Thoughts after Saddleback’s Gathering on Mental Health and the Church

Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending and speaking at the Gathering on Mental Health and the Church at Saddleback Church in Orange County, California. The event was co-sponsored by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Orange County. To learn more about what the event was like, I recommend Christine Scheller’s excellent and touching recap on Christianity Today.

As for my reaction, I’ll say wow. This was a powerful step toward changing the way the church responds to mental illness. The unique power of this event wasn’t really in the messages–all the speakers, like me, said things they have said before. It wasn’t in the ideas presented, which were practical and time-tested. It was in the fact that so many of us were gathering in one place, speaking up together. This simply does not often happen among people with a unique interest in mental illness. The power was also in the size of the audience: roughly 10,000 people in attendance and watching online. And it was in the partnerships represented: between evangelicals and Catholics, people in need and practitioners, people who needed to share their stories and those who needed to hear.

For me, this was a tangible and joyful ministry opportunity. While I’ve addressed thousands as a writer, I’d never before stood up to speak in front of so many. And while I receive many emails from people looking for advice or just someone to hear their story, I’ve never had face-to-face conversations with so many hurting people in one day. There was something marvelous about seeing thousands come together around the issue of mental illness and its relationship to the church, the very obvious evidence that people were not hiding anymore. And it was awesome to be among those in position to help break the silence and minister to them.

But this wasn’t just a ministry opportunity. Like about half the attendees, I am a member of a family profoundly affected by mental illness. I am among those who need ministry and those whose hearts were strengthened by the presence of so many people who could relate to our experience. I got to hug a lot of people who’ve been there and who get it. Frankly, I never thought it would happen in an evangelical church. And it was profoundly encouraging to me.

This event was not perfect or globally effective. It did not feature the voice of every person who has something worthwhile to say about mental health and the church. But no event could accomplish the work by itself. It was not a capstone or a culmination; it was a catalyst. Thanks to this event, we’re talking about mental illness in places we haven’t discussed it before. This was a big conversation, and I hope it will multiply into many more conversations. I hope it will embolden people to share their stories and make their needs known. I hope it will empower church leaders to ask questions, ask for assistance, and seek help when they’re the ones who need it.

As I said in one of my presentations, 25 percent of people who have sought treatment or help for mental illness have first gone to a member of the clergy. This is more than have gone to psychiatrists or general medical doctors or anyone else. Not just anecdotally, but statistically, the church is the number-one place people go for help with mental illness.

Responding to mental illness is not just a nice thing to do. It’s not just an idea that will make us popular with people who like to see churches doing good in this world. Helping people affected by mental illness is part of your mission and calling. This is true not only for church leaders, but for every Christian. It’s also a tremendous outreach opportunity. People still come to the church for help in suffering. Even a small light can make a big difference in a dark place. And through our loving response, we carry the light of Christ with us. This kind of loving ministry is what the church is here for.

Thanks, Saddleback, for using your influence to mobilize people toward this need. Followers of Christ, let’s be the church.

  1. Simone Booth says:

    Amy, I enjoyed your presentation! I am enjoying the book as well. I wasn’t able to meet you personally as I had to rush off due to family obligations. Thanks for letting me know when the presentation started. It gave me a chance to arrange childcare so I could be there. I was pleased by the ecumenical nature of the audience and the presenters.
    On a different note, if people ask, please let them know that we have had the Counseling Ministry at Saddleback for a long time. It is not something that Pastor Rick started after his son’s death. The media seems to imply this in some of their coverage of the Gathering on Mental Health and the Church. I’m not sure exactly, but I believe that it goes back close to 20 years. As Pastor Rick and Kay dealt with their son’s illness, they were aware of the needs of others. Although I have been part of the ministry for 7 years, I was never aware of Matthew’s illness. They protected his privacy. But, they always thought of the needs of others and wanted Saddleback to be a place where hurting people received the love of Christ.

    • Amy says:

      So glad you enjoyed it, Simone. I’ll certainly pass along this information when I have the opportunity. When I was there, I got the impression that Saddleback has always been a caring church, very concerned for the needs of people.

  2. Tony Roberts says:

    As a Christian with a mental illness, I am grateful for the Gathering took place and would like to believe it will be pivotal in building bridges where barriers have been. I watched a good bit of it on-line and as you shared your story, I was deeply moved. Thank you for your passionate compassion.

