The inclusivity and accessibility of the United Church of Christ Disabilities Ministries and the UCC Mental Health Network is set to grow starting in the new year. The UCC Disabilities Ministries Board voted that the Mental Health Network became its own entity starting on Jan. 1, 2014. The move allows the Disabilities Ministries and the Mental Health Network to specifically focus on their particular ministries and take on more projects to help welcome people with disabilities and mental health challenges.
One thing that will remain the same, though, is the commitment of both ministries to their core mission of "inclusion and accessibility to all." The Rev. Linda Bigler, chairperson of the UCC Disabilities Ministries, and the Rev. Alan Johnson, chairperson of the UCC Mental Health Network, are excited about the growth for their ministries in the upcoming year.
"By modifying our structure, we hope to reach more people at all levels of the church," said Bigler. "We can focus our energies on even more ways to encourage local churches to become A2A, Accessible to All."
Bigler sees opportunities in 2014 to expand Disabilities Ministries’ curriculum and training, such as working with Extravagance UCC – the new online-based UCC congregation that would allow people with disabilities to participate in church while being in a comfortable space.
Added Johnson, "The new structure will allow us to work more closely with individual congregations in addressing and meeting their needs regarding mental health," he said. "The boards will join in partnership as we both envision more Widening the Welcome Conferences in the future."
Both Bigler and Johnson feel that the conferences, which draw between 100 to 200 attendees, were a driving force to reach people and raise awareness about disability and mental health issues. The conferences, educate congregations and individuals on topics of mental illness, brain disorders and disabilities with guest speakers, workshops and networking. There have been four Widening the Welcome Conferences since 2010, most recently in June before General Synod 2013 in Long Beach, Calif.
MHN, previously known as the Mental Illness Network when it began in 1993, was previously a part of the Disabilities Ministry for most of the last decade. Johnson said that Mental Health Network programming in 2014 is focused on five areas to develop toolkits: Mental illness, families with children with mental illness, substance abuse, trauma, and dementia. "We will have those on the website," he added. "Also, we are proposing that first Sunday in May, we hope, will be designated as Mental Health Sunday on the UCC calendar."
The Mental Health Network is also developing resources to help congregations assess how responsive and inclusive they are for people with mental health issues. "Our work is rooted at the local level," Johnson said. "If it’s not happening in the local church, it’s not happening."