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Could Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church Be A Mental Health Model for Synagogues?

Pastor Rick Warren and his wife Kay lost their own son Matthew to suicide in 2013, following severe depression and a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. That’s one reason why the two have become so passionate about ministering to those with mental illnesses as leaders of the Saddleback Church, a Southern Baptist congregation where weekly attendance tops out at 20,000 people.

Synagogue bears little in common with the evangelical mega-church, known for its large crowds, pop music, testimony, and taste for modern technology. But if Stephen Fried, the author of a new essay in the Forward, “Why Jews Must Take Mental Health Out of the Shadows,” is right, there’s much synagogues could learn on mental illness from Saddleback.

“I know from Matthew’s stories of the de-humanizing nature of mental illness… The church can be the counter-balance from that… Let’s decide as the faith community that we’re going to hold each others’ hearts in our hands,” Kay Warren told her congregation. Churches have a special role in recognizing the personhood and uplifting the spirits of those who suffer from these problems.

Saddleback looms as the grand-daddy of American mega-churches, with 11 campuses in the area of southern California it serves. Rick Warren has become something of a national figure in the past decade, after a splashy best-seller, “The Purpose Driven Life,” and an invitation to pray at Barack Obama’s first inauguration cemented his reputation.

Saddleback began to host in 2014 an annual Gathering on Mental Health and the Church, bringing together medical experts, religious leaders, and church members for an extended discussion on how religious communities can better serve those with mental illnesses. Mingling discussion of the latest scientific evidence, Biblical interpretation, and personal narrative, these conferences have tried to break down what Pastor Rick Warren, the church’s spiritual leader, has called “the last taboo” of mental illness.

“When Kay and I began ministering to people with HIV/AIDS about a dozen years ago, I thought AIDS was the greatest taboo. But actually, I think mental illness is,” he told the New York Daily News. “And we want to remove the stigma.”

According to Rick Warren, Saddleback wants to build a safety net of care for those with mental illness in order to address practical needs for emotional support, financial assistance, medical care, and education. Part and parcel with this, Saddleback launched a new Mental Health Ministry, allowing church members to share experiences of mental illness among themselves and their families.

“I’m certainly not going to waste this pain. One of the things I believe is that God never wastes a hurt and that oftentimes your greatest ministry comes out of your deepest pain,” he added in the Daily News interview. “I remember writing in my journal that in God’s garden of grace even broken trees bear fruit.”

Contact Daniel J. Solomon at [email protected] or on Twitter @DanielJSolomon

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