    It’s hard to tell where the Spirit will lead from here (and I wouldn’t presume to direct Him). I do believe one of the best ways to battle lingering stigma in church and in society is for people with mental illness themselves to be given opportunities for “confessional confrontation.” Of course, more of us have to be willing to do it as well by speaking the truth in love.

    Thank you again for your amazing advocacy.

  3. Colleen Ward says:

    I’m so glad this event happened! and went so well! Yeah! Really.
    I was not able to view the webcast because of traveling, but I hope the podcast will become available for those of us who could not be there or view it. I so wanted to be there.
    I’m glad you and so many participated and agree this was a catalyst moment.

  4. Trillia says:

    Amy, I have been so encouraged as I’ve watched from afar what the Lord is doing with this conversation. It is really important to be talking about this. Thanks for your contributions!

  5. Dawn Marks says:

    Hi Amy, I attended your workshop and also heard you speak at the end of the day. Both were great presentations and I really want to thank you for taking leadership on this issue. One thing that I can’t seem to get out of my mind were the people who came up to you with questions at the end. Clearly, these were less questions and more cries for help. I felt their pain because I’ve been there and after three years of learning, I can still easily fall back into self doubt and despair when I’m not plugged into support classes at my church, NAMI, etc, which provide me with listening and supportive people, new tools, skills and understanding of the issues. I want to encourage you to delve in further and shed your insights with us on some of the really hard questions that you were asked, especially regarding children. Some of the issues just from the few who shared at the end of your presentation where : how do I distinguish between mental illness, character, or spiritual defects in my children and where can I get help. Personally I am curious about how mental illness in a parent effects the development and mental health of the child and their relationships and self perception as adults. My heart breaks for the pain of the children and parents afflicted and I am so encouraged to know that the Christian church and esp. those in leadership are lending support and insights to help this vulnerable population. God bless you, your family and your ministry. Keep lending your insights and voice to these really hard issues please…with Christian compassion of course. Thank you so much.

  6. Jessica Beltran Garcia says:

    Hi Amy,
    Thank you for taking leadership on the very difficult issue. I too have been personally affected and have lovingly called my church to action on this topic. I would love to share the podcast with my church leaders. Do you know if a podcast is available and where I can access it?
    I pray for you and your work to be the hands and feet of Jesus to bring healing and hope to those affected!
    With love, Jessica

  7. kim says:

    Dear Amy

    Thanks for sharing. I am so happy that the church has started to listen and share this issue close to my heart. And you are the most beautiful champion. 🙂

    May God bless you and us all.

    In Him,


  8. Hi from Geneva, Amy,
    Just heard about the event at Saddleback Church and about you from a person in Mexico (Vicki Reyes). Awesome!
    We have been sharing a lot about “mental health AS mission” in our work, as a way to help folks in the church-mission community better understand needs/opportunities in global mental health (gmh). Not sure if there is any follow-up planned at Saddleback. I will be in CA for several days in May and who knows!
    Here is a short piece i just did to orient folks more to GHM..
    GMH: Strategies for Staying Updated, Kelly O’Donnell, Psychology International, March 2014, Vol. 25, No. 1
    (this Psychology International issue also has many articles related to GMH/international psychology)

    • Simone Booth says:

      Hi Kelly,
      I am a Church Counselor at Saddleback Church. We have over 200 Church Counselors offering 50,000 hours of free counseling each year. Some resources you might want to check out at Saddleback include: Pastor Bob Baker is over Pastoral Care which includes counseling; Pastor John Baker is over Celebrate Recovery which offers share groups and step studies for those recovering from addictions, hurts, and hangups; The Peace Center at Saddleback has a Food Pantry, sliding scale health care, and help with applying for health insurance. Let me know if you have questions.

      • Hi Simone–Thanks fro writing–Saddleback has a really good reputation even way over here in Europe! We also included a link to a TedTalk by Rick in a recent book we edited on Global Member Care (supporting mission/aid personnel). If there is any interest in folks there hearing about global mental health or global member care (overview) plz let me know as I will be in So Cal for a few days in May and could pop in. . My wife an I are sent mission personnel (clinical psychologists) for ma large church in So Cal called Calvary Community in Westlake VIllage .I think there have been some connections between our two churches in the past. We do major advocacy and support WHO/UN efforts in mental health over here too. Cheers, Kelly


© 2014 Amy Simpson.