Saddleback’s Approach to Mental Health Issues Misses the Mark For LGBTQ People

About Cole Parke

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Last month, Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church—which, with more than 22,000 members, is one of the ten largest megachurches in the country—hosted a daylong event to “encourage individuals living with mental illness, educate family members, and equip church leaders to provide effective and compassionate care to any faced with the challenges of mental illness.” The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church brought together over 3,000 participants and featured a line-up of religious leaders, scholars, counselors, and psychologists hosting panels and leading prayers addressing the stigma of mental illness and suicide in the church.

The impetus for the conference traces back to the tragic death of Rick Warren’s son, Matthew, who committed suicide in April, 2013 after years of struggling with mental illness. Matthew’s death was one in a series of high-profile mental health-related tragedies in the evangelical community over the last year, motivating Warren and several other evangelical leaders to begin paying closer attention to the issue. The imperative to address mental health and mental illness was also emphasized by a September, 2013 survey by Southern Baptist-affiliated LifeWay Research, which found that nearly half of all evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians believe prayer and Bible study alone can overcome mental illness. What this essentially means is that a lot of Christians see mental illness as a character flaw that can be addressed by prayer, conviction, and willpower rather than a medical condition that requires professional help.

As Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, stated, “Christians will go to the doctor if they break their leg … But some may try to pray away serious mental illness.”

Warren’s conference was arguably intended to address these attitudes and misperceptions surrounding the need for comprehensive, professional medical and therapeutic approaches to healing and wellness. Aaron Kheriaty, an associate professor of psychiatry at the UC Irvine School of Medicine, co-author of The Catholic Guide to Depression, and one of the featured speakers at Saddleback last week, explains, “It’s just not the case that faith or religious belief will inoculate or immunize a person against mental illness. We want to convince Christians that psychiatrists, religious leaders and mental health advocates, all of us can work hand in hand.”

The catch, though, is that what Warren considers to be “professional approaches to mental health and healing” includes certain approaches that perpetuate hurt and harm rather than work to combat it, and that rely on homophobic “science” and a conservative Christian worldview. The most worrisome example is Saddleback’s Celebrate Recovery program, offering support to people struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction, as well as a wide range of other issues, including codependency, depression, eating disorders, gambling, and sexual abuse. Yet some churches’ volunteer leaders also offer “support” for people who have “same-sex attraction”—the solution to which, ultimately, is to “face the root causes of our same-sex attraction,” and “acknowledge God’s design and desire for our sexuality.”

Last week’s conference included presentations by John Baker, founder of the Celebrate Recovery program, which is now used in over 22,000 churches. Warren, who helped develop the program, boasts that Celebrate Recovery’s approach is “based on the actual words of Jesus rather than psychological theory.” The program is a faith-based 12-step recovery program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, and aimed at addressing the participants’ “habits, hurts, and hang-ups” … including, apparently, the “hang-up” of same-sex attraction.

During the post-Prop. 8 backlash, during which Warren was highly criticized for his endorsement and support of the anti-marriage equality campaign, Saddleback attempted to clean up its anti-LGBTQ reputation. Within a month of the election, Saddleback’s position on homosexuality—which read “Because membership in a church is an outgrowth of accepting the Lordship and leadership of Jesus in one’s life, someone unwilling to repent of their homosexual lifestyle would not be accepted at a member at Saddleback Church. That does not mean they cannot attend church – we hope they do! God’s Word has the power to change our lives.”—was redacted from its website.

But even in the absence of blatantly exclusionary policies, Saddleback’s anti-LGBTQ ideology remains.

In addition to Celebrate Recovery’s ascription to harmful and highly dangerous “reparative therapy” models, ample evidence demonstrates Saddleback’s pervasive condemnation of LGBTQ people. Available for purchase and download through the church’s online store is a resource titled, “What to say to a gay friend,” by Tom Holladay, one of Saddleback’s associate pastors and Rick Warren’s brother-in-law. In the document, Holladay outlines the message that faithful believers should offer to LGBTQ people:

  1. God loves you.
  2. Homosexuality is sin.
  3. You have a choice.
  4. There is a difference between moral conviction and prejudice.
  5. You can change.

He concludes by advising those “struggling with the sin of homosexuality” to seek out professional help, pointing to a 25-30% “cure” rate claimed by the National Association for Research and Therapy for Homosexuality (NARTH) as evidence to the potential for salvation.

The idea that homosexuality can be changed or cured through professional help or therapy has lost any shred of professional credibility. The American Psychological Association unequivocally concluded in a 2009 report that this type of therapy has been correlated to greater depression, anxiety, shame, isolation, and suicidality of its participants. Along those same lines, the American Psychiatric Association, which declassified sexual orientation as a mental disorder in 1973, joined with a team of 12 other national health and mental health professional organizations in 2008 to make a statement in opposition to reparative or conversion therapy approaches, indicating a lack of ethics, reliability, and validity, as well as the potential harm caused by such methods.

Speaking specifically to religiously affiliated approaches to reparative therapy, the coalition stated, “Because ex-gay and transformational ministries usually characterize homosexuality as sinful or evil, promotion . . . of such ministries or of therapies associated with such ministries would likely exacerbate the risk of marginalization, harassment, harm, and fear.”

So while it’s encouraging to hear that evangelical leaders like Rick Warren are at least superficially supportive of responses to mental health and healing that move beyond the prayer-only, “character flaw” myth, the type of professional support being encouraged (at least when it comes to the mental health of LGBTQ people) is deeply concerning. That the conference was co-sponsored by the Orange County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a professional organization that joins the American Psychiatric Association and others in affirming that homosexuality is not a mental illness, is curious to say the least.

Of additional concern is the international reach of these efforts. Celebrate Recovery is currently active in more than 50 countries, and its resources have been translated into 25 different languages. On top of that, Saddleback Church is in the process of launching The Peace Plan, a 12-city initiative to evangelize to all “unreached people groups” by 2020. The designated “Gateway Cities,” where church plants are presently being established, include Johannesburg, Moscow, Accra, Mexico City, Hong Kong, Amman, and Bangalore.

Health care—including care for mental illness—is a human right. So, too, is the right to live freely and fully regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. But until Rick Warren affirms both of these human rights, my own “faith” in Saddleback’s efforts to address mental health remains limited at best.

Cole Parke, research analyst at PRA, studied theology at Texas Lutheran University, earned their Master’s in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, and has been working at the intersections of faith, gender, and sexuality as an activist, organizer, and scholar for more than a decade. Their research and writing examines the infrastructure, mechanisms, strategies, and effects of the Religious Right on LGBTQ people and reproductive rights, both domestically and internationally, always with an eye toward collective liberation.