How Do Pastors Deal With Anxiety?

How do pastors deal with anxiety? Shawn Johnson would know. His crippling anxiety led him to step away from pastoring while he sought months-long inpatient treatment. Through that treatment, along with help from his wife, fellow pastors, and friends, God healed Shawn and gave him a new perspective. He shares this perspective in his book, Attacking Anxiety: From Panicked and Depressed to Alive and Free. In this episode of the Church InTension podcast, The King’s University President, Dr. Jon Chasteen, talks with Shawn Johnson about how all pastors deal with anxiety and how they can overcome it.

Dr. Jon Chasteen: I can’t say enough about this guy, he is one of the greatest leaders that I know, has done unbelievable things in a city that’s not the easiest place to grow a church, but he has grown an absolutely amazing church with nine campuses and thousands of people that come to his church. But really beyond that, he loves Jesus and he loves his family. And he has an absolutely amazing story that I can’t wait for you guys to hear today because it’s raw and it’s real and it’s going to be a blessing to you.

He wrote a book about this and I want to show it to you. It’s called Attacking Anxiety: From Panicked and Depressed to Alive and Free. And you’re going to want to get this book, I’m telling you, pastors, leaders, anyone. This is a fantastic book. So one, Shawn, thanks for coming on the show, man. I know you’re busy. Thanks for being my friend.

Shawn Johnson: Hey, thank you for having me. I’m excited.

Jon: Yeah, man. So first off, thanks for writing this book. I’ve heard you preach on this book and topic. I’ve seen you on a couple of podcasts talking about this. And my first thought was, I have to have this guy on the podcast because you get crazy vulnerable. Your vulnerability and you’re rawness in this book is so real. So this obviously is about anxiety. I don’t want to, you’re the stat guy, you wrote a book on it, literally. But according to the cdc, an estimated 50% of all Americans have been diagnosed with mental illness in their lifetime. I didn’t know this, mental illness is the third most common cause of hospitalization in the US, which is crazy.

Shawn: Isn’t that crazy?

Jon: So man, unpack this for us. What does this look like? What happened? I’ve got questions here, but I really don’t want to pin you in. I want to just talk about how did this start? How did this all come to a head?

Shawn: Well, you want to know how it started or how it came to a head?

Jon: So let’s start with how it came to a head. And then I actually have a question that I want to ask, because what I want to tell pastors, because I think what happens with a lot of pastors and leaders is we tell ourselves, I’m okay.

Shawn: Yeah.

Jon: I’ll get through this. It’s just a season, if I can just get through next month or whatever. So I want to talk about how it came to a head, but then later I want to say, what were the early warning signs that somebody now could say, yep, that’s me.

Shawn: Yeah. Yeah. I had been taking anti-anxiety medication for about 10 years as of 2019. I was sort of honest with people about my anxiety, in as much as I would tell them I had some, I have some anxiety, I have some depression. These are things I deal with, these are things I feel. I wouldn’t tell anybody how bad it actually was. And it was getting more and more uncontrollable. It was harder and harder to hide. Little things were happening, like me and my wife would be at an airport and I would have a panic attack when the door closed and I couldn’t sit down and couldn’t catch my breath and they would kick us off the plane. Little weird things were starting to happen that was like, man, this is starting to be really debilitating. And I was, oddly enough, driving home from the dentist in 2019 and I just started having a panic attack.

And for me, when I have panic attacks, one of the things I start to feel instantly is claustrophobic. I feel just like the world’s caving in on me. My chest gets real tight, it gets hard to breathe, I feel like I’m suffocating. And I was in my truck and it was so intense that I was just like, I have to get out of my car right now. I don’t know what to do, I feel like I’m about to die. And I couldn’t really think, because everything’s spinning so fast and I didn’t know where to go. And I was like, okay, I’ll go to this parking lot. Well, there’s people there that might see me from the church, or I’ll go to my office. Well, I can’t because I can’t let the staff see me this way. Or I’ll go to our house. And I knew I was feeling so claustrophobic, I needed to be outside and I was crying. But all the houses around our house, all have Red Rock Church stickers on windows.

