A Church’s Journey to Becoming WISE

Sixth Avenue UCC in Denver has become a WISE church! The Rev. Dr. Olive Hinnantwrote the following article to share their experience of becoming WISE:


November 4, 2019

“How will this WISE (Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive and Engaged with Mental Illness, Substance Abuse, and Brain Disorders) covenant change our church, if we vote to approve it?  What will we do differently?”  came the question at our church’s meeting to vote on the WISE covenant.

For the last year our church had engaged in conversations about mental illness, substance abuse and brain challenges.  We began when our pastor, Reverend Chris Gilmore asked a few members who live with mental illness if they would be open to sharing that in the context of a sermon series on mental health.  Over a month, several members offered their experience.  Our congregation is small and those gathered in worship number anywhere between 40-60 so talking in this setting was comfortable as any education class might be.  Also, our congregation is open and affirming with a history of talking openly about difficult subjects.

After that a group of members, myself included, formed a WISE team to learn about the process of becoming WISE.  We had Reverend Amy Petre-Hill, a UCC clergywoman who is a member of the UCC Mental Health Network and serves at Mountain View United Church in Aurora as Minister for Mental Health and Inclusion ministries, present how a congregation becomes WISE.  Later, Andrew Romanoff (then Executive Director of Colorado Mental Health) came and talked to us about the reality of mental health resources available in CO. With this knowledge and the WISE educational resources, we were on our way.

Next, we put of a poster board in the narthex where we could collect questions or comments from the congregation.  Different questions were put up each week and reminders given during worship that we had officially started the process and were seeking feedback on things of interest or concern.  We asked our youth coordinators to as the youth their input.

Our pastor and another member of the WISE team went to the WISE Conference in Oakland.  (There is one every year in different locations sponsored by the UCC Mental Health Network.)  They came back with more ideas and resources.  One main suggestion was doing a needs assessment of our congregation (this can be found on the UCC mental health site: mhn-ucc.blogspot.com/).  This took the form of a survey so we could gather information from the members to provide educational classes, resources and eventually write a draft covenant.

The survey gave us an opportunity to expand and explain in more detail the meaning of WISE as “a church designation committed to being sensitive to the challenges faced by one in four Americans living with brain disorders or mental illness.  To be more specific this includes but is not limited to: anxiety, bipolar, depression, schizophrenia, eating disorders, suicide, OCD, PTSD, ADHD, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, addiction, and brain injury.”

Our WISE team also did research on the resources in our immediate neighborhoods and city to see availability for help and support in any of the areas listed above.  One of our member’s had training in suicide prevention and want to include that.  Another member knew about Mental Health First Aid classes offered throughout the Denver area.  Another team member worked at a hospital and knew of resources there.  We made a list of these resources as well as books, DVD’s, and pamphlets for congregational use.

After collating the survey results and before write the draft covenant we held an open session after church for those interested in our progress and further information about the WISE designation, making more resources available.  Next, we wrote a draft covenant and submitted it to our leadership team for review.  We studied other WISE covenants in the process of writing our own based-on our congregation’s survey results.

Once the draft was revised and approved by the leadership team the covenant went to the congregation for a vote on October 20, 2019.  After comments, questions and sharing, the 6th Avenue UCC WISE covenant was approved, making it the 18th church in the UCC to have this designation.

Now, the work begins of living the covenant.  Which comes back to the question at the start of this article, “How will we be any different?”  I took this to mean, what will we do or how will we be different once we pass the vote?  It’s a good question and the WISE team has suggestions for that.  One being monthly discussions after church about a particular topic, such as depression, that those gathered can talk about, receive support, offer care to others.  This ongoing conversation is changing us from within because when people can speak their truth it changes them and the person who heard it.  Another goal is getting a small group together for the Mental Health First Aid training available.  Learning ways we can challenge negative attitudes and stigmas surrounding mental illness.  We are planning ways to get the message out about how our church is supportive and welcoming of those will with mental/brain health issues and their caregivers.

But, my immediate response to the questioner was, we have already been changed because members, like myself, have found love and support after talking about living with mental illness.  We are changing the texture of our conversations as we weave the fabric of our faith.

We know, as our covenant states, that “We the people of 6th Avenue UCC, are energized and made more fully alive when we hear, learn and journey more deeply with each other.  We desire to fully welcome of one another and our neighbors as we become more aware of persons living with mental health challenges.”

The Rev. Dr. Olive Hinnant