Today’s interview segment with Rhett Smith is the perfect discussion starter for tonight’s Special Needs Ministry TweetChat on the impact of mental illness at church. In Part Four of our interview with Rhett, he shares ideas for pastors, church staff and volunteers for making church a more welcoming place for children and adults with anxiety.
Rhett is the author of the new book, The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good?. For more on Rhett, click here for his biography and a video introduction to his new book. Here are links to Part One, Part Two and Part Three of the series.
SG: What recommendations would you make to pastors and church staff members who want to create welcoming and inclusive ministry environments for kids and adults who struggle with anxiety?
RS: I think this begins by first education pastors and church staff members. For example, I knew that I was somewhat introverted, but I didn’t realize the exclusion that many introverts feel in a church until I read Adam McHugh’s book. So that was an education for me. And I wish I had read that book before I began pastoring because I think I would have made more intentional space introverted type people than I did. So educating people because I thin there needs to be a paradigm shift in our thinking. As we educate pastors and church staff members we have to help equip them to have hearts, eyes, ears, minds, souls, etc. to see people who are struggling with anxiety. Because we can educate all we want, but if we don’t help them see people differently, and get below the surface of what is going on, then all the reading won’t help.
I would train leaders to create spaces and groups and communities in churches where anxious people are welcome. To do this I might eliminate things that might make a person anxious. Like getting up front to give a testimony. I might not require small group participation. But here is the catch…..lots of people face their anxiety by getting up front at some point and sharing their testimony (perhaps about anxiety), and small group connection is a good source of help for people who are anxious. But I think we eliminate immediate barriers and as anxious people become more comfortable in a setting, we implement stuff that helps them grow and face their anxiousness.
I think it’s probably a lot to ask a church to change a lot of stuff to make an anxious person feel welcomed. So I think we have to rely on individuals and ministries to come alongside people and minister to them. I also think, as I said above, some faith communities probably lend themselves better to people who are anxious. And so we might have to help direct people to places and churches that aren’t ones we participate in and help them find a place where they can be all that God has created them to be.
One time when I was in grade school at VBS I was called upon to read. And I couldn’t read…I stuttered my way through it. Clearly the teacher knew this. Why didn’t they pull me aside to see what was going on? Why didn’t they ask if I wanted to read at all? I think there are some things we can do better like noticing a kid who is anxious, and coming alongside of them and just asking them how we can better help them navigate life, church community, etc.?
And as I ramble on this question I’m faced with the fact that this is a hard question to answer. I would start with just dealing with the stigma of anxiety in the faith community. The stigma that allows many people to judge other’s faith because they are anxious. So we as a Church have to eradicate the stigma of anxiety, and if we can make progress there, than perhaps we will find people in the faith communities we participate in, helping those with anxiety in ways that we could not imagine. If we can even have an open discussion about anxiety…and if we can even get a few people at a time to rethink their view of anxiety….that is a win in my opinion. It’s slow, tedious work, but I believe it will make an impact.
Rhett’s new book, The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? is available in paperback and Kindle editions through Amazon.com. You can read his blog at www.rhettsmith.com.
Last Summer’s blog series examining the impact of anxiety upon spiritual development in kids, along with additional resources to better understand the impact of anxiety disorders in children and adolescents may be accessed here.