So I’m like, I can’t be home either. And I didn’t know where to go. And I literally just pulled over on the side of this highway in Denver called C 470. It’s right at the foothills. I called my wife and she could tell from the second I said a word. She’s like, “Oh babe, are you okay?” And I said, “No, please pray.” And she said, “Can you make it home?” And I said, “I don’t think I can.” And I hung up. And obviously, in retrospect, not a great way of handling that situation for my poor wife. But I pulled my car over and I just started walking up this hill on the side of a highway and I was crying and I was shaking, and I was yelling at God, yelling at the air. I remember yelling, “I can’t live this way. I can’t live this way. I need a miracle.”

And my wife knew where I was coming from. I don’t know how long I was sitting on, I ended up sitting on the side of this hill just falling apart. And my wife and a few friends showed up and they took me to my house. And by this time, my body had been in just panic attack, hyper mode for probably about an hour, so I was just exhausted. And I was sitting at my kitchen table just trying to pull it together. And one of my friends was like, “Hey, you’re not thinking about doing anything stupid, are you?” And obviously, I knew what he was saying and I was like, “No, I’m not.” And I thought about it for a second and I went, “Here’s the combo to my safe. You need to go downstairs and take all my guns.” We had some guns for hunting and stuff. I just knew I couldn’t trust myself.

And you said it right off the bat when you said, pastors think we’re going to be okay. The next morning I woke up and went, “That was a tough day. I’m going to be all right, we’re going to keep rolling.” You don’t keep rolling with that.

Jon: After a day like that.

Shawn: But that’s what we do.

Jon: Yep. We’re tough.

Shawn: We’re not just pastors, I think it’s men in general. I think it’s leaders. I think it’s just humans. We want to be self-sufficient, we want to be able to take care of ourself. We hate admitting that we suck. We hate admitting that we’re weak. And I really was like, I’m just ready to go again. And one of the guys on the team was like, “No, we can’t pretend this didn’t happen.” So I ended up going to, I flew to Alabama and I spent two weeks with Pastor Chris and his team. And then after that I went to a seven week inpatient anti-anxiety treatment center. And it was six days a week, therapy, counseling, classes, homework. It was intense for seven weeks. And I came home and I just started seeing a counselor on a weekly basis. But I took about five months off total from work. And honestly, I didn’t know if I was ever going to be able to go back. It was bad. It was bad.

Jon: So you went to see Chris. I think it was chapter five, you talk about, didn’t you have to get off the airplane on the way to see Chris?

Shawn: I did. I did, in fact. I called him. He’s a new friend in my life and a pastoral figure that I’d really never had before. And I was so embarrassed to tell him what was going on. And he just said, “Just get here.” And so we flew and we had a layover, I think, in Dallas. They shut the door, I started feeling claustrophobic. I started to have a panic attack. The stewardess comes over and she’s like, “Are you okay?” And I was trying to convince her that I was okay, but I was struggling to breathe so bad that she could tell I wasn’t. So she goes and talks to the pilot. Next thing I know, we’re out on the runway. The pilot pulls the plane back into the, where tunnel is and he steps out and he is like, “You need to get off.” He’s like, “I’m not getting up in the air and having you have a panic attack and we can’t make our destination, so you need to get off.” And then to even humiliate us more, of course, everyone in the-

Jon: They’re all mad.

Shawn:  They’re all mad. They’re all mad. They’re all now late for something.

Jon: I hate this guy.

Shawn: He then went, “Wait a sec, we can’t let you off the airplane until we get your bags off the airplane.” Just in case this was some kind of scheme you get kicked off and leave your bags. So I stand in front of everybody that I’m now just made furious for 30 minutes while they found our suitcases. And then kicked us off the plane. And it was just, it was tough. I was really stressed.

Jon: Oh gosh. And man, one of the things that Chris said to you was really impactful. You wrote about, I’m putting you on the spot, but you wrote the book, so I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. He says, you’re pouring out your heart. Obviously, you had to be very vulnerable, broken. And then he says something that kind of switched something in the way that you think. And I think this is important, and again, we have leaders that are listening to this. We have lay people that are listening to this. But at all the listeners, please hear my heart on this episode. My heart right now is for pastors. And again, that doesn’t discount leaders, anybody that’s listening to this, that struggles with anxiety, we can all pull from this. But man, I think there’s something really important here for pastors to hear, Shawn, because pastors are tough. We’re the spiritual “authority”. We have all the answers, don’t we, Shawn?

