double bind. In our complex world, society has placed an even greater burden on parents for their children’s emotional and character development. At the same time we have done little in a formal way to support families in the task they are expected to bear. Little wonder that many parents feel as if they are trying to hit a moving target -- in parenting they try to socialize their children toward an ever-changing and often confusing character ideal.

Character guidance was once an easier task than now. At least, so it seemed. When we lived in small-town settings, parents could look passively over their shoulders at the behavior norms of the community. Guidelines seemed more perceptible. As the crises of life came along, there was a great deal of security in fixed and accepted patterns for coping with decisions and actions. Of course, this limited environment could and often did become stifling and confining.

For most of us city dwellers, small-town culture is a relic of the past. Urban man experiences diversity, anonymity, and cultural diffusion. We reap the whirlwind of an incredibly fragmented existence. As one social scientist notes, the urban family too often encounters the monotony of sameness and sterility. We live in neighborhoods, both gilded and grimy ghettos, in which our houses, neighbors, incomes, and ways of life are practically homogeneous. Families in the city become isolated from one another. They become separated by race, age, class, and neighborhood.

Thus, families have broken loose from the past. They are set loose on new and uncharted tasks. They try to socialize their young toward a culture whose most stable traits are change and diversity. Can we design character development systems to prepare people for such successive episodes of upheaval and change? Can we educate open selves for an experimental and changing culture?

Our emerging model of community mental health reflects a kind of systems approach. Earlier patterns of remedial and individual therapy, though still important, simply are inadequate to our contemporary task. Today various resources for mental health are being drawn into comprehensive and community-wide networks of care geared to all people. By tailoring services to meet human need as early and as specifically as possible, we hope to prevent undue deterioration. By enabling an individual to remain with his family, on his job, and within his community, we can help him back to his feet in the shortest period of time.

Unfortunately, much of our present-day planning, worthwhile though it is, is not directed to primary prevention in the most positive sense. Our efforts are colored by remedial mind-sets. We focus too much on the repair of broken personalities. Our need now is a developmental model. In this, energy is spent on the provision of adequate human development resources. With respect to mental health, this means channeling our efforts toward the education of the open self. In this new model we major in mental health instead of illness.

I believe that the neighborhood congregation is uniquely situated to contribute to emerging human development systems. The church, in this view, becomes a human development center. Of particular importance is its ministry of family relations development. Religion is intrinsically identified with values and symbols of human growth. The rituals of religious tradition are clustered around many of life’s major or moments, such as birth, marriage, and death. In addition, the neighborhood church is often located near the residential sector of the community. It is close to the family circles where character and personality development take place day by day. It is situated, through its ministries of family relations and child development, to share in the creation of an experimental and open style of living.

Many of the critical moments in life are common to us all as human beings. Some of these incidents in the life cycle are primarily biological, such as birth, the onset of puberty, pregnancy, or old age. Some incidents are more socially defined, such as going to a new school, to college, to military service, or to one’s first job. Getting married, becoming a parent, encountering death in the family -- such occasions provide insight into the thoughts, feelings, values, and conflicts of the life cycle.

Ordinarily, these novel moments in life upset the everyday balance of individuals and families. It is both easy and normal to become confused and disoriented. Our response to these critical incidents can be either creative or harmful. We can approach them in either an open or a closed manner.

Some people face anxiety and uncertainty openly. They express their feelings, most often to people close to them, and through such interaction work their way through the episode. But some people, and all of us to a degree, tend to follow a more closed mode of adapting. We deny the crisis. Our disquieting feelings remain unexpressed. And inevitably, we begin to feel isolated, lonely, and different. We deny much of ourselves, both to ourselves and to others.

Most of the critical episodes of life raise profound questions of value and character. It is here that the great issues of our day impinge upon the ordinary person. Questions of suffering and death, of morality changes, or of social justice and purpose often demand frightfully ambiguous and binding choices.

In relating to their children during these critical moments in life, parents often cease to be open and exploratory. If parents are to equip their children for the coming cultural change, they themselves must be changing. They too, must quest for life’s meaning and purpose. What happens too often, unfortunately, is that parents quit listening to their sons and daughters. Out of their own vulnerability, they fake greater certainty and self-confidence than they truly possess. Sometimes their ambiguity gets expressed in a demand for compliance and obedience to their own views. If they are honest with themselves parents begin to realize their own ambivalence and uncertainty about life’s pressing dilemmas.

In its parish life the neighborhood congregation can offer growth groups focused around critical stages in life. There can be groups for pre-marrieds and newly marrieds, as well as for couples who have been together for years. Other groups can be organized around parent-child relationships at different ages. One particularly important age in our time is young adulthood. People at this age are faced with many of life’s most binding choices -- marriage, vocation, and life-style.

Of increasing importance today is the conjoint family growth group. Individuals live in families, and families possess histories, ideologies, role expectations, and unique communication patterns. Learning groups that reach the entire family unit simultaneously have decided advantages over more individualistic approaches.

As the church undertakes a more careful family ministry, resources that heretofore were restricted to counseling settings can be brought into innovative family growth groups. The minister will continue to require skills in counseling, depth communication, and group process. But he will need to shift his energies from counseling, particularly with individuals, to the more efficient model of growth groups. Traditional resources, depth psychology, counseling, and guidance can be brought to bear on normal families through group process.

Moreover audio and video recordings, the exciting new learning tools of today, no longer need to be restricted to counseling and training settings. They can become learning media in human development groups. Quite often they provide emotionally laden experiences that evoke emphatic responses between people. They provide a common frame of reference for all the members of the group. In addition, media are useful in expediting both self-confrontation and empathic encounter between persons.

In one sense, the church is ideally situated for a family ministry. In another sense, it is very ill-equipped. Family relations counseling and development is a professional field. It requires, as was said earlier, training and competency in communication. psychosocial relationships, and group process. Very few ministers have any clinical training whatsoever in these areas. On top of these existing deficiencies we have now added new professional requirements of conjoint family counseling and guidance.

But the contemporary minister can re-tool. Most parish pastors recognize their need for more training in family counseling and guidance. Many would welcome some form of continuing education in the field. What we need today, then, are models of consultation and in-service training geared to the parish setting. Seminaries and clinical training centers can provide the supervisory leadership for these new patterns. Such on-the-job training is becoming an increasingly significant form of education in our time. It is a pattern most appropriate to the ministry. Through it the church can fulfill its manpower requirements for a changing society.


For additional reading

A Chance to Grow (Boston: WGBH Educational Foundation, 1967)

This volume interprets crisis theory and conjoint family guidance. It also provides verbatim transcriptions of conjoint family interviews around eleven critical episodes of life.

Fromm, Erich, Man for Himself. New York: Rinehart, 1947.

Fromm’s theory of character development remains one of the best available.

Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud. New York: Harper, 1966. This book affords an analysis and interpretation of our coming experimental culture.

Satir, Virginia. Conjoint Family Therapy. Palo Alto: Science and Behavior Books, 1967. This volume offers a theory of family relationships, communication, and therapy. Implications for growth groups are suggested.