Land Interviews Land on Mental Health in the Church and Where to Go From Here

Editor's note: As a follow-up to Rick Warren's ground-breaking conference on mental health and the Church, CP asked Executive Editor Richard Land to interview Dr. Rebekah Land, his wife and a Christian psychologist with over 40 years' experience as a therapist, on the conference and to ask her what a new focus on psychological illness might mean for the Church universal. Dr. Rebekah Land has a Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy, master's degrees in social work and pastoral counseling and a bachelor's degree in sociology.

The conference is online at and is well worth listening to. But if you don't have the time right now, this is what Becky Land found after listening:

Dr. Richard Land: This is Dr. Richard Land, executive editor of The Christian Post. I am interviewing my wife, Dr. Rebekah Land, who has a Ph.D. in Marriage and Family and has been a Marriage and Family therapist with for 40+years. First of all, Saddleback Church hosted a conference late last month on Mental Health and the Church. Why have a conference on mental health in the church at all?

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Dr. Rebekah Land: As you know there are a lot of hurting people inside and outside of the church, and Rick Warren started out the day by answering that very question. He gave five points which I think were excellent. He pointed out that Jesus himself had a healing ministry, that a third of His ministry was healing.

The second purpose he mentioned is that it would help us remove the stigma that is associated with mental illness. For a long time there has been a lot of shame associated with the term "mental illness." People are often embarrassed to come forward and acknowledge that they are struggling because they believe it is not okay.

A third purpose is to have church leaders model authenticity themselves. Rick shared a story from his own early ministry, which I had not heard before. In the very early years of his ministry he was practically working around the clock, and he burned himself out to the extent that he actually fainted in the pulpit. He began to struggle with depression, which was in large part caused by being physically worn out. This has given him more sensitivity to emotional and physical issues.

The fourth reason he said was to make churches and individuals more aware of community resources. I thought that was really valuable advice, that all churches should be more aware of the mental health resources available in their own communities in the event their services are needed.

He said the fifth purpose is that we need to stand publicly with those who are suffering. That has been a problem for a long time-people are embarrassed to acknowledge that they struggle. We give the impression that if you just pray, you should be okay. If you are struggling with mental health issues, it is not okay to say so.

Dr. Richard Land: Well, you and I have talked about this many times. There seems to be a segment of the Christian faith that wants to segregate or separate mental illness from other illnesses while there is increasing evidence illustrating that mental health issues are often no different than physical challenges. Taking medication is no different from taking insulin to medicate diabetes. After Rick Warren's tragic experience of his son's suicide when he lost a life-long battle with depression, Rick succinctly said, "Your brain chemistry is not your character."

Dr. Rebekah Land: Yes, and that is absolutely true. The problem is that we cannot look at somebody's face and see what's going on inside their skull. We cannot tell if there is actually a physical problem in there. So it is not as simple as saying the right things or thinking the right things because you may do everything you know to do and you still struggle. Rick also said, "Your illness is not your identity. Jesus defines you, not your illness."

Dr. Richard Land: Now, Rick Warren, at Saddleback Church, organized the conference in conjunction with. . . .

Dr. Rebekah Land: Actually, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The day began with Bishop Vann sharing that when Rick's son committed suicide, he reached out to Rick, and that was the beginning of a close friendship that has developed over the last few months. They began to share a vision for their congregations to work together. I really appreciated that. I think it models how we need to work together because mental illness is something that affects all of us regardless of our church affiliation. Many of us struggle with it ourselves or know others who struggle with it, and it is an opportunity for ministry to those who are hurting.

Dr. Richard Land: Now who were some of the speakers at this conference?

Dr. Rebekah Land: One of the things that impressed me was the range and quality of the speakers. There were pastors, priests, psychologists, psychiatrists, an author, an editor, and there were lay people. There were two really powerful testimonies of people who had gone through extreme difficulties personally and another person who had dealt with mental illness in her family. The first man was told that he should never marry and he would never hold down a job due to his mental illness. He is now successful, he is married, and he has children. He said, "I am still on medication. You know, I am not over it."

