Anxiety is often seen as a negative, something we ask God to take away from us. In episode 4 of Hope for Anxiety and OCD, Author Rhett Smith discusses how God can use anxiety for good in our lives.
- Rhett’s story of transitioning from pastoring to therapy
- How anxiety can be used for good
- Rhett’s view on pastors going to therapy
- How pastors and ministry leaders can support those in the congregation with anxiety
By The Well Counseling
The Anxious Christian:
CS Lewis quote: “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
Transcript Of Episode 5
Welcome to Hope for Anxiety and OCD Episode 5.
Today’s episode, you are going to get to hear my interview with Rhett Smith. It was an amazing privilege to be able to interview him. He is a former pastor, licensed marriage and family therapist, ministry leader, speaker, podcaster, and also the author of the book, The Anxious Christian, Can God Use Your Anxiety For Good?
Rhett has some really great things to share with us about the use of a famous verse for anxiety, Philippians 4:6 regarding how sometimes we use this verse and sometimes we don’t.
So diving in today, here is my interview with Rhett Smith.
Carrie: For those that don’t know you, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Rhett: I am in private practice in Plano, Texas, which is kind of a suburb of Dallas. I’ve been in private practice for probably about 10 to 12 years. I primarily work with couples and families. I do a lot of individual work too, but I’m trained and licensed as a marriage and family therapist.
[00:01:36] I spend about half of my week, about two days a week seeing people in my office and then over the last year and a half, I got more into executive coaching and went back to school at SMU to do some more training. I am currently working with some vice-presidents and stuff and some different organizations here in the Dallas area. I’m doing some executive coaching and helping them perform at a higher level. On the side when I have time, I enjoy doing stuff like this, like podcasting and do a little bit of writing and a little bit of speaking. I would say though those are primarily what takes up my time.
I’m married to my wife, Heather and I have a 13-year-old daughter who starts eighth grade tomorrow and a ten-year-old son who starts fourth grade tomorrow online. We’re trying to be flexible and anticipate, whatever happens, happens.
Carrie: I also saw on your website that you were a runner.
Rhett: I do like to run. I’ve always run my entire life just a little bit here and there. I was in track in high school, but short distance.
The short story is that my brother said, “Hey, you wanna run a marathon for this organization to raise money?” And I said, “Okay” and so I ran my first marathon in 2006. Prior to that run, no more than maybe three miles at a time, I started getting into running and the distance has got longer. I did a 50k and then I did a 50 miler.
[00:03:12] In February, I just completed my first 100k, which is about 62 miles. These are all now primarily trails. I do it mainly because it’s a way for me to kinda have my own therapy, to get out, and to have some solitude and silence. It’s just a way to take care of myself and exercise since I sit in a chair a lot during the week. For me, it’s just a huge outlet and I really enjoy it.
Carrie: Yeah. I can definitely attest to that. Exercise helps with mental health.
Rhett: For sure it does.
From A Full time Pastor to A Therapist, Providing Mental Health Support to Pastors and Business Leaders
Carrie: So you had talked about doing some executive coaching. Do you have a background in business then too? Were you involved in business before therapy?
Rhett: No. Before therapy, I was a pastor, full-time. I had gone to seminary out of college. I actually planned to do this in college. I wanted to be a psychologist and I took a church history class in my senior year and it changed my life. I decided to go to seminary. I went to Fuller Theological Seminary there in California. I started off at the extension campus in Arizona and I was working at my Alma mater, which at the time, was a small Southern Baptist School called Grand Canyon University. I was working there and going to school and then I moved to California. I was required to do a church internship as a part of that. I landed at a church called Bel-Air Presbyterian Church and I was working in the college ministry on the campuses of USC and UCLA. Just by weird kind of circumstances, they ended up putting my name in the hat. They’re on the search for a new college pastor.
I didn’t really want to be in ministry. I just went to seminary to do a PhD. I wanted to teach and I ended up getting the job. I was the college pastor there in Los Angeles for about seven to eight years. I have no business background but it was in the ministry and the way that I got into therapy was just working with college students day in and day out.