Shawn: Yeah.

Jon: And so this is so important for pastors. I can’t spotlight that enough. So anyways, what did Chris say to you?

Shawn: So we sit down and he’s asking me what’s going on. I start telling him everything from my crazy start in life to all the anxiety and depression over the last decade to all the feelings I was having in the moment of uncontrollable panic, anxiety, even some suicidal thoughts. And I thought what I expected was for him to do the pastoral thing. I thought he’d probably get up and walk around the table and give me a little hug.

Jon: Lay hands on you.

Shawn: Yeah. Hey buddy, we’re here for you.

Jon: Call me if you need me.

Shawn: Yeah, and he didn’t.

Jon: Wow.

Shawn: He got real stoic. And he just looked me right in the eyes. And he goes, “That’s tough.” He goes, “Probably going to get tougher.” And I was like, “I’m not sure. I’m glad I’m here.”

Jon: Thanks for that, pastor.

Shawn: And he said, “Listen, Shawn, it is time you stopped blaming yourself and it’s time you started fighting back. It’s time you started fighting the enemy.” And it did, something in my soul sort of ignited in that moment. I had no idea what to do with it, but I’d never seen it that way. I’d always saw my anxiety as, this is just how life is for me and it’s something I’ll always deal with at this level. I may always deal with a little bit of anxiety, I may just have a little bend towards that for the rest of my life. But I always thought whatever the level was, that’s the rest of my life. And I just have to learn to live with it, and that’s the way it is. And for the first time, I felt like I was given permission, wait a second, you mean I don’t have to just settle for this? I can actually fight back?

And so that conversation led me to go to that counseling center, to start battling, to start taking advice, to start getting pastoral care. I needed trauma therapy from stuff that happened when I was little. Just stuff that I had spent most of my adult life either ignoring or pretending wasn’t there. It was like, man, I got to deal with it and to do that, it’s going to be a fight, but I can fight back. And that’s where the title of the book comes from, Attacking Anxiety.

Jon: Exactly.

Shawn: Because it was the first time that someone challenged me with, you don’t have to just sit back and take it.

Jon: That’s so good.

Shawn: You can actually fight for yourself or a loved one.

Jon: I love that. And imagine, again, giving kind of a bend towards pastors. You and I share a pastor, we both kind of leaned into Craig Rochelle a lot. Chris Hodges, for you. Have you ever stopped to think, what would it look like right now for you if that moment wouldn’t have happened, if you wouldn’t have gotten on an airplane, went to see Chris Hodges?

Shawn: It was, honestly, it was Pastor Chris. It was Pastor Craig. It was a few people in our lives that, if I hadn’t have finally hit such a wall. There was nothing heroic about me finally opening up. I think God let me hit rock bottom for a minute to go, Hey, enough is enough. It’s time to stop hiding this and it’s time to start sharing your struggles with some people who can help. And I think if I hadn’t, honestly, I don’t know if I would be here. I definitely don’t think I’d be a pastor still. I think my life would be a lot different.

Jon: Well, and think about … Your church was blowing up. You guys were growing and growing and growing. It’s not like you were struggling and that was causing anxiety. And so I think it’s important to even think through that you can have anxiety when you’re growing. You can have anxiety when you’re plateaued. You can have anxiety when you’re decreasing. So you were in a place of, you would think Shawn’s the happiest guy on the planet. Did that play a part into it?

Shawn: That was part of the guilt. And that was part of what I think made me so hesitant to share how bad it was because I would, I would go, “Man, what’s wrong with you on paper? You’re living the dream.” If someone wants to be a pastor, if you’re living the dream, you’ve got a great family and a great church, and things are trending up and to the right. The more church grew, the guiltier, I felt, and the more shame I felt for being so screwed up on the inside. Everyone else would celebrate these stages of growth. And for me, it would just add more pressure because it was, now there’s more people that I can’t really tell how bad I’m struggling.

Jon: You did a phenomenal interview with Pastor Craig about this, and one of the things you talked about was, the bigger it got, the more you felt trapped and the more successful, I guess, maybe the more successful you became, or the more success that Red Rocks was having that played a part into an anxiousness.

