Today, we’re launching our psychology for ministry series in partnership with Blueprint 1543. We start with a conversation with a psychologist who has spent nearly four decades building bridges between science and the church. Mark McMinn, recently retired from George Fox University, has worked assessing ministry practices and spiritual formation. He reviewed psychological work on virtue for the church. His conversation with Sarey Martin Concepcion has been edited for length and readability.
Sarey: What have you seen change over the years in terms of integration between Christian faith and psychology?
Mark: When I started, I remember we were filling up chalkboards with fancy diagrams for how all of theology and psychology fit together. But our model-building madness wasn’t very relevant to how people lived. The last couple decades, our conversations became more focused on topics like forgiveness or grace, or gratitude. Our questions around faith and psychology became much more focused and, I think, relevant.
My daughter, Megan Neff, and I wrote a book in 2020 called Embodying Integration. She’s a seminary graduate who got a doctorate in psychology. She took her first integration class in her program and felt like it wasn’t relevant to her generation. So, we took a walk every week and started talking about these things, and ultimately it became this book.
I think the next shift is toward integration, not so much as a topic, but as a person. Are we forming persons who embody integration? I think that’s going to be the next exciting trend in the field.
Sarey: That’s the kind of approach that we’re trying to take at Blueprint. Certain types of people want to talk about the logical knots that you run into, and iron them out intellectually, but most people are just living life. They encounter conflicts and are trying to navigate them. If you start with those specific questions, it teaches you how to do integration or be integrated.
Mark: That’s well said. It has to move in both directions. Philosophers and theologians have really important things to say to us, but it’s the lived experience where it takes form. We must take the deductive work from philosophy and apply it to people’s lives, but we also have to start with people’s lives and say, how does this impact my understanding of theology or philosophy?
Sarey: What are some similarities and differences between how Christian psychologists and non-Christian psychologists approach their science?
Mark: I have two answers, and they’re going to appear to be contradictory. First, there is not very much difference. There are ground rules to science, and you have to follow those rules whether you’re a Christian or not. You submit your research to a journal, and people tell you whether you followed the rules or not. If you do, you will likely get your work published. If you don’t, it’s not going to be published.
But secondly, we still bring our full selves to the science we do. So, the questions might look different for a Christian scientist. For example, one of my recent projects is looking at how Christians experience grace from a scientific perspective. As a Christian, I’m going to be interested in some different things than my non-Christian peers.
There is a lot of public discourse about trust in science. In doing research for a book I’m working on with my wife, I found this fascinating study showing that people who go to church regularly live longer. They have a lower mortality rate largely due to social support. I shared this on Facebook, and an atheist I know made a snarky comment about statistics showing anything you want.
We have this interesting relationship with science, where we want to accept it if it tells us what we want to believe. Right? And we want to reject it if it tells us something else. But that’s not the way science works. The study I posted is a good study with 700,000 people followed over 20 years, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Church attendance helps promote health and longevity. People can say, “I don’t like the finding,” but it’s still the finding. Those are the ground rules of science.
- Check out Blueprint 1543’s full series of interviews at Psychforministry.com.
- Hear the full interview with Mark McMinn on Spotify, YouTube, and Apple podcast feeds.
- Mark’s book with his daughter, Megan Anna Neff, is Embodying Integration: A Fresh Look at Christianity in the Therapy Room.
- Mark reflects on wisdom and virtue for Christianity Today.
- While it’s not seasonally on point (it was for an Advent series), Mark has written for us once before.
Sarey: Switching gears now, do you think Christians should think about mental illness or mental health differently than how a non-believing person would?
Mark: There are entire books on this question. There are different ways to look at it. Adaptability is a pretty good way to look at mental health and mental illness. Being a Christian speaks to the whole notion of flourishing, being adaptable, being healthy and hopeful in life.
But I don’t think faith is everything. There’s also a psychological, emotional dimension. But the notion that God loves me makes a huge difference in terms of how we understand our place in the world. Serious depression can mute that. We start thinking of God as a judge or punisher. Returning to adaptability, we must ask: is God starting to feel oppressive to me? If so, that’s probably a mental health issue. It’s also a theological issue that needs some attention.
Sarey: I think we need to understand the complexity of being human with multiple levels of causation, to use a fancy word. We’re embodied, we have a spiritual life, we have social lives, and all these different factors impact our mental health.
Mark: That’s right. They’re in constant interplay with one another. If I could walk back what I said a moment ago, sometimes having a disenchantment with God, of having lament toward God, can actually be a sign of health, too. I don’t want to say that’s always depression. Consider the Psalms. You see the psalmists crying out in anguish to God. Please don’t always equate that with depression. It’s when a dark cloud always hangs over a person where we need to be open to the possibility that there’s some mental health issue going on.
Sarey: What is the role of faith and church community if you are in a mental health crisis?
Mark: Just be a community. We talked about how being in a faith community helps increase lifespan. Be a community that cares and is a place where you feel known and loved. I get a little worried when churches offer too many quick answers. Like if you feel depressed, you need to pray more or try this spiritual practice. Prayer and spiritual practices are good, but that’s not always the answer to a mental health issue.
The healthiest communities from a psychological perspective, and arguably also from a spiritual perspective, are the ones that allow doubt and uncertainty and even pain. They are places where we can bring our whole selves. There’s a tendency for church goers to only bring our best selves. But if you find a caring deep community, you start to move into deeper ways of knowing, and you realize that other people are struggling too.
Consider the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. Faith is not just what I’m supposed to believe, but the possibility that there really is someone out there who cares deeply for me. Life is ultimately a comedy and not a tragedy. The ending is a good ending. When you are part of a healthy community and you feel both loved and known, it becomes more plausible that there’s a God that loves you too.
This goes back to the experience of integration that occurs inside a person. These are things that we encounter in an embodied and personal way. If I’m in a community that loves me, it’s going to make it much easier for me to understand what it means for God to love me.
Sarey: Any final word after a long career working at the interface of psychology and the church?
Mark: Can I tell you a story? It was 1999, and I was teaching at Wheaton, and I was working at the hospital doing psychological assessments. I was referred to patients, and then a psychiatrist wanted a report back within 24 hours. I stayed up till midnight writing reports. To save time, I would find paragraphs from an old assessment and adapt it to the patient I was assessing.
One night after seeing a patient, dreading another late night, I had an insight as I was walking across the hospital parking lot. There was this paragraph that I was cutting and pasting on almost every assessment, and it had to do with social isolation that people in the busy western suburbs of Chicago were feeling. These folks were feeling all alone.
I asked myself the question, where do people find connection in our busy world? And the clear answer to me was church. It was an epiphany for me, and it became clear that however many years I had left in my career, I wanted to focus on psychology and the church. That was the turning point for me and what gave meaning to my long career in looking at psychology and faith.