I realized that what I love was not the preaching and the speaking, but was the one-on-one and helping people through difficult times.
I just felt ill-equipped to handle some of the more difficult situations. So I decided to go back to Fuller Seminary when I was pastoring. I did my marriage and family therapy program there. I think the combined experience of working with pastors and leaders and doing therapy just helped in such a way that all of a sudden, I had business leaders and organizations asked me to come to speak to their leaders about mental health, how to deal with difficult relationships, or what our boundaries are like in the workplace. I found myself in the business world with no really quote-unquote business experience except building my own practice.
I really enjoyed that aspect of work too. Working with business leaders to help them figure out how to perform at higher levels and how to actually take care of themselves. To be honest, even though it’s not a therapy, most of them are like, “Hey, I don’t mind if you do a little therapy.” So I’m in this weird place kind of spending time between church work, kind of corporate world, and in my own private practice. I just kind of learned a lot along the way.
Carrie: What’s really interesting though, I would imagine is that there’s a lot of overlap and relationship principles. You can apply those anywhere. You can apply those in your marriage. You can apply them at work. You can apply them in your corporation. So there’s probably a lot of overlap in that wisdom.
Rhett: Yeah. I would think in my experience, any of the training that we’ve done, especially when relationships and family systems and stuff is that it’s really easy to apply to organizational systems. I may have to change the language a little bit in terms of how we communicate and the tools that I might use, but what I’ve come to learn recently is that there’s really nothing new under the sun. Everyone is saying the same thing. It’s just that we’re all coming from different angles. I’ve enjoyed stepping into that world and I feel kind of green and new at it, but I’ve learned a lot.
Equipping Pastors To Deal with Mental Health Related Issues
Carrie: That’s awesome. Can you tell us a little bit about the training that you’re doing with pastors on mental health issues?
Rhett: One of my mentors is Terry Hargrave. He’s at Fuller Theological Seminary and he founded a model called restoration therapy. I got into that by doing some marriage intensives back in 2010 to 2014. Up at a ranch here in Texas, we would bring couples in and do these marriage intensives. The model that we used was his model, which eventually he kind of built into a bigger framework and started training therapists.
I was trained early on in his model and I’ve been really close to him. Over the course of the last several years, he and his wife, Sharon who’s on staff at the Boone Center for Marriage and Family at Pepperdine University, got together with some other leaders from Azusa Pacific and Fuller Seminary. They decided that we need to equip and train pastors. Pastors are overwhelmed and busy. They deal with all kinds of issues. They’re the frontline that people bring all kinds of issues to them, so they put together a team of about seven to nine people with experience in different issues related to mental health.
We’ve recently had some of our work published through Barna as part of a relationship kind of mental health piece. I’ll be doing that again in a few weeks and I’m looking forward to that.
Carrie: That’s awesome. I think pastors oftentimes are ill-equipped to deal with mental health issues and so providing that training is really crucial because they are on the front lines and people are coming to them with problems.
Rhett: Yeah. It’s a lot to ask a pastor to, who at the most maybe was required or given one class on counseling and seminary and then everyone comes to them for everything.
There’s this huge gap I think. There’s a lot of opportunities to come alongside pastors and to be a resource for them and help them in any way that we can. Being a former pastor myself, I feel like that’s really important.
Integrating Faith With Pyschological Tools
Carrie: Do you find that some are hesitant to refer out because they aren’t sure if people are going to be getting sound biblical advice or feedback on their issues?
Rhett: Yes for sure. You talked about going to Denver Seminary and I went to Fuller Seminary and a lot of my friends are going to Dallas Seminary. So depending on the education, people and pastors are concerned about what kind of therapy it is going to be. Is it going to be biblical therapy? Is it going to be some type of Nouthetic therapy, which is basically the only counseling you provide is that you open the Bible and point to specific verses or it might be like new age therapy.
I guess what I tell pastors is my job as a therapist is to bring the best psychological tools and to integrate my faith into that process. That’s how I was trained. What I find is if I have a good relationship with the pastor, then they feel safe and trustworthy. Also, we’ll create a list of different therapists in the area that I think are really great at what they do. We’ll give those to pastors as well.
