This article is my personal understanding and opinion, combined with insights from interviews conducted for my personal research on Social Anxiety and Church. It is written in the common language of those who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To learn more about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, visit LDS.org.
It is possible that almost everyone experiences social anxiety on some level and in certain situations, but coupled with personal anxiety, church attendance and church callings can often trigger an overwhelming anxiety. Even just smiling back at someone when being greeted in the halls, or being asked to pray or move up when sitting in the back of the room can be excruciating for someone with anxiety on a hard day, let alone fulfilling a calling that they feel unqualified to serve in or that pushes them to hold responsibilities completely outside their comfort zone.
I have a friend who suffers from such an anxiety that it affected his ability to serve in a calling for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although he has served in various church callings throughout his life, never had he considered turning down a calling or not attending his Sunday meetings until the day he got an assignment to serve in a way that triggered one of his greater anxieties. So severe was the anxiety attack that it put him into a paralyzing panic that lasted for several hours.
In the midst of his debilitating anxiety, the only way he could see his way out of this predicament was to quit going to church. But before this fear could overcome him completely, he did something that required a very vulnerable application of faith—he spoke with his bishop and elder’s quorum leader about the anxiety he was experiencing within his calling. Both leaders listened with sincere hearts and sought a solution that allowed him to continue serving in the calling by adjusting and redistributing some of the traditional responsibilities he was over.
I have experienced that support myself when my leaders have acted in love when I expressed my concerns about a few callings.
When I was asked to serve as the nursery leader in a new ward, I instantly became teary-eyed in the meeting. My church leader, noticing my anxiety, sensitively encouraged me to take breaks from my calling from time to time. He then offered comforting words that helped me gain a perspective that would help me throughout my service.
When I was asked to serve as a counselor in my ward Relief Society, I was excited to be serving with adults, but soon found the challenges of this calling weighed even heavier than a crying toddler, but because of the pressing responsibilities of the calling I couldn’t just call a sub like I had before. So instead, I informed the women I served with that anxiety was something I struggled with and that there might be times when I just wouldn’t have as much to give. They were always so kind and understanding and helped me through many anxious moments, especially at activities.
It is inspiring to see true acts of unconditional love, as well as, everyday applications of faith and leadership within The Church. It could have gone differently for my friend or for me, and no doubt that many others have had experiences that have been less encouraging, but as we seek better understanding of each other we will learn how to serve with people of all abilities and challenges.
In the interviews I conducted for Social Anxiety and Church many shared their personal experiences with church callings and anxiety.
One person expressed conflicted feelings about how a bishop would share how inspired he felt about a calling he was extending, and how she always felt she wasn’t supposed to say no to a calling even when she felt the calling wasn’t right for her. She was always grateful for the callings that didn’t trigger anxiety and that could say yes to.
Another girl shared how she once had to turn down a calling that would have made church unbearable for her. This filled her with guilt, because as a convert to The Church she felt she needed to be willing to serve God and do what he wanted her to do. Since then she has accepted that it’s okay to not do everything perfectly, and tries to remember that the calling isn’t about her or her public speaking skills.
It was expressed by another interviewee, that he felt looked down upon after asking to be released from a calling when the struggle to provide for his family was already more than he could bear at that moment. He still understands that church can be filled with “huge doses of love” and has experienced that many times in the past and with many other people.
In one of the interviews, a girl shared about the positive experiences she had when she opened up about her anxiety with the young women she taught. Many said it was nice to see an example of someone who struggles but who can still serve and be happy, and that people should know they are not alone.
As a bishop or church leader who is extending a calling you might consider asking if any part of the calling makes them feel uncomfortable and then seek guidance on how best to support their concerns. This might involve more than one conversation. You might, with their willingness, invite the advice, ideas and support of others they will be serving with. While involving more people can possibly make those who struggle feel more vulnerable, when coupled with compassion from all those involved, it might actually become the support they need.
The deeply held cultural beliefs that a calling must always be accepted, that it must be done a very specific way, or that you should never ask for a release, can be big triggers for those living with personal anxiety and can cause an enormous amount of unnecessary guilt. We can do a lot to encourage faith-filled service by taking time to resolve personal concerns, find specific ways to support the individual in the calling, and by having truly open and honest conversations when a concern is raised or even just sensed, since many are trying really hard to hide their anxiety.
For those who struggle with anxiety in church callings, I hope you always find the strength to keep walking forward in faith and that you will be surrounded by those who will walk beside you. If you ever feel uncomfortable with anything at church, I pray you will have the words to express yourself and be heard for the sincerest desires of your heart that long to serve God. There are many ways to serve that don’t require a formal calling. Ministering and parenting are some of the most important callings alone. The Lord hears your prayers, knows your heart perfectly and loves you just as your are right now.
For those who don’t experience the trial of anxiety, I hope you will seek understanding and show compassion for those you serve with that might struggle. If you suspect someone is struggling with anxiety at church or in their calling, the best thing you can do is get to know them outside of church, then be a true friend to them when the anxiety keeps them from attending meetings and activities. You don’t have to be their assigned minister to be their friend or to find ways to show love and acceptance.
And to all of us, whether we personally deal with anxiety or not:
Let no one struggle alone who asks for help in open conversation or in their silent prayers to God. And let us all do our part to be aware of others and make church feel safe and welcoming to all.wendysantiano.com
I’m so glad that Kirsten posted your article Wendy! You are a fabulous writer, one who shares with honesty and so much compassion. Thank you! I was talking to a friend the other night who is currently serving as a Bishop and he mentioned that “there are many who struggle with anxiety and depression’ and he said so with so much compassion. Touched my heart. I hope you have a wonderful day and that you can feel that “spiritual pat on the back” from Heavenly Father letting you know, “good job Wendy- article well written…thank you my daughter”.
Beautiful said Wendy. Thank you for so clearly expressing what so many struggle with. I have felt intense anxiety over certain aspects of callings I have held and your article helped me realize more tools I have access to in helping me deal with that anxiety. I’m also excited to share this article with others that I know struggle as well! What a great resource for disciples of Christ who want to serve but don’t know how with their current struggles.
Your words touch my heart so deeply. Thank you! There really are so many, and I am grateful that we are truly entering an era of true compassion for all.
Thank you for your kind words Aubrey! I am certain we will discover even more tools as we work together with open hearts for each other.