Prioritizing Wellness in Churches

This January, I had the privilege to present on prioritizing wellness in a church setting at FORMA. I felt honored and excited by the presentation. Those feelings lasted for about 90 minutes. Then something between anxiety and panic began to arise. Wellness is an incredibly broad topic, and I wanted to do it justice.

A few years ago, I read an online forum on the subject of sexism. Users from all over the world shared their experiences, vented, validated, and advocated. One of the top-rated comments has stuck with me to this day. The user wrote — and this is paraphrased — that a lot of the time we talk about sexism and portray people who are sexists as the sharks in the water, but sexism is not the shark; it is the water. This metaphor holds true for many of the -isms that plague our society and that keep us from living together as a truly beloved community. It is also true for wellness.

A lot of wellness conversations focus on the sharks in the water: cancer, diabetes, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), fitting exercise into an overfull schedule, or an overbearing boss. Addressing the sharks is necessary, but it is only one part of the system. To prioritize wellness, we need to tend to the whole system. Instead of viewing care for the water as a luxury or bonus activity, we need to understand it as essential. Prioritizing wellness, therefore, requires a cultural shift in how we discuss wellness, and that shift starts with how we define it.

Defining Wellness

What is wellness anyway? Many stereotypes and misconceptions surround this term. When I meet new acquaintances and share that I am a wellness director, I often receive questions related to diet, exercise, and blood pressure. Something about the word “wellness” evokes images of the gym, green smoothies, and yoga mats. I love all of those things, but they are only a small part of wellness.

I define wellness according to several characteristics:

1. Wellness is holistic – Wellness captures not only care for our bodies, but also many other dimensions of our lives. Wellness concerns how we handle our emotions, resilience, ability to rest and play, vocation, relationships with others, spirituality, and connection to the earth.

2. Wellness is a spectrum – We are not completely well or unwell. Sometimes we are “just okay.” Sometimes we are really thriving in one aspect of our wellness but hurting in another. I may thrive at the gym but feel socially isolated and alone. Another person may feel socially connected but only feel so-so about their spiritual practices and relationship with God.

3. Wellness differs from person to person – There is not a universal standard for wellness or for any dimension of wellness. The spiritual practices that nourish and renew me may look completely different than those of the practices of the person I sit next to on Sunday morning, and that is okay. Wellness is all about discovering and leaning into what fills each of us.

4. Wellness is the path – Finally, and perhaps most importantly, wellness is the path — not the destination. It is the water, not the sharks. Wellness is about what we do day-to-day and week-to-week. I do not reach a point where I am happy with the relationships in my life and say, “Great, now I don’t have to spend time with people anymore.” Wellness is not performative; it is a lifestyle.

Talking about Wellness in a Christian Community

As you interact with people in your parish, they will bring assumptions, stereotypes, and misconceptions about wellness to the table. You may catch yourself bringing some of these to the table as well. One of the more common misconceptions about wellness that I hear is that it is selfish. In his facilitator’s guide for the Living Compass Adult Faith & Wellness Circles, Episcopal Priest and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Scott Stoner of The Living Compass Wellness Initiative writes that wellness isn’t self-centered; it is about creating a centered self. It’s about filling our cup so that we have enough liquid to pour into others.

Think about assumptions about wellness that you have heard in the past. How might those assumptions be explored? Lovingly challenged? How might holistic wellness language make its way into a sermon, small group activities, or one-on-one conversations? Prioritizing wellness looks different at each level of interaction.

Whole Church Discussions

Not every parishioner will eagerly jump into a wellness small group or come forward for help. Deeper discussion takes vulnerability, and building trust takes time. Wellness can still be emphasized at the parish-wide level so that everyone who walks through your doors or joins you online receives information about wellness. Think about the language in your sermons, Sunday announcements, e-blasts, or bulletins. How do the church website and social media describe activities? Notice where your community can include more holistic wellness language.

Consider, for example, how you might advertise an upcoming potluck or BBQ in the bulletin or on the website. “Join us for fellowship, food, and fun” is perfectly appropriate but doesn’t necessarily imbue wellness. “Renew yourself with an evening of rest, play, and connection with others . . . and some really good food” highlights components of wellness, and it connects those components with renewal and restoration.

Small Group Discussions

Deeper conversations around wellness can happen in small groups. This does not mean that the group needs to be a “wellness group.” Think about the groups and ministries you already offer. Perhaps you have a new parent casserole program, a Bible study, or a grief support group. Think about how wellness language can be infused into that group’s offerings. What questions might facilitators ask to bring wellness into the conversation?

A grief group, for example, might emphasize the importance of connection with others while navigating intense grief and sadness. During a Bible study, you might draw attention to how individuals or groups referenced in scripture approach rest and play, vocation or meaning making, stress resilience, handling tough emotions, and healthy relationships.

One-on-one Interventions

As you meet with parishioners, someone may share a wellness concern with you. Perhaps they are experiencing the death of a loved one, a job transition, or a mental or physical health issue. If you are able, create space for them to share. Listen to listen, rather than to respond.

You do not need to be the only source of help. Sometimes your role will be letting a person or family know that it is okay to talk and then connecting them with a local professional.

Acknowledging the Sharks

Changing how we talk about wellness at the church-wide level, in small groups, and one-on-one are a few of the ways that we can clean the water for wellness in our parishes and wider communities. However, it is hard to talk about cleaning the water when a shark is looming nearby or a sewer is leaking into the water. Different parishioners and staff members will bring different sharks and sewer leaks to the table. For wellness discussions to be effective, it is important to acknowledge the sharks and sewer leaks. In other words, it is important to acknowledge the impact of violence and injustice on individual and communal wellness.

Sharks can take many forms. They can be a specific harmful actor such as a perpetrator of violence, injustice, or abuse. They can be harmful substances such as natural or human-made disasters. Sewer leaks refer to systemic issues that poison the water in which we all live. Sewer leaks can take the form of food deserts, unequal access to transportation or education, policies that support discriminatory practices or that make those practices difficult to prosecute, corruption, or community histories of exclusion and discrimination. Sharks can often indicate a nearby sewer leak. For example, a specific judge who has a history of imposing harsher sentences on Black, Indigenous, and people of color is a shark and also part of a larger system, or sewer leak, that has a history of inequality in sentencing.

Acknowledging the sharks and sewer leaks begins by acknowledging that each person brings different thoughts, perspectives, and experiences to the table. It also requires acknowledging that everyone is invited but not required to share in each discussion as they feel comfortable. This helps establish a sense of safety. Whenever possible, it is helpful for leaders to name sharks or sewer leaks that may have a significant impact on the topic at hand. For example, following a local school shooting, it would be important for youth leaders to acknowledge that the shooting was stressful for all and traumatic for some. It would be important for the leader to acknowledge trends and perceptions of gun violence in their community. Acknowledging the shooting, its impact on the community, and its impact on the resilience and emotional wellbeing of participants and their loved ones would be a key part of having a genuine conversation about safety in the parish, safety at youth events, and wellbeing for youth programming participants.

Wellness Resources

After a community incorporates wellness language into its discussions, members may desire programming specifically focused on wellness. Several national resources may be helpful as you explore what programs look like in your context. Two resources that I recommend are:

  • The Living Compass – Founded by the Reverend Scott Stoner, The Living Compass website offers curricula for various groups to explore spiritually informed, holistic wellness. Videos on how to use the curricula are available for free. Virtual and live training is also available for a fee.
  • American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – This national organization is an excellent resource for mental health-focused wellness events. It has chapters all over the U.S. that can offer free and at-cost educational programs for communities.

Featured image is by Patrick Robert Doyle on Unsplash

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