A year after his son's suicide, popular evangelical pastor Rick Warren is taking on a new mental health ministry inspired by his personal tragedy.
Warren, founder of Saddleback Church and a best-selling author, will team with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange and the National Alliance on Mental Illness to host a daylong event next month focused on helping church leaders reach parishioners who are struggling with mental illness.
The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church grew out of private conversations Warren had with the local Catholic bishop, Bishop Kevin Vann, after his son's death and his own writings in his journal as he processed his grief. Matthew Warren, 27, committed suicide last April after struggling with severe depression and suicidal thoughts for years.
"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," Warren said Monday as he met with Vann to discuss the March 28 event. "I remember writing in my journal that in God's garden of grace even broken trees bear fruit."
After Matthew's suicide, more than 10,000 people wrote to Warren and his wife, Kay, to share their own struggles with mental illness, he said. The conference will address a range of mental health issues, from bipolar disorder to suicide to more easily hidden issues such as anxiety, eating disorders and addiction. Attendees can choose from among 20 interactive workshops within the conference.
"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 said. "And we want to remove the stigma."
The focus on mental health is a natural outgrowth for churches, which have long been the first stop for the faithful who are suffering and need guidance, Vann said.
As a newly ordained deacon in 1980, Vann said, his first funeral Mass was for a man who had committed suicide. Later, a man hearing voices knocked on the parish door seeking relief.
Vann didn't feel equipped to handle either situation properly, he recalled.
The conference will put an emphasis on providing resources to churches so that people in need can get the help they need immediately — and so faith workers can get insight into the challenges confronting the mentally ill and their families.
"Our goal is, as we say, we crack the door open and then churches go, 'OK. If the diocese is doing this, if Saddleback's doing this, we can do this,'" Warren said. "And we'd love to see a movement started where people actually begin to say, 'We need to see this element added to our local ministry.'"
Warren founded Saddleback Church in 1980 in his house. The megachurch now claims more than 20,000 members and has multiple satellite campuses around Southern California.
Warren is also author of "The Purpose Driven Life," which has sold more than 50 million copies, and gave the invocation at President Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration.