Managing challenging behaviour in church
I work for a mental health friendly church. Actually, that’s a pretty bold statement to make –perhaps it is better to say that I work for a church which strives to be as mental health friendly as possible. Our church has been on a real journey over the last decade or so investigating and learning about what this means, and we’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way.
There are lots of challenges we’ve faced along our journey – and I am sure many we’ll face in the future. But perhaps the most visible (and no doubt the most discussed) has been how we have dealt with certain challenging behaviours, particularly when they have kicked off during our services or events. Over the years we’ve encountered a variety of interesting situations. So if you or your church are on the same journey, here are some thoughts from what we have learned over the years.
Why is it important to handle difficult/challenging behaviour well?
The answer to this might seem obvious, but it is actually a very important question to ask. I would suggest that there are two main reasons. The first concerns the people whose behaviour might be the issue. These are people struggling with difficult and often long term mental health problems. Many have had repeated, failed attempts at treatments, or seen many different professionals. They come to us in the church desperately looking for help. As part of that help it is important that we address, as well as the roots of their difficulties, the often unhelpful patterns of behaviour they may have become trapped in over the years. It’s a well repeated cliché, but God loves these people too much to let them stay the way they are – and so should we, even if this means challenging difficult behaviour.
The second reason of course relates to the rest of the church. No church wants to become mental health friendly at the expense of everyone else. We want to support those with emotional and mental health problems in order to help them to engage with our church community – we want to welcome them to the church family. We can’t do that if we allow their presence to disrupt things to the degree that other people become frustrated and irritated with them. Even more so, we would be irresponsible if we allowed one person’s struggle to disrupt the worship and spiritual growth of hundreds of others. We need to support people – but we also need to think about how this fits into the wider body of the church.
Of course, in reality there needs to be a balance between these two aims. We have certainly found that as well as some individuals needing to learn to work with us and keep to certain boundaries, we have also had to challenge people within the church. Families are not always tidy and predictable, particularly if some members are struggling, and neither is the church family. It is vital if it is your churches vision to welcome people in who are dealing with mental health problems, that they are committed to welcoming them, even when this might be hard. Some people (some would say the British in particular!) can be a bit too reserved. Perhaps some of us need to learn to relax a bit more and extend our idea of what behavior is ‘ok’ and what is not. But at the same time there are real and important lines which need not to be regularly crossed – and it is important that we reinforce those. Who wants a church like this picture? Looks a bit quiet to me!
What kinds of difficult behaviour might you encounter?
In our experience the kinds of behaviour which has been most challenging has fitted into three categories:
(1) I’ll call this category ‘Emotional’ behaviour. This would include crying, screaming etc but also laughing or calling out. However I want to be clear what I don’t mean and that is people expressing emotion. We don’t want anyone to come to church feeling they need to wear a happy mask. What I am talking about is the difference between natural emotional responses, and behaviour which is usually more dramatic, even provocative, and which aims to communicate something or trigger a certain response. This behaviour may be directed at certain individuals, and can be quite manipulative, distressing and difficult to handle – for both parties, because the emotion is genuine, even if it is being expressed in a less than positive way.
(2) The second category would fit with the example I’ve shared already – when you might see people who for whatever reason just are not as measured in their behavioural responses as we might expect. So, this might include shouting a bit too loud (if a worship song says to ‘shout to the Lord’, when exactly is it ok to shout, and how loud?!), chatting during quieter parts of the service etc, interrupting sermons etc.
(3) Third is what one of my team describes as ‘out of it’ behaviour. This would describe situations when people are under the influence of drugs/alcohol etc, or where their mental health problem leaves them struggling to keep a grasp on reality or a control on what they are doing or saying.
So how do you deal with these things?
Well, this is the golden question, and I’m afraid there is no simple ‘magic button’ answer. All of these situations will trigger debates, and different churches, different leaderships and different people will have different thoughts and opinions on what you should do. However, here are some thoughts which I hope will be helpful if you or your church are also considering how to deal with similar situations:
(1) Make (more) time for people outside the church services. This is the absolute golden rule, and is essential. We must make sure the first message people get is that we CARE, and we must ensure that they get good support. Dealing with challenging behaviour is not about pushing people into the background and trying to cover up a ‘difficult problem.’ It must be part of genuinely supporting them. We also need to be very careful that we are not just avoiding people or issues. That can be much more painful, and lead to people experiencing repeated rejection, possibly never knowing why. As the church we need not to add to the list of people who have responded this way. We need to support people to change.
If someone obviously needs more care and attention than it is possible to give during a busy coffee time, or service, explain that Sundays may not be the most appropriate place for them to get the intensive support they need, then arrange another time slot where they CAN. This is where we are very lucky because we do have people on staff, plus a very dedicated pastoral team, who are able to meet up with people during the week and offer various levels of support. Having the ability to offer this kind of support at times other than during the service is a vital part of helping people move out of difficult patterns of behaviour.
(2) Agree clear boundaries. The second important step in dealing with challenging behaviour is to discuss and agree clear boundaries with the person involved. Remember, this is a human being you are working with, who is very unlikely to be deliberately seeking to disrupt what you are doing. They may have had little or no experience of church and genuinely not know where the line is between what is and is not acceptable. Some people, desperately trying to make friends and join in with things, make mistakes in how they behave. Many, especially those who have grown up in abusive or neglectful situations, have never had the opportunity to learn how to live within boundaries, and may struggle in other areas with the same issue. Remember too that sometimes cultural differences may be relevant. Don’t expect people to somehow guess where the limits are – if they are clearly struggling arrange a time to chat and give them the chance to work it through with you.
Of course boundaries are also extremely important in trying to give pastoral care to people in need. Don’t be so keen to care that you try to be super people – agree the limits. Again, don’t leave people trying to guess what they are. For example, If you give out your phone number to people, when exactly is it ok for them to phone? Make it clear, and make sure that everyone on the pastoral care team/leadership etc gives the same answers. It is no good trying to help people learn to limit their behaviour if one leader upholds the boundaries and another doesn’t! Be clear from who it is appropriate to seek support – and from who it isn’t. Encourage people not to share their whole story with everyone they talk to – instead help them to find good support from a few individuals, and help them to develop real and balanced friendships.
(3) Plan your response if certain behaviours happen repeatedly. It may be that you find yourself caught in a situation where someone keeps on acting a certain way, and you keep responding the same way. We’ve found it really helpful to agree with individuals what our response will be if certain really difficult things do happen again, in order to break this cycle. This avoids the recriminations, complaints etc if we are forced to deal with something again. So, In the case of persistent difficult behaviour, agree in advance what your response will be and talk this through with the person one to one. Help them to understand why you would have to take the action you would, and see if you can come to a clear agreement about what would happen. This doesn’t make them more likely to slip up again, it just makes sure that everyone is clear what will happen if it does recur.
(4) Work towards inclusion, not exclusion. One thing we work very hard at in our church is trying to make sure that people are able to come and be part of our family – wherever they are at in their life. Now we don’t always get this right, but it is our aim. As part of this we have explored lots of different options over the years in terms of how to help people feel able to come to our services. It is always tempting to try to find another time or place where people can be accommodated, but this can lead to them feeling more excluded or ‘second class’. Why not consider what you can do to help them to come along to your main service? We have found that the following things have been helpful, but you may have other things you can suggest:
-- Make your service as relaxed as possible in feel. People need to feel free to move around and come in and out if they need to. Not excessively (this is something we might chat to people about if it became a problem), but definitely if they need a breather, cigarette, moment to themselves etc. Even little things – propping doors open instead of leaving them shut – can make a big difference.
-- Make rows ‘easy exit’! Lots of people don’t like feeling hemmed in. If you have the space (a luxury I know) why not take a chair off the ‘wall end’ of your row so that people can get out from both ends? We did this recently and it has made a real difference to the feel of the room.
