Different Dream welcomes Dr. Stephen Grcevich as today’s guest blogger. He’s the founder and director of Key Ministry and author of Mental Health and the Church: A Ministry Handbook for Including Children and Adults with ADHD, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, and Other Common Mental Health Conditions recently released by Zondervan.
Why Anxiety Makes Attending Church Difficult
For the past two years our Key Ministry team has been working on a ministry model for churches looking to welcome and include children, adults and families impacted by mental illness. An important takeaway for pastors and ministry leaders exploring our model is that kids and adults with common mental health conditions may function reasonably well at school or work but experience significant disability when seeking to participate in another important life activity – church!
One very common mental health condition that often makes church attendance difficult is anxiety. Anxiety is a normal and healthy response to future threats. Someone with an identified anxiety disorder experiences excessive and persistent anxiety or fear inappropriate for their level of maturity that significantly interferes with tasks of daily living. Neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that persons with anxiety have a biological predisposition to overestimate the level of risk associated with new or unfamiliar situations. They often hold wildly inaccurate perceptions—some conscious, some unconscious—of the impressions they make on others and the judgments that others make about them.
One in fifteen adults in the U.S. experience social anxiety disorder at any given time. Imagine yourself as a parent with social anxiety looking for a church for your family. Let’s consider some of the “What if” questions likely to flood that parent’s mind as they contemplate visiting a new church for the first time…
- What if people stare at us when we arrive because we’re dressed differently than everyone else?
- What if I make a fool of myself with the people who greet new visitors?
- What if the folks at Sunday school ask me where my spouse is?
- What if they expect me to get up during the service and introduce myself to people I don’t know?
- Worse yet, what if they hand me a microphone and ask me to introduce myself to everyone in the church at one time? Or call me down to the front and pray over me?
- What if they expect me to join a small group and share my deep, dark secrets with a bunch of people I barely know?
Other anxiety disorders also present major challenges to church participation.
Children and adults with panic disorder experience brief, recurrent, unanticipated episodes of intense fear, accompanied by a characteristic set of physical symptoms, a sense of impending doom, and the urge to flee the place where they experience symptoms. Agoraphobia is a closely related condition in which intense symptoms of anxiety occur in situations experienced as unsafe with no easy way to escape. The absence of an aisle seat at church located near an exit allowing for an unobtrusive escape may be sufficient to trigger an attack for someone with panic disorder.
Children and teens with separation anxiety disorder typically experience excessive fear or distress when away from home or significant attachment figures, usually parents. Church activities in which children and parents are served in different physical locations out of one another’s sight may result in heightened anxiety, manifested by tearfulness, anger, or irritability. Overnight retreats and mission trips often cause intense anxiety for older children and teens unless they’re accompanied by a parent.
Children and adults with obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) experience recurrent, intrusive thoughts or compulsive, recurrent, repetitive behaviors associated with significant mental distress. They may struggle with perfectionism or making decisions. Someone with OCD accompanied by contamination fears may go to great lengths at church to avoid physical contact with other worshipers or with objects or furniture.
Full participation in the church often requires vulnerability, social risk, and change—all of which can be incredibly challenging for those with anxiety. There are steps churches can take to help persons with anxiety overcome those challenges. Here are just a few…
- Consider designating a staff person or volunteer as a mental health liaison—a primary contact person for church members and visitors who might require assistance before or during an initial visit or benefit from accommodations in church activities they find challenging. Persons with anxiety may experience less frustration and distress in navigating church systems through interacting by phone, email, or text with one sympathetic staff member or volunteer who functions as an advocate.
- Your church might reserve seats for persons with anxiety at the ends of rows and near exits while providing guests an unobtrusive method of signaling their need for the seats.
- Enlist the help of your church’s communication team. Churches can help ease anxiety through sharing lots of pictures and videos on websites and social media platforms to help prospective visitors know exactly what they can expect at a weekend worship service or any ministry activity.
Church leaders can demonstrate Christ’s love for persons with anxiety by graciously helping them enter our ministry environments and providing them with necessary supports that grow spiritually alongside their friends and neighbors in the church.
Dr. Stephen Grcevich is the founder and President of Key Ministry and author of Mental Health and the Church. He is a child and adolescent psychiatrist who combines over 25 years of clinical practice and teaching with extensive research experience evaluating medications prescribed to children and teens for ADHD, anxiety, and depression. Dr. Grcevich has presented at over 35 national and international medical conferences and is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). He blogs at Church4EveryChild and speaks at national and international ministry conferences on mental health and spiritual development.
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