Shawn: Yeah. Because when we started, there was 12 of us, and we never thought it would work anyways and so there just wasn’t much pressure. And then every time it would start to get bigger and bigger, and I would still realize, well, I’m still broken on the inside, but what we’re doing is influencing and impacting more and more people. It felt like every little season of growth for the organization was stacking more weights on a squat bar that I was standing under. And I did, I felt trapped because I was like, “Man, I don’t want to let a bunch of people down.” But I also was really battling in my head, am I a hypocrite? Because I talk about a God who gives us peace and joy and freedom, and I don’t think I have any of those things. And the last thing in the world I’d ever want to be is a hypocrite. And so I was like, maybe I shouldn’t be a pastor. But I did, I felt very stuck and very afraid to let people know how bad it was.

Jon: Man, I really hope that pastors are listening to this. And dude, I said it to start the podcast, but I’ll say it again. Thank you for being so vulnerable, man. There’s pastors that got to be listening to this right now saying, yep, that’s me. Yep, that’s me. Yep, that’s me. And so I’m curious, a couple things. Some of the things that might keep a pastor or leader from becoming vulnerable and moving past the insecurities and the fears and the shame and all that. A couple dynamics. What was your family’s response? What was the family dynamic? So your a dad, what does this feel like as a dad having to walk through this with your kids and as a husband? And how did that end up? That’s a fear factor to make somebody say, yeah, you know what I’m going to be vulnerable.

Shawn: That’s such a great question. And it was a huge fear of mine because we’ve all got our pasts and we’ve all got our stories. We’ve all got things we’ve dealt with. And one, I grew up with some abandonment issues anyways. And so one of my greatest fears is the people that I love the most would not value me or want to leave me. And what I thought is, if my wife knew how jacked up I really am, maybe she wouldn’t love me or want to be with me. And if my boys knew how bad it was, maybe they wouldn’t respect me. And I’ve always wanted to be their hero. And I remember when I sat down with my boys to tell them I was going to go to that seven week counseling thing, I got real weepy and I was like, “Guys, I think I need to deal with this. And I’m sorry, and I’m going to miss your football games.” And I was just really struggling. And one of my boys said, sorry, I’m getting emotional.

Jon: Oh my gosh.

Shawn: One of my boys said, he goes, “Dad, we’ve watched you deal with this our whole lives.”

Jon: They already knew.

Shawn: We want you to be healthy.

And then I had this moment, because you mentioned my wife as well, I had this moment when we were in counseling, I was about three or four weeks into counseling and I wasn’t sure I was getting any better or not, to be honest. And I was starting to get scared because I’m like, I can see the end of this counseling and what if I’m not fixed yet? And me and my wife were sitting outside one day and she said, “Babe, I really think you’re going to get better.” And just in a real raw, honest kind of moment, I said, “What if I don’t? What if I don’t get better?” And I’ll never forget, John, she goes just, I mean instantly she looked at me and she goes, “I’m not going anywhere.”

What I’ve found in being really honest with my wife and kids is it brought us all closer together. It didn’t drag us further apart. I had never felt more loved by my wife when she knew everything about how broken I was and still said, “I’m not going anywhere.”

Jon: Well, it spoke directly to your, you said a little bit ago about you dealt with abandonment or you struggled with ideas of abandonment. So when somebody sees you at your worst and still accepts you, that’s got to be the most healing thing.

Shawn: It is. Because for a little over, for about 20 years of marriage, at that point she says, I love you, and what I think is, you love what you know about me, but if you really knew. There’s just this last two percent that I hold onto by myself and I carry by myself because I don’t want you to know that when everybody goes to sleep, sometimes I think about taking my life. I don’t want you to know that.

Jon: Do you think that played a part in the anxiousness? You said, that sliver, was that what played a big part of it?

Shawn: Well, yeah, because it takes a whole lot of, and this is what I didn’t realize at the time, it takes a whole lot of anxiety producing energy to keep secrets.

