A while back I received a book titled "Mental Health and the Church" by Dr. Stephen Grcevich, but it's just sat on the stack next to my desk until recently. Its subtitle is "A Ministry Handbook for Including Children and Adults with ADHD, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, and Other Common Mental Health Conditions."
I discovered that the author notes that although he had worked for a long time with all kinds of "special needs" folks, people with mental health conditions seem to be in a different category. The church in general has done a lot of learning about how we can include, welcome, and minister to folks with physical and developmental disabilities and other needs, but we're just starting to learn how to minister to folks with mental health conditions. And yet, there's some overlap here and there between the two. One of those areas is "Sensory Processing Differences."
Basically, the phrase "sensory processing differences" means that not everybody experiences the same experience in the same way. You might think, for example, that you put on just the right amount of perfume this morning; but the person sitting in the pew behind you may feel overwhelmed by the scent. Another person might wish for brighter lighting so they can read the hymnal or worship folder better, while a person sitting a few rows away might wish the bright lights wouldn't give them such a headache. Some people like the worship service to be as loud as a movie theater blockbuster, while others want it more quiet and calming. In the church, we've often put all these things into the category of "personal preferences," but a growing body of observation and evidence is showing that some of these issues are sources of great discomfort and distress not only for persons on the autism spectrum, but also for individuals with ADHD, anxiety or mood disorders, or more.
In his chapter on "Sensory Processing Differences" the author notes a number of areas where these differences become more pronounced and aggravated in church / worship life. Rather than reviewing what he said, I decided to fill out each area on his list with a description of what life is like - and a suggestion or two about what life can be like - here at Christ the King.
- Lighting. Over the last several years our Properties people have gradually replaced all of the fluorescent lights in the building with LED lights. These are more energy-efficient and cost-effective, but they're also brighter. Some of us are fine with that, because we don't need our reading glasses for worship. For some folks who are more light-sensitive, that's not necessarily a better thing. What choices do you have if you're sensitive to light and come to Christ the King?
- You could sit in the back row of the Narthex. The lights aren't turned on there, and only outside light comes in through the windows. If choose to sit there, you could even pull the venetian blinds closed if you need to.
- You might decide to wear sunglasses in the building, and why not? People at Christ the King wear glasses because they're nearsighted, or farsighted, or getting older, or just to read a little more clearly. If your eyes are more sensitive to brighter light, why not wear sunglasses to cut the glare?
- Floors and ceilings. Christ the King is fully carpeted everywhere except the bathrooms and the kitchen. We also have acoustic tiles on all the ceilings. The floors and ceilings absorb a lot of ambient noise and echoes that can be potentially irritating and distracting.
- Window treatments. Nothing fancy here, but all the windows have some kind of blinds (either vertical or horizontal) that you're welcome to pull shut if there's too much light coming in or if something going on outside is too distracting.
- Fragrance-free zones. Pretty much the whole building is fragrance-free, although we haven't specifically said this. For a long time we've been aware that some of our members are very sensitivie to fragrances and aromas that irritate their asthma. We don't use incense; we do use fragrance-free candles; and to my knowledge and nose nobody comes to church awash in cologne, perfume or body spray. For the most part, when you come to Christ the King you might only detect the briefest whiff of the match that lights the candle lighter, the coffee in the urn, or the Communion wine as you sip it.
- Seating. We do have cushions on the seats of all the pews, so nobody has to sit on a hard wooden bench. We don't have cushions on the seat backs, but there are a couple of pillows in the Narthex that you're welcome to borrow so you don't have to sit against the wooden seat back - and if you want to bring one from home, and even leave it at church for next time you come, you're welcome to do that.
- Temperature. If the building seems too cold to you, and you didn't bring a sweater or jacket, there are a couple of light wool shawls in the Narthex near where you pick up a worship folder. You're welcome to borrow one while you're in the building, then fold it up and put it back where you found it before you leave again.
- Sound. Our very good organist JoAnne Zurell plays the organ roughly two Sundays a month. When she does, she plays both hymns plus three other pieces on the organ (and sometimes the electronic piano): before and after the service, and during Communion. If that's too much for you, if you're sensitive to loud sounds or to varying levels of sound, here are some things you might want to think about:
- You might choose to sit in the narthex, where the volume of music is less than in the sanctuary
- You might choose to attend worship services on the Sundays when our organist is not scheduled to play. These are much more like the usual Wednesday services (and I think I will find a way to publicize her schedule so you'll know in advance).
- You might choose to attend worship services on Wednesday mornings, when we only sing the two hymns and there's no extra music (the music those days is on the sound system, and it's not quite as loud as the organ)
- You might choose to watch and participate in our worship services as they're live-streamed, or the recorded services later, from the comfort of your computer where you can adjust the volume to be as comfortable for you as you can make it.
There are probably other ideas that I haven't mentioned here, only because I haven't thought of them. If you or someone you know or love has some discomfort with coming to church here at Christ the King because of sensory processing issues, please let me know and help me to think about what we might do to make it a more welcoming and comforting place for all of us. Thanks!