Reintegration & Recovery >> First Person
Mount Olivet Lutheran Church: Divine Intervention for Reintegration
“We do not believe that mental illness is demon possession,” declared Reverend Timothy Fuzzey “It is a brain disease that can be treated.”
This revelation emerged in a recent conversation with Rev. Fuzzey, Director of Pastoral Care at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who was summarizing his church’s historical shift in attitude and belief with regard to mental illnesses. On the one hand, his comment recalls religion's treatment of mental illnesses in the past, when it was widely accepted that consumers were demonic, likely to harm or even kill anyone they encountered. While, those medieval views have gradually faded over the centuries, overall, agreed Rev. Fuzzey, “The church has been slow to respond to mental illness issues.”
In fact, Rev. Fuzzey’s statement characterizes how perceptions of mental illness within many religious communities have been gradually transformed.
His church serves as a pioneering example.
While many churches, synagogues and other religious institutions have, in recent years, started to seriously examine their role in ministering to and advocating for consumers, Mt. Olivet has a well-established history of servicing those with mental illnesses in Minneapolis. For the past 16 years, the church has provided both spiritual care and community programs that have helped the recovery of consumers in their congregation and the community at-large.
Back in 1987, when a Mt. Olivet congregation member was struck by schizoaffective disorder, the church went into action. A mental illness task force, lead by that member, was created to help educate and de-stigmatize the church’s staff and congregation. “She essentially pulled together people that she knew—a couple of psychiatrists, a social worker, a psychologist, a few other consumers and lay people—to make up this task force of about 16 people,” recounted Rev. Fuzzey.
Initially, Mt. Olivet’s goals, explained Rev. Fuzzey, were to seek out the top resources and information available to help educate its staff of approximately 80 full-time people. “We tried to identify the best data available during that time, articulate new drugs, define the various categories of mental illness.” Once many of these things were in place, the church then offered recurring educational workshops, through its Educational Ministries department, to members of its congregation.
Yet, the church and its mental illness task force felt they needed to do more to address people’s prejudices toward people with mental illnesses. Thus, on a Sunday morning many years ago, during Mental Illness Awareness Month, Mt. Olivet held its first worship service that dealt specifically with issues surrounding mental illness. “We shaped our entire service around the topic,” Rev. Fuzzey said. “The sermon, a litany and hymns.” These things, he said, helped to open the door for people to not only talk about mental illnesses but also “actually use the words ‘mental illness’ for the first time ever in this congregation from the pulpit.”
Contrary to what was feared by some of the church’s leadership, the service was a resounding success. “The response was absolutely overwhelming, recalled,” Rev. Fuzzey. “I think it even shocked those of us on the task force.” Similar to people’s reactions forty years ago, when churches began to openly deal with issues of alcoholism and drug abuse, Mt. Olivet’s congregation, staff and clergy saw an outpouring of personal experiences with mental illness.
That first effort led to successive mental illness-themed services and eventually, as the needs of the congregation and the community grew, to the church’s development of various programs that support consumers. For example, the Caregiver program, one of Mt. Olivet’s oldest and most successful offerings, partners a consumer with a non-consumer. The caregiver is trained on mental health issues by the church and serves as a friend and support system. For consumers, there’s one stipulation: they must be on medication to participate.
The church also offers a group home, located in a Minneapolis suburb, for those who are severely and profoundly mentally ill and have been discharged from the state’s mental health facilities. “This program helps to serve a grossly underserved population, and our goal is to create similar facilities throughout the county,” said Rev. Fuzzey.
Using a medical internist as a consultant, the church offers counseling to members and non-members. And throughout the year, Rev. Fuzzey and his full-time staff of eight people, which includes a parish nurse, a consulting psychiatrist and a consulting medical social worker, also offer group and one-on-one counseling for consumers and their families.
In addition, Mt. Olivet has developed a close working relationship with its local Clubhouse, Vail Place, who is scheduled to host this upcoming October’s International Clubhouse Seminar. “We refer some of our people to them and they in turn refer their clients to us,” said Rev. Fuzzey.
Today, Mt. Olivet forges ahead in its quest to help those who have mental illnesses. Its mental illness task force continues to educate and train people on the issues. They continuously seek newer and better ways while keeping to some of the practices that have deemed successful over the years, such as hosting regular mental illness Sunday services and fairs.
For Reverend Fuzzey, the rewards come not from the ability to claim his work as pioneering, but simply because it happens to be his calling. “My passion has become issues related to mental illness, and I’ve dedicated the rest of my ministry to that issue. It’s very enlightening for me.”
The ultimate goal? According to Rev. Fuzzey, Mt. Olivet wants to “Let people know that it is okay to be mentally ill and belong to this church—that this church is sensitive to mental health issues and wants to help people find the right resources to help them feel better.”