I think that is a huge fear for pastors and I understand that, but I think it’s changed over the years. I don’t see that fear nearly as much as I used to. I think churches have done a good job of vetting who they think is best for their congregation. I always tell people, if you’re looking for a therapist and you don’t know, just go to your church. They usually have a list of therapists that they highly recommend.
Misapplied Bible Verses About Anxiety
Carrie: You wrote a book about anxiety called, “The Anxious Christian”, which I wanted us to dive into a little bit, but before we do that, I wanted to talk a little bit about this verse, Philippians 4:6, “Be anxious for nothing…”
There are a lot of Christians struggling with anxiety and they tell me that they feel shame around this, first because they’ve tried so hard not to be anxious through prayer. They’ve tried to bring everything to God. They’ve tried to ask Him to take their anxiety away.
Are there times you feel where we as Christians misapply this verse or are taken out of context?
Rhett: Yes. I think that’s the verse that got me really interested in writing more about this topic because like you, I have people coming to my office and they needed help. They had reached out to someone, maybe a ministry leader or a friend, and that verse I think was meant in good intention, but it was received in a way that made them feel ashamed like their faith wasn’t good enough. They ended up in a counseling office with someone they didn’t know but that was the only safe place.
[00:13:17] In some ways, I feel that’s a tragedy that they had to go somewhere where they didn’t even know anyone to talk through this. I do think it’s misapplied. We can talk about this at length, but in short, the flow of that whole book is there’s a lot going on. The word there in Philippians 4:6 that Paul uses for anxiety, which says, “Do not be anxious” is the same word he uses for anxiety in Philippians 2:20. He talks about the anxiety that his ministry leader, Epaphroditus had. He says Epaphroditus has anxiety for the people there because he cares about them. Paul uses that same word.
In Philippians 2:28, Paul talks about basically the lessening of his own anxiety. He uses a different word there for depression. They’re also in Philippians 2 and so you get this really interesting passage where Epaphroditus has anxiety. Paul talks about the lessening of his anxiety. You get to Philippians 2, it’s about Christ coming down in suffering on our behalf.
Paul is someone who’s been through a lot of difficult times. I think in the flow of everything he says, “don’t be anxious”, but if you are, in Philippians 4: 7-8, he says, “do these things.”
I think in the context, they actually acknowledged that there’s anxiety present in their lives, that we can go to God and we cannot be anxious, but if we are, there are some things that we can do. I just think the whole flow has to be applied when we talk to people about it, rather than just say, “don’t be anxious.” That does a disservice to people.
Carrie: Yeah. I love the other verses in that section that talk about “The Lord is near” and you think about like your kids when they were little, just you being there, sometimes is that calming presence for them. It’s like, “I’m here. I’m with you, you don’t need to be afraid.”
Rhett: Yeah. In 4:7-8, he basically talks about whatever is beautiful and Holy and loving, he says, “Meditate on these things.”
Paul knows thousands of years before we have the science to know it, that the things that we think about, change our beliefs. The things that we are to believe, change our actions. I think Paul has a lot of grace for people and the whole flow of the text needs to be taken into consideration.
We need to handle people in a very loving way who come to us with anxiety or depression or some other mental health issue.
Rhett’s Journey Of Anxiety And His Book, The Anxious Christian
Carrie: You make this argument in your book that a lot of Christians I think are focused on, “God, please just take this away, please.” “Can I get rid of it, please?” “I don’t want to deal with anxiety anymore. Just release me from it.”
You make the point that God can use your anxiety for good. How have you seen that played out in your own life? Or can you talk about that a little bit more?
Rhett: I think I first thought about that idea because I grew up in a family where my mom had breast cancer when I was six and she passed away when I was 11. I talk about that in my book. That was the day that I began to stutter and I still stutter sometimes but it’s pretty rare.
That was the day also that anxiety was kind of introduced into my life. What I noticed over time was that the really beautiful things that happened in my life were the things that I was able to work through my anxiety. Anxiety propelled me to work towards those things.