Jon: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Shawn: And I thought I was being heroic. I’m saving my wife from the trauma of dealing with my demons. I’m saving my kids from knowing how broken dad might be on the inside sometimes. I’m saving our church from … And so it does, and I think it then it compounds, right, because now I got to hide part of me and that takes a lot of … And then there’s the worry of getting found out and that produces so much anxiety. And there was so much freedom from when I finally got to tell my best friends, my wife and my boys, everything, it was like I stepped out of that squat rack and I was just like, I felt this free in a long time. I’m still jacked up, but I feel freedom in a way I haven’t felt in a long time.

Jon: My gosh.

So I would think as a pastor, and again, when I say pastor, listeners, please understand I’m saying leaders, all of you. But again, I’m focusing in on pastors. I would think that for a pastor, the two most debilitating or fear factors to keep you from being vulnerable in this is, one, what we just talked about, family, and two, and maybe those would be reversed depending on the person, two, is the church.

Shawn: Absolutely.

Jon: There had to be an immense, or maybe you were to the point, I don’t know where you were at, maybe you’re to the point where you were like, I don’t care anymore. But there had to be a part of you that was terrified that the church would crumble or fall or fail.

Shawn: A hundred percent, I was. And you know what that time off reminded me was it really is God’s church and he really is able to handle it without me. But I’ll tell you, a breakthrough moment for me was right before I came back. So I’d been off for five months. It was January of 2020. And funny enough, all the counselors were like, “Integrate slowly back into work. No major changes, no big stresses.”

Jon: Nothing big’s coming up.

Shawn: Yeah. Nothing big was around the corner. But I was sitting with my counselor and it was my last counseling appointment and then I was going to go speak to the church for the first time on Sunday in five months. And I had decided that I was going to tell them everything. In fact, I was talking to some pastors and asking some just peers. And one guy said to me, he said, “Hey, I wouldn’t tell him everything because”, how did he phrase it, I can’t remember. Something about they might lose some faith in you. And I thought, well man, that sucks because-

Jon: So I got to fake it now.

Shawn: I’m not going to keep secrets anymore. It costs me too much.

Jon: I was about to say, Shawn, imagine how close you were to going right back down the same path of secrets.

Shawn: Well, that’s just it, down the same rabbit.

Jon: Right down the same rabbit hole.

Shawn: Then I talked to a pastor, I don’t know if you know him, his name’s Jim Bergen. He pastors a church here in Colorado called Flat Irons. I talked to him and he had recently went through something very similar. And I said, “Hey, well how much do you think I can tell our church, because one guy said, I shouldn’t tell them everything. And I won’t say exactly what he said to keep it PG, but he said, and he would be okay with me telling you that,  but he said, “You know what?” He said, “Forget that.” He said, “You know what people in your church want to know? They want to know your house sucks too sometimes.”

Jon: Wow. That’s good.

Shawn: That so resonated with me that I was like, “Absolutely, I’m going to tell the church everything.” Well, so I have one last counseling appointment before I’m about to go tell the church. And I’m sitting with my counselor and I said, “I don’t think I’m ready to go back.” And he said, “Why not?” And I said, “Well, I’m not fixed yet. I’m better. I’m healthier, for sure. I’m stronger, for sure. I’m not fixed yet.” And he goes, “Hey Shawn, whose church is it?” And I was like, his name’s Harv. I said, “It’s God’s church, Harv.” He’s like, “Who’s church?”

Jon: Say it again.

Shawn: “It’s God’s church, Harv. I got it.” And he goes, “Okay, well let me just ask you a question. If you were God, who would you want leading this one little sliver of his church called Red Rocks? Would you want a guy who’s got life so put together, he’s got no problems. He’s got life whipped. He’s so good that he really doesn’t even need to rely on you. Or would you want a guy that’s so broken, He knows that his only chance at leading this thing is to lean on you every day?”

Jon: So good.

Shawn: And I just started crying and I said, “I think I’d want the broken guy.”

Jon: Guaranteed.

Shawn: He said something that I’ve just never forgotten. He said, he goes, “Yeah, that’s it.” He goes, “Shawn, God only uses broken leaders because what other kinds are there?”

Jon: Zero. That’s exactly right.

