The Anxious Church

Why the church has struggled to address mental illness well and how we can care better.

Nearly five years ago, a high-profile pastor—one who had shared bravely and publicly about his battle with depression—took his own life. In the days after his death, a call circulated widely on social media platforms for clergy with mental health issues to be removed from their posts.

I understand the motivation. The argument was made out of a concern to prevent similar tragedies. But as a pastor who has endured chronic mental torment, the simplistic appeal struck me as an example of the widespread clumsiness within the church when it comes to addressing mental illness. Prominent Christian teachers, most recently including California author and pastor John MacArthur, have denied diagnosable conditions such as OCD and ADHD even exist.

In my own ministry, my struggles with anxiety and OCD have proven to be unexpectedly fertile soil for connecting with people. Opening up about the brokenness in my mind has led to deeper relationships as God took the affliction that initially felt to me like pure deficit and put it to work. His strength, as he tells us, shows up in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).

So I find it heartening to see the increased attention to mental health and compassion for mental illness in our culture. Christian resources addressing the intersection of faith and mental illness are also proliferating, providing theologically grounded pathways to better care. And there are countless examples of congregations powerfully demonstrating the love of Christ to those in mental anguish.

Still, the stigma accompanying mental illness persists, and in church settings, the issue is often complicated further by ignorance or misguided theology. Clergy tend to be the “first responders” …

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