Another lady gave a testimony about her history of cutting and how she still struggles. Another woman gave her testimony about what it was like to cope with mental illness in her family. In her case it was her mom, and her mom was a pastor's wife. She shared that her mother sunk to the depths of depression, ended up on the street, and how that impacted them as a family. I don't see how you could listen to that testimony and not have compassion and concern and realize there are people who are dealing with serious mental issues sitting in the pew next to you and you don't even know it.

Dr. Richard Land: Now, did you actually go to this conference or did you avail yourself of the miracle of the internet?

Dr. Rebekah Land: Well, when we first heard about it, I thought going to it seemed like a really good idea, and then I discovered it would be available online. I was amazed because, as you know, I have gone to a fair number of conferences over my lifetime, especially professional conferences, and you do not usually get to hear these kinds of speakers without paying a great deal of money. So I expected that even online there would be a hefty fee involved, and actually there was no fee. I also encouraged my counseling students to attend. I was really appreciative of that opportunity.

Another feature is the workbook itself for the conference was 104 pages long. One impressive feature is that the whole last section is devoted to several pages of resources. It listed the resources that they have there at Saddleback, the kinds of groups and ministries that they have for various kinds of issues, as well as community resources. I think that is a good model for churches to use because they need that kind of information on hand when somebody calls or comes in to see one of the ministerial staff. The pastoral staff needs to know who to call. They need to know who the community resources are, and they should have interacted personally with them to find out who they are and who can they feel comfortable referring people to.

Dr. Richard Land: So, were you able to choose which workshop you wanted to watch during the breakout sessions?

Dr. Rebekah Land: Well, actually they chose a couple for us. Fortunately for me, the one that I would have chosen they aired, and that was Dr. Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist, who as you know is a personal favorite of mine. He is involved in brain research. They also told us that after a couple of weeks the conference would be available for viewing on the conference website, which is I am really looking forward to watching some of the sessions again as well as the breakout sessions that I could not attend.

Dr. Richard Land: So it sounds like it was a good experience.

Dr. Rebekah Land: It was an excellent conference. I really appreciate Rick Warren taking the lead and allowing God to use his own personal tragedy to be a blessing to others.

Dr. Richard Land: So you really thought it met a lot of needs.

Dr. Rebekah Land: Absolutely. I think it really did, and I think including the personal testimonies of people who have dealt with serious mental issues helped put a face on the problem. They are just like us and our families.

Dr. Richard Land: Amazingly enough, this issue and Rick Warren having this conference, is controversial in some circles of the Christian faith.

Dr. Rebekah Land: Right. Hopefully having this conference with such a wide range of participants has helped people to realize that this is not something to hide behind closed doors or of which to be ashamed. Rick has modeled mental health and authenticity by sharing his own personal and family hardships in this area. I hope this will encourage others to acknowledge that they need help or some to realize that these issues may be closer to them then they thought

Dr. Richard Land: To me, what the Christian faith says is that we can understand all of these things and they impact us. But they don't define us.

Dr. Rebekah Land: We do not have to let them define us.

Dr. Richard Land: Using secular psychological theories, you may understand all of this, but you are limited in what you can do about it. You can understand it, but you are the victim of your background and your experience.

Dr. Rebekah Land: Yes. That is exactly right. The idea that you can just learn about your past or the reason you struggle will not necessarily make it go away. You have to have more than just awareness. In fact, as a Christian, you may still struggle, but you need to know that we will walk by your side through it. Hopefully this conference encouraged those who are struggling themselves as well as those who need to be supportive of those who are struggling. Rick Warren put it well when he said your brain chemistry is not your character. This is a good take away from the conference.

Dr. Richard Land: Thank you. I appreciate your taking time to share with us.

Dr. Rebekah Land: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

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