Shawn: And so those two things together gave me the confidence to go. And I told the church everything I told you. I told them about the breakdown. I told them about the hiding it. I told them about the suicidal thoughts. I told them everything. And that was very freeing. And then at the end I said, “I’m still not perfect. I’m better. I’m healthier and I’m stronger. A hundred percent, that’s true. But if you’ll have me, I’ll still lead this church even though I’m still broken.” And bro, the church went ballistic.

Jon: Standing ovation, I guarantee you it.

Shawn: It was almost like everyone in the church gave me this big hug.

Jon: Finally, a real pastor.

Shawn: And what’s crazy, John, is I thought all these years, I can’t share how broken I really am or else I’m not going to be able to be a part of a growing church. Our church never exploded more. I’ve never had more pastoral influence in my life than I’ve had since I publicly said, “Let me tell you everything.”

Jon: My gosh.

Shawn: And I just didn’t see that coming. I thought it would be the opposite.

Jon: That’s so, so amazing. That’s so amazing, man. I love this. So I actually want to get really, really practical. Again, I’m trying to convince, even if there’s just one leader out there who really needs to do something, who, before they’re pulled over on the side of a road walking up a hill, to take steps. So for the pastor out there that’s afraid to do anything, let’s get super practical. Who led the church while you were gone? What’d that look like?

Shawn: So we have an executive team. Depending on, over the past few years, there’s been a couple of transitions, but usually four to six guys or individuals. And so they really corporately took over while I was gone. Two of them primarily took the teaching responsibilities, but were not a me preach every week church anyways, we never have been. And so that didn’t throw the church off that much other than I wasn’t there about half the time. We did tell the church up front. We didn’t tell them exact … They made a video and told the church something to the effect of, Shawn’s been dealing with some mental health issues as he’s shared some of with us, they’ve gotten a little bit worse and he knows it’s time to take some time away and work on it. And so we were honest with the church in that regard. And so different guys on the team would teach and then we’d have a few friends come in and teach and stuff like that.

Jon: I think that’s important that you were vulnerable on the back end. Do you think it’s important to be vulnerable like you are on the, okay, I’m just trying to get real practical here. What would’ve happened if you would’ve got up before you went to get help and said, “Guys, I’m having suicidal thoughts. I’m jacked up, I’m broken. I’m going to go get help.” Do you think it’s a little bit wiser? I think, I don’t know.

Shawn: We obviously thought about all those angles when were like, how do we tell the church? Obviously, I was so humbled by the experience that I was like, I’ll do whatever’s best for the church. And we kind of felt like what’s best for the church is to tell them the truth, but not necessarily share every single detail.

Jon: I think that’s wisdom.

Shawn: Because it was so in motion, and obviously, for all we knew, three or four months could go by and I might come to the church and say, “Hey, I got to leave because of all this.”

Jon: Totally.

Shawn: We didn’t know.

Jon: Totally.

Shawn: So we just told the church, “Shawn’s struggling. He’s working real hard. Pray for him.”

Jon: I love what you guys did. I think it’s perfect. And the reason I’m getting into some of those weeds is I want to just alleviate any excuses for a pastor out there who’s really processing this and sitting down trying to map something out. I know I need to do this. How do I do this? And so I’m just trying to get in some of those weeds. So back to your book, one of the things you mentioned in it is there’s four things that you should stop doing. And I hope you know what I’m referring to.

Shawn: I think I remember most of them.

Jon: I’ve been interviewed for my book one time, and somebody says, “In chapter eight, you said this.” And I’m like, “I don’t remember saying that.”

Shawn: It was chapter eight. I needed to stop performing. I was starting to see my job as a performance. And the critics or the praises were how social media responded because that’s where all the real information seems to come from these days, that you could measure and see and read word for word. I was hiding. I had to stop hiding. I had to stop performing. I had to stop comparing. Comparing was huge.

Jon: Oh my gosh. We should talk about that as pastors all day long.

Shawn: In fact, that might have been, other than the hiding, I would say that was probably one of my biggest weaknesses. I never thought I’d be a pastor. I didn’t grow up in church or anything like that. I grew up playing sports though, and I’ve always been super competitive.

Jon: Me too.

Shawn: There’s part of that competitive nature that God uses, it’s what allows you to take risks that maybe other people wouldn’t take. It’s what allows you to charge hills sometimes in a stupid fashion without all the details.