A couple of examples I use in the book is when I was a junior in college. I was asked to speak at our chapel for the Easter morning sunrise service. I’ve been praying about that, that God gave me an opportunity to speak somewhere just because I knew I needed to face my fears. I got a call to speak and I declined it. I remember getting off the phone saying, “I prayed about that.” I called them back up and said, “I’ll do it.” This is in 1996, almost 10 years after she (mother) had passed away. I remember getting up and speaking in front of an audience really for one of the first times and I stuttered my way through it.
I knew like something was about to change for me. This happened later on when I took the job at Bel-air. I remember saying to God, “Okay, I’ll take this job, but you have to show up for me and you have to speak for me.” What I started to notice is the things in my life that are really important. God somehow used that anxiety to propel me towards things because the anxiety was uncomfortable. [00:18:16] So it forced me to look for solutions. It forced me to look for ways to change and ways to grow.
Sitting With Anxiety As A Conversation Partner
Anxiety doesn’t leave you feeling comfortable if that makes sense. It was almost like the anxiety was God’s way of saying, “Get up and get moving. I’m not going to let you sit here. I’m not gonna let you just struggle in this” and so I just started to listen to my anxiety and pay attention to it.
If I’m working with people right now, I had them imagine like anxiety is a conversation partner. What is anxiety saying to you? How can you grow? I’ll use this metaphor: We all drive cars and our car has dash lights that tell us what’s going on underneath the hood and we paid attention to those things. Our car will run smooth and we’ll get to our destination. If we ignore those flashing lights, we’ll end up stranded, right? Or broken down. We just know physically and physiology and from the science that depression, anxiety are often just internal cues of something going on saying, “Hey, pay attention to me, pay attention to me.”
Reframing Anxiety And Following God’s Leading
[00:19:16] I encourage people that when they’re anxious or feeling depressed, ask yourself how you can listen to those things cause they might be a way of God guiding you and leading you. Do not see it as something’s wrong with you, but maybe there’s an opportunity for growth in here.
I know there’s lots of nuance around that. [00:19:36] I’m not saying God just gives us anxiety to grow us, but how do we reframe it as something wrong with us and more as maybe an opportunity to come alongside and to move in the direction God is guiding us.
Carrie: Right. I think for me, I resonate with the sense of, sometimes God calls you to do big things and I think it’s normal to be anxious in that process. For me, it caused me to lean more on God and rely on Him during that time. It’s also almost been in some ways a confirmation. I know I need to do this. I feel a spiritual piece of this is where God is leading me. I’m anxious about it because it’s bigger than me. It’s not something that I can do on my own. I need God to intervene.
Rhett: Yeah. I love that. I think there’s lots of good stories in the Bible where they may not use the word anxiety specifically in the text, but somebody is overwhelmed with the tasks that God has given them. Moses or Gideon or Peter, Paul, Mary, all of the people that they have to depend on God to get them through that situation.
I love that idea that it’s almost confirmation that if it’s too big, maybe you were on track.
How Churches and Pastors Can Support Mental Health
Carrie: How do you think pastors can really support Christians in their congregation who are struggling with some of these issues? How can they come alongside them and say, “You know, I’m here for you.”
Rhett: That’s a great question. I think it starts from the top down. It’s a ministry, it’s a pastor, or a ministry leader, or someone who leads the Bible study within the church or as a volunteer leader. I think the message actually has to come top-down. It needs to be something like, “we want you to know that it’s okay If you struggle with mental health issues, anxiety, depression.”
Number one, it’s okay. There’s not a stigma around it. I think that almost has to be verbally spoken and number two, we are going to look for ways to make it safe for you to find a community to talk about these issues within the organization.
Number three, we’re going to partner, pair up with other organizations or leaders within the mental health field if you feel we can’t support you, or even if we can, we’re going to bring other leaders in to help, guide us, or to give us some expertise in areas that we don’t have. You can get into a lot of details after that, but I think it starts with just the idea of a pastor getting up and saying, “it’s okay if you struggle and it’s okay if you’re anxious or depressed. This is a safe place to be in that moment and we’ll walk you through that.” I think if you do that, the other stuff will come in terms of how we execute mental health within the church and how we come alongside people.