-- Offer some kind of drink during the service as well as coffee at the end. This might be a simple as a water jug and some cups at the back of the room.
-- Think about how you advertise your services – do people know (roughly!) what they are going to get? Some people may not feel able to attend the whole service – concentrating through a long sermon may beery hard. Encourage them to come to the worship and if they need to go home after that, fine. Make sermons accessible on a website/on cd afterwards so people need not miss out.
-- Think about how people manage the most difficult bit of coming to a service – getting through the door! Can some of your pastoral team meet people around the corner so they don’t have to arrive alone? Or perhaps a group of people could meet in a coffee shop before church and walk over together? Make sure your welcome/host team are well trained in how to recognise and support people who might be very nervous about coming to church.
(5) Consider formal care plans. This is something we have recently begun to use in situations where there are particularly tough patterns of behaviour going on – especially behaviour that might be manipulative, or where it is clearly stopping someone from being able to progress and move forwards – for example if someone is becoming dependent on support given by certain people, or if certain behaviour patterns seem to be repeating again and again.
A behaviour contract simply sets out, in writing, all of the things outlined above. We start by guaranteeing the support we will give to that person. This is something we prefer to do in conjunction with the mental health professionals working with them – working with them to identify where the gaps might be in a person’s support structure, and working to plan how we can help to fill them,. So, we might offer one to one (or more usually two of our team will meet with someone if they can be prone to difficult behaviour) meetings for pastoral care and prayer, but also might arrange someone to meet them once a week for coffee. We might arrange help with cleaning or shopping, or perhaps arrange babysitters so that someone can attend a therapy group offered by local services. We agree how messages will be communicated in-between these sessions and encourage people to learn the skills of holding onto things until their next scheduled support meeting. We talk of what we call ‘stepping stone care’ – where the individual knows clearly when their next opportunity to meet and get some time to talk and receive prayer is, and we try to make the gaps between these appointments manageable.
The next step of the contract asks the person being cared for to agree certain things which we need them to adhere to as well. These might mention specific things which have been difficult in that case, and will always have been discussed face to face first, so that they know what we mean, and have been able to accept it well.
Finally, we agree specific and clear review dates when we will get together and see how things are going. How are they finding the support they are getting? Is it working out? How are they finding sticking to the limits we have asked them to meet? Do we need to adjust anything, or think about how they deal with certain situations? We often do adjust things too – on both sides. We’re quite open about the fact that we are working together to find a plan which works for us all, and we’re open to being told that something we have planned has not helped at all!
Care contracts are signed by the individual and someone representing the church (usually me or the senior pastor). We always clearly explain that their main purpose is to ensure that we are able to give really good support, and to give them the best possible chance of us able to help them work towards improving the way they are feeling. Car plans must aim to raise people up, and should never be used to beat them down or make them feel bad. What they do – and this has certainly been our experience – is enable us to continue working with people who we otherwise might not be able to help effectively.
Expect the unexpected and be prepared!
This is a huge topic, and this has been a long post! I guess my final bit of advice would be to ‘expect the unexpected!’ and ‘be prepared.’ It is a cliché, and it may not feel this way when you are in the thick of it, but actually these kind of problems are good ones to have! After all, if it is part of your vision to support those struggling with emotional and mental health issues, then it is really important that people feel able to come to the services. And the more we invite in people who are finding life tough, the more we might find that they bring with them lives which are not as tidy as some of ours. But that is what it is all about.
I’ll leave the last word to Paul – and a wonderful passage from 1 Thessalonians (from the message version): “Speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind... our counsel is that you warn the freeloaders to get a move on, gently encourage the stragglers, and reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet. Be patient with each person, attentive to individual needs. And be careful that when you get on each other’s nerves, you don’t snap at each other. Look for the best in each other and always do your best to bring it out.”1 Thess 5:11; 13-15