Jon: But the devil uses it too.

Shawn: That’s it. That’s it. And so for me, I was having so much anxiety on the weeks I would speak. And part of the anxiety was, what if I don’t remember my points? What if I don’t say it right? I’m not that eloquent to begin with. Someone from my church is going to watch my clip of 60 seconds next to Steven Furtick’s as they walk into the gym on Wednesday. So now not only do I need to talk about an invisible God, but I also need to do it with four letters, four words to start with the same letter.

Jon: You know that.

Shawn: So that it’s a good Instagram clip because Sunday at about 2:00 PM our social media team is going to go, “What are your Instagram quotes?” And so I can’t just talk from my heart or about the Bible. I now need to do it in a nifty way.

Jon: Of course you do.

Shawn: And that doesn’t come easy to me.

Jon: That’s so true.

Shawn: Here’s even a darker level, and pastors will understand this, I guarantee it. I started to see my sermons not only as being for our church, but for other pastors that might watch. I wanted them to be impressed and think I was good at what I did. It was also, in a really weird way, almost a resume to get invited to speak to big conferences.

Jon: Now we’re getting real.

Shawn: Because if I look good enough on this stage and they see that clip, then they might invite me to the thing. And it’s the fact that they don’t invite me to that thing that feeds my insecurities and tells me I’m not a good enough pastor because I don’t get invited to speak at that. But if I do good enough here, maybe they’ll see it and invite me to that. Dude, it was dark.Pastors will go, no. And then they flip this off and they look at one of their buddies and go, totally.

Jon: I was about to say, now we’re living up to the title of this podcast, the tension, the tensions of the church. Now, we’re getting to the insecurity of all of, I think, pastors are some of the most insecure people there are.

Shawn: And you’re also speaking with these invisible critics in mind, because the more influence you have, the more critics you get. And for me, a hundred people could say, “God changed our lives today”, and that stuff just rolls off. But one person tells me that I’m a bad communicator and I think about that for the next month. And so, dude, there’s so much, I wasn’t just preaching. I wasn’t just talking to our church family anymore. I was trying to impress an invisible audience. I was performing for critics, I was looking for validation. There was so much going on that I hated life every single week that led up to my speaking weeks, because I wouldn’t sleep. I’d be anxious. I’d start having panic attacks. And it was because I was putting on this performance so that I could compare myself to other pastors. Because at the end of the day, I think if God could drill all the way down, he’d go, there’s a good soul in there with good motives. I want to help people find Jesus. I just want to be really good at it.

Jon: It’s all the add-ons we put on with it.

Shawn: And then it starts the comparison game. And then it starts the … So, man, that stuff was just killing me.

Jon: I’m so glad that you mentioned that. And so at the root that nobody wants to talk about, but every pastor, if we had truth serum, we’d admit it. And I got super obsessed with this topic, and we’ve talked about it on the podcast. I’ve preached a bunch of sermons on it. Had a guy on the podcast a long time ago, but really he identified this as an orphan heart. When we have an orphan heart, then we believe it’s an abandonment issue. An orphan is somebody who doesn’t have a mom and dad. No one approves of them, no one accepts them, no one receives them. And so they have abandonment and an orphan has to perform to be accepted. I have to look right, act right, be right, and maybe I’ll get adopted. And so the enemy really is at the core of this orphan heart. But God comes to tell us that we’re accepted, redeemed. So it’s in all of us, we all have an abandoned heart.

Shawn: I would fall in that category for sure.

Jon: We all do. I think every one of us do. We all have a need to please.

Shawn: And I know it. And I even will tell people that God’s who I’m trying to please and God’s who we are supposed to please.

Jon: And we can even write a sermon on it that would smash.

Shawn: I believe that with all my heart. I still just want all you to approve too.

Jon: Hundred percent. A hundred percent. Golly. So let’s circle back around to, because I know that you said, at the time, you were taking some medication for 10 years. And I don’t know how far back we want to go, but when did you first start thinking, okay, maybe, I don’t know if you remember having the first thought of, man, something’s not right, but I don’t know what to do and-

Shawn: I had that feeling pre-salvation and as a pastor.

Jon: Gotcha.

