Presbyterian Mental Health Network, mission agency join to support those carrying out mental health ministries across the PC(USA)

A new formal agreement ‘begins in an extraordinary time’ of pandemic, poverty and unrest

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Donna Miller is the Associate for Mental Health Ministry. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LOUISVILLE — The Presbyterian Mental Health Network and the Presbyterian Mission Agency announced a formal partnership during Thursday’s online meeting of the PMA Board.

“This agreement begins in an extraordinary time,” the partnership agreement states, including “the ravages of COVID-19, systemic poverty, structural racism, political unrest and a healthcare crisis. These factors are exacting a toll on mental health that experts believe will reverberate for years to come.”

In 2018, the 223rd General Assembly called for the launch of a new churchwide mental health network to support those engaged in mental health ministries across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

In the coming years, the PMHN, which is staffed by Donna Miller, the associate for Mental Health Ministry, is assigned, among other tasks:

  • To create an active network of individuals and congregations committed to the mental well-being of all participants in the life of the church, especially people with mental health concerns or illnesses and their loved ones.
  • To be a vital resource for individuals, pastors, congregations, mid councils, seminaries and communities as the seek to address issues.
  • To develop an effective communication strategy across multiple platforms to increase awareness and connection with the network.

The agreement calls on the PMA to raise awareness about the network’s activities and to provide a one-stop sign-up opportunity on the PMA Mental Health Ministry website, which is here.

An effort that began modestly has spread quickly, Miller told the board. A steering committee of 14 people has presented in each of the PC(USA)’s 16 synods and 91 presbyteries.

The Rev. Dan Milford, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, talked about the Presbyterian Mental Health Network with the PMA Board on Thursday. (File photo by Rich Copley)

Both the network and the PMA “take seriously Jesus’ call to upend systems that privilege some and devalue others,” Miller said.

The Rev. Dr. Dan Milford, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, Texas and the moderator of the steering committee, told the board, “You have inspired us, through [the Matthew 25 invitation] to go to a place we were afraid to go, a place of love, and to begin to serve by the power of love. We are hopeful our fledgling mental health network will provoke and inspire acts of deeper faithfulness.”

“If we ever needed a network such as yours,” said the Rev. Warren Lesane, Jr., who chairs the PMA Board, “we need it right now.”

Pathways for eradicating systemic poverty

Four PMA staff — the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, Associate Director of Compassion, Peace & Justice and Director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance; the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, Associate Director of CPJ and Director of Advocacy offices; Ellen Sherby, Coordinator of Equipping for Mission Involvement; and the Rev. Rebecca Barnes, Coordinator of the Presbyterian Hunger Program — discussed an interim Matthew 25 strategic plan for eradicating systemic poverty, one of the Matthew 25 invitation’s three focus areas.

The strategy includes five intersectional pathways for Presbyterians to engage in poverty eradication:

  • Understand the confessional, biblical and theological resources on systemic poverty.
  • Understand the root causes of systemic poverty through educational resources, centering the voices of those most affected.
  • Develop genuine non-paternalistic relationships with those living in poverty.
  • Engage public policy advocacy and community organizing principles to create economic and environmental justice.
  • Give generously of financial and other resources to create economic and environmental justice.

“It’s not social work,” Kraus told the board. “It’s faithful, theological and biblical work.”

Cultural humility training

The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-director of The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, told the board she’s “never been prouder to be Presbyterian. We have so many folks out there leading the charge against racism and poverty, to save the Earth and bring about the reign of God.”

She showed a brief film about the plight of the 140 million Americans who are poor or low income — “this in a country,” Theoharis said, “that has the wherewithal to end poverty immediately and has no scarcity except the scarcity of political will to do so.”

Somebody recently told Theoharis that political leaders around the world should be ashamed so many are living in poverty or are close to it, “because God made enough,” Theoharis told the board. “Our unjust structures have allowed billions around the world to experience death-dealing poverty and injustice.”

The Poor People’s Campaign “has done a bunch of work” on how the federal government draws the poverty line, a line created nearly 50 years ago. Even taking inflation into account, a single wage-earner making $13,000 annually today is not considered poor by that measure. Nor is a family of four making $25,000.

A more accurate measure comes from the Census Bureau, which says that the 140 million Americans who are poor and low income “are barely getting by and meeting the most basic needs,” Theoharis said.

The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Who are these 140 million Americans? Theoharis said they’re disproportionately people of color: 24 million are Black, 38 million Latino, 8 million Asian American and Pacific Islander, and 2 million Native American. About 66 million are white people.

More than half of the 140 million people are women and girls, Theoharis said. At some point in their lives, about half of the nation’s children live in food insecure homes. “We throw out as much food each day,” Theoharis noted, “as it would take to feed” the world’s population living in poverty.

Theoharis also explained that the U.S. government spends 53 cents of every discretionary dollar of its budget on the military and 15 cents on education and other programs of social uplift.

“You know what holds all these injustices together? A false narrative of Christian nationalism, a narrative that blames the poor, immigrants, queer people and people of color,” Theoharis said. “It’s a narrative that feeds us a lie of scarcity, that we can’t do any better.”

“‘It’s unfortunate we have so much need, but it is inevitable,’” the narrative goes, according to Theoharis, and it’s backed up with scriptural references.

“We’ve got to change that narrative,” said the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, “and as we seek to, we get so much pushback. We get criticism for being political and for standing with the PPC.”

“One of the responsibilities we have is to tell the story in a way that is better aligned with what we see in Scripture,” Moffett said. “What did Jesus mean when he said, ‘Take up your cross’ and there hadn’t even been a crucifixion and a resurrection yet?”

‘People are leaving churches because of churches’

Board member the Rev. Kate Murphy, pastor of The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, stirred her colleagues and those listening in by reading an op-ed she wrote earlier this month for the Raleigh News & Observer. Her piece was in response to a recent Gallup Poll story indicating that for the first time, less than half of Americans now belong to a faith community.

The Rev. Kate Murphy, pastor of The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, preached in 2019 in the Chapel at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Tammy Warren)

“People are still seeking the Holy One, and the Holy One is still seeking people,” Murphy wrote. “So the problem isn’t with those outside the church, and it certainly isn’t with God. The problem — and it is a problem — is with us.”

“I love the church,” Murphy wrote. “But I love Jesus more, and the church has done a terrible job being faithful to the way of Jesus. When we who love the church see these numbers, we shouldn’t kid ourselves. People aren’t rejecting Jesus — they are turning away from churches that represent him badly.”

“What the church needs is not more members, but more Jesus — not revival but repentance. What we should fear is not people who refuse to belong to churches, but churches who refuse to belong to Jesus.”

Read Murphy’s op-ed here.

The board continues its meeting Friday. Agenda items include a conversation about the Shinnecock Nation in New York, next steps for the PMA’s Vision Implementation Process, training sessions for becoming Mathew 25 ambassadors and committee reports.

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