Carrie: I think that’s huge. Just normalizing the struggles and saying like “that’s okay” because how many people, in the trajectory of their life, there’s a huge percentage of people who at some point or another are going to experience either anxiety or depression.
Rhett: Yeah and there’s a quote attributed to C.S Lewis and I can’t remember which writing it is but something like, “Two of the most beautiful words in the English language is “me too.” It’s like to know that “you’re not alone.” That other people suffer from this and I think if you say that out loud to people, a lot of beautiful opportunities will open up then in terms of how you can discern to come alongside each person in their own unique way.
Shame Around Mental Health In The Church
Carrie: One of the things that I ran across when I was doing this podcast was I had a couple of people telling me they were struggling with anxiety. It’s hard for me to talk about it in the church because people see me as a spiritual leader or as a pillar of faith. For me, when I start opening up about anxiety, they’re like, “no, not you.” So it almost gets this response of denial. I think that’s just a good thing to put out there for other Christians who may be in the congregation to say that when somebody is trying to tell you about their struggles, believe them and really hear them.
Rhett: Yeah. Statistics can be all over the place. When we’re talking about anxiety, for example, on average, about 18 percent of the American population, 18 and over is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. That’s someone who’s diagnosed. I saw the latest stats this year that said 33% and so it’s probably pretty high right now. Those are people who’ve actually gotten the help that they’re diagnosed with. They’ve seen the counselor, they’ve seen a doctor, they’ve seen a psychiatrist.
If I’m a pastor and I’m preaching, let’s say to a congregation of a hundred people. I could safely assume that 20 to 33 people in that audience have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder that says nothing about the other 70 people who probably have some level of anxiety or have experienced anxiety, but there’s shame around it or who haven’t gotten help or don’t even know they’re anxious because they’ve lived in that feeling for so long. That’s a huge amount of the people that you’re ministering to each week and that’s significant. That’s why I think the issue has to be addressed. I think it’s safe for pastors or it’s important for pastors to say from the top, down even if they haven’t shown anxiety, that it’s okay if you are.
Pastors Need Counseling Too
Carrie: [00:25:31] Having been a pastor yourself, do you feel it’s beneficial for pastors to receive counseling? Just to have an objective viewpoint, or be able to talk about the stressors that come with ministry.
Rhett: Yeah. I actually grew up in a pastor’s home too, my entire life. I credit my dad with that because there was never a stigma. I knew that he had seen counselors and stuff as well.
I think this is kind of a strong language, but I would say it’s a must. If you’re going to be in ministry, you need to have a counselor that you work with regularly. I was going through the ordination process and the PCUSA, I’m not ordained but my initial steps were I was required to have the MMPI Assessment on me cause they want to flesh out if people are stable and stuff and I had to see a counselor. I had already seen a counselor prior to that and then when I decided to do my MFT training in California, every hour, you see a therapist. They’ll give you three hours towards your state licensure. So I did hundred-plus sessions with a therapist there and then I continued that for a couple of years after I was working on my license. I have a therapist I work with here.
I probably see right now 20 to 25 different pastors within my practice. The pastors I see usually come from congregations where they’ve made that something as important.
As pastors, we want you to go get help, or we want you as a congregation to get help, but there are people who kind of come one-off from other churches. What I find is communities that have made it safe and told their pastors, “this is important.” I see pastors doing that.
I don’t know. I’m biased, but I think pastors should have a therapist they work with regularly. I think it’s dangerous not to. I think counselors should have counselors that they work with regularly. I mean, it’s important when you’re helping people that you have a place to get help and to have space to talk about things.
Carrie: There’s something about just clearing out your own junk that makes you more available to other people. I really believe that.
Rhett: Yeah. If you’re doing this work all day with people and doing pastoral counseling and doing the work that you do as a pastor or a counselor or health field, your bandwidth over time gets pretty frayed. You have less to give others. I see that in my own marriage and my own parenting and my friendships, I just have less to give over time. I’ve had to figure out ways to take care of myself and to get the help that I need so that I can be in these relationships with people.
