This may seem like a bizarre question to ask, but could it be true? Could a church actually be contributing to, or—worse yet—even causing—mental health issues among its members? Several years ago, when I was a pastor myself, I would have never even entertained such a question. Of course not, I would have answered indignantly. The church is where people come to find God! It’s a place of healing, wholeness and authentic community. Its members come regularly to hear good, solid teaching from the Bible that not only enriches their understanding of the text, but also brings them into a closer walk with God and his people. Isn’t that right? Isn’t that what church is supposed to be about?
In principle—yes, of course. Church is supposed to be all of those things, and more. But what more and more people are increasingly noticing is that all too often, the church is a place that, as I said above, either causes, or contributes to, some people’s mental health problems. This takes place in one of two possible ways, as I see it.
Toxic Theology and Mental Health Issues
First of all, bad or toxic theology can directly contribute to someone’s poor mental health, and bring about undue stress and anxiety in a person’s life. Let me give you just one example from my own life. I grew up in a particular denomination that had as one of its core doctrines what is termed “baptismal regeneration.” In other words, they taught that in order to become a Christian, one had to be baptized. In fact, from this point of view, baptism = salvation. Thus when I was 10 years old, and all of my friends were getting baptized and “becoming Christians,” I realized I needed to do so also. I went to the pastor and announced: “I want to become a Christian!” He said that was great—let’s get you baptized. And so I did—but in reality, absolutely nothing changed other than the fact that I got wet. I was not a Christian.
For the next three years, then, I tried to live the Christian life under my own steam—and failed miserably. But I honestly believed I was saved, because I’d been baptized. The anxiety and stress this toxic theology produced in my life was unbelievable. I was racked with guilt over my many failures to live “the victorious Christian life”—or, in words commonly used in this church, to “put Christ on the ‘throne of my heart’ and make him ‘both savior and Lord of my life’” (whatever that meant). I never did figure out how to put him on that throne, but I knew I was a failure.
What did I do about this problem? Well, we got a new pastor when I turned 13. I finally got up the courage to approach him about my problem, and my many failures to live that victorious Christian life. After a few sessions of this, he said: “Your problem is most likely that the first baptism didn’t ‘take.’ What we need to do is to get you baptized again.” And so I was baptized—for the second time, hoping this time maybe it would work, and I’d become that great Christian that everybody around me seemed to be.
But once again, bad theology did its damage—I was an even more dismal failure than before. Racked with guilt and shame over my inability to be a successful Christian by the age of 17 or 18, I renounced Christianity, walked away from the church for years, and declared to anybody who would listen that I wasn’t a Christian at all. I finally understood what it meant to be a Christian many years later, and subsequently went on—as a youth pastor, no less!—to be baptized a third, and final, time.
While this example is a personal one, I think it’s a good illustration of what bad or toxic theology can do to a person. I was labouring under the delusion that I was a Christian, but I wasn’t really at all. This set me up for failure, and worse yet, this all occurred at a very formative period of my life, during my teenage years. The residue of those failures stayed with me, even through Bible college, as I continued to put myself into “accountability” groups to help me live that victorious Christian life.
You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? An accountability group is an activity one engages in, whereby you’re supposed to check off the list of activities on a weekly, or daily basis, and then “be held accountable” to one or more people about how you did each week. In the groups I was involved in, I was supposed to read my Bible daily, pray with my spouse three times a week, pray privately every morning, pray with my children, and the list goes on. But I never once hit the 10 out of 10 on the list; never once succeeded in achieving the weekly goals. The result? I felt every bit as much of a failure as I did when I was that pimply-faced teenager, trying and failing miserably to please God with my efforts.
Church Leadership in a Dysfunctional Environment
There’s a second aspect to this topic also, and that is how damaging the church can be to its leaders. There are many examples of pastors who have been burned, and burned out, by serving the church. My friend Mike Nimz served in a church in Canada that (as he found out too late) had a reputation for damaging and ultimately destroying its pastors. He and his wife Cheryl were nearly done in by the toxic and dysfunctional environment at that church, and it’s taken them both years to recover psychologically, emotionally and even physically.
Another friend of mine, Bill Rice, served in a church in Texas, and after several years finally quit in frustration and disillusionment over the issue of church politics. It turned out that the head pastor of this church viewed the whole experience as a boost to his personal ego. As a frustrated ex-rock star guitarist, who hadn’t achieved his dreams in the world of music, he used the church as his own platform to boost his own material and was threatened by anybody who seemed to take any degree of limelight away from him. After being repeatedly undermined by the pastor—both in private and in public—Bill and his wife Jane walked away, leaving a lot of saddened people behind, with whom they’d had genuine and deeply loving relationships. Again, it’s taken both of them years to recover from that damaging experience.
We could all tell stories of bad church experiences like these, and some are far, far worse than the two I’ve just listed. But the fact remains that all too often, and shockingly also, so many churches aren’t places of wholeness, healing, forgiveness, and authentic community where people can experience freedom and release. In addition to bad theology, bad leadership, or toxic cultures, there’s yet another problem: churches aren’t equipped to deal with members who genuinely struggle with various mental health problems and issues.
Oftentimes, people who struggle are prescribed the “magic Jesus pill” (as Steve Austin calls it) that will allegedly solve their addiction or mental health problems. In other words, just pray about it, and the problem will go away on its own; God will heal you, God will deliver you of that mental health issue or compulsive addiction. But in my experience, although I certainly believe that God is capable of miraculously delivering people from problems, most of the time this isn’t the case. It can take a lot of work to deal with deep-rooted mental health issues or compulsive addictions; it may involve professional counselling, medication, and the support of a loving and non-judgmental community.
The inescapable fact is this: most pastors and church leaders are not mental health professionals. They aren’t equipped, generally speaking, in either Bible colleges or seminaries, to be able to deal with people struggling with addictions or mental health problems. Perhaps what they should do is to cultivate a support network of health care professionals in their community, to whom they could refer people who need in-depth, or long-term, counselling. That would certainly be a better option than handing out the “magic Jesus pill” to someone who struggles with their issues and can’t seem to find any help. A lot of damage can be caused with such a “remedy.”
In that case, what happens is that the person is under the same delusion that I was as a teenager. The core belief is that “God will solve your problem”—but what happens when he doesn’t come through for you, and you continue in the addiction, or the mental health problem doesn’t just vanish? This can then create a downward—and vicious—spiral that leaves the poor person far worse off than he or she was before, because not only has their problem not been miraculously solved, God has failed or abandoned them also. Is it their fault? Maybe they just didn’t have enough faith, and that explains it. But either way, the long-term damage that can occur is unbelievably difficult to heal—and in some cases, will only lead to further despair and a downward spiral.