I think pastors, there’s a heavy burden on them and so I just think they need an outlet, to have that safe, confidential outlet to wrestle through issues.
Carrie: I think what you’re kind of talking about a little bit is there’s this potential for burnout and that’s not just from ministry leaders, that’s other people as well. Moms can get really burnt out on what they’re doing and that can cause a lot of either the result of ongoing stress and anxiety until things just kind of crash.
Rhett: Yeah. I think burnouts can happen in any field. Lay or professional field, you may have noticed in your practice, the word burnout is being used more. Currently, I think with my clients, in the workshops that I’ve been doing, as COVID has dragged on and uncertainty is dragged on people have felt burnout.
You mentioned moms stay at home, parents are burned out, having to teach and to do other things that they were doing, parents are working from home. Burnout I think it’s not something you can usually anticipate. You can sense it coming on, but from what I gathered from the research and experience, all of a sudden, it just kind of hits you and then you can’t function.
I think we’re in an interesting time right now that’s why people are reaching out to mental health people, counselors, and therapists, getting help is probably pretty critical.
Rhett’s Story of Hope
Carrie: I think we pretty much covered the stuff. So, at the end of every podcast, I like to ask our guests to share a story of hope, which is a time in which you received hope from God or another person.
Rhett: I knew that the question was coming in. It’s a really good question. I have to think about it for a while cause I feel fortunate that there’s a lot of people around me who’ve given me hope or who’ve encouraged me but the thing that came to mind was my daughter who I’d mentioned earlier is 13. She’s in theater at her school. Last year when she was in a theater production, I was watching and she had a couple of different parts where she spoke and I was watching her speak and she did it with confidence. That really hit me at the core. I think also because I pictured myself at her age and I was in a school play that you had to be in and I remember staring my way through that and living in fear and anxiety.
Seeing her being so competent, I think gave me a sense of hope that God changes and redeems situations. He transformed people’s lives. Even though I struggled with anxiety and stuttering and things were really difficult for me, He was able to help me work and to grow that it somehow changed my daughter’s life in such a way that she didn’t have to deal with those same struggles.
Though my daughter is not me. I felt like in some way it was a mirror God saying, “things are going to be okay.” It just gave me a sense of hope. I saw my younger version of myself in her and that’s been something I’ve thought a lot about, I think over the last probably five or six months since she had that play, that’s something I’ve been really encouraged by that through difficult times, things are gonna be okay. We’re going to be okay. We’re going to get through these times and God will redeem the situations and He’ll fix the broken pieces. That for me is huge.
Carrie: I think it’s really powerful seeing your child have something maybe that you didn’t have at that point in your life. That’s awesome. I’m so glad that you have that gift.
Rhett: As a therapist, I’ve just become aware that I’m going to mess my kids up. There’s no perfect parenting. The things that you don’t even intentionally do, kids just interpret in certain ways. So it’s given me a lot of hope to know that we do the best that we can and, and it’s not perfect. God’s going to work and it’s cool to see our kids inspire us. We didn’t thrive in ways that we thought we messed up.
I think that’s why I enjoy working with people in counseling. I’m able to see people’s lives changed and transformed, and sometimes it’s really slow and other times it’s overnight. That’s what keeps me engaged.
Carrie: I really appreciate you giving us the most valuable gift of your time today and talking about these issues with anxiety and church leaders. It’s just been incredible to just get your wisdom on these issues.
Rhett: Thank you so much. I appreciate you having me on. It’s been fun. I enjoy doing this stuff. Awesome.
I really enjoyed that interview and I hope that you did too and were able to get something good out of it. If you want to continue the conversation with us, please hop on over to Instagram and Facebook. You can follow along with the show there and hopefully receive some microdoses of encouragement for your day.
Hope for Anxiety and OCD is a production of By The Well Counseling in Smyrna, Tennessee. Our original music is by Brandon Mangrum and audio editing is completed by Benjamin Bynam.
Until next time. May you be comforted by God’s great love for you.