Shawn: So I’ll give you just a quick cliff notes. So my mom got pregnant with me when she was a teenager. My biological father left, never met him. She married her drug dealer when I was two. And so it was just a super dysfunctional, abusive environment growing up. When I was an infant at one point, she put me in a car seat on a stranger’s porch with a note attached to it that said, “Please take care of him.” And she went and jumped off a bridge into oncoming traffic to kill herself. She didn’t die. She just crushed everything from her waist down. And so I grew up in this crazy, weird environment with that abandonment, orphan heart. Everything you just said would be me.

And so then I repeated, I didn’t get anyone pregnant, but I did become a drug addict. And at 24, I had graduated from college, I had moved to LA. I was trying to work in the film business, and I had become a cocaine addict, and I got real suicidal. And what happened is, I woke up one morning and had a panic attack for the first time in my life and I thought I was going to die. And I remember standing on a balcony in my little apartment in Hollywood, and I was doing my morning ritual. I’d go out there and smoke a cigarette every morning. And I started having these thoughts that I’d never had before. If I die today, will anyone care? What is my life about?

I’m not doing anything that anyone would miss. Just weird thoughts I’d never had before. And I started having panic attacks and I had them for about three weeks and got pretty suicidal and actually sat down to take my own life and remembered a Sunday school sermon I went to one of the handful of times I was taken to church as a kid about heaven and hell.

Jon: Are you serious?

Shawn: Man, if they’re right, I’m about to go to one of them. And I don’t know what the rules are to get into either. And so I called the one Christian person I knew. He flew me to a church service in another state, and I got saved in a church service with Coke in my pocket. That was my-

Jon: That’s awesome.

Shawn: Bro, so the fact that I’m a pastor makes zero sense.

Jon: I think it makes perfect sense. I love it.

Shawn: So the first time I felt an anxious in panic attacks was right before I got saved. I was always a little depressed and a little anxious, but never saw anyone for any of it. And then when we started Red Rocks Church, we started it in 2005. It was really me and I had a couple of couples that were like, “We’ll go with you.” And then we joined another guy who had a couple of couples that were going with him. His name was Scott. And so me and him kind of joined forces and said, “Hey, let’s start this church together.” Well, at our four year mark, he quit and he felt like he was called to start another church. He ended up just working from home for two years and doing our graphics. And then he came back on staff and was like, “No, that’s a bad idea.”

Jon: Just kidding.

Shawn: And he still works with us today. So yeah, he’s the founder and still on our executive team today. But when he left, I remember I was walking around the office and I would constantly be going-

Jon: Short of breath almost.

Shawn: People didn’t notice it, but all of a sudden I was like, “Man, I’m having a hard time. I’m not taking very deep breaths or something. My chest is always tight.”

Jon: Interesting.

Shawn: And that was of the beginning phases for me of starting to feel a little anxious and a little panicky. And I was in a couple environments sitting in a restaurant. I remember sitting in one guy’s apartment and for no reason, I would have this feeling of I have to get out of this room. And I wouldn’t tell anyone. I’d just be like, “Hey guys, I’ll be right back.” And I’d just go outside and be like, I can’t breathe right now. What’s going on? And so it started just these little things. And then one day I started having a panic attack. Never had anything like it since before I got saved and it felt like I’m going to die. And I went to my doctor’s office, didn’t have an appointment. I went in there crying and shaking and I was like, “I need help now.” And they were like, “What is this dude doing?” And finally the doctor did see me, he’s like, “You’re not dying. You’re having a panic attack. We’re going to put you on this medicine.” And the irony is, later that day, I did the very first magazine interview we’d ever done about how successful Red Rocks Church was.

Jon: That day.

Shawn: And I’ll never forget, the first question he asked me was like, “Did you ever think you’d be this successful?”

Jon: Wow.

Shawn: And I’m thinking, he has no idea I just came from my doctor’s office crying because I don’t want to live today. That’s the thing that us pastors try to juggle.

Jon: Yes.

Shawn: Right?

Jon: Yes.

Shawn: I’m trying to be super spiritual. I’m trying to lead people to God. I’m trying to be a good example to the best of my broken ability and I’m really screwed up and don’t know who I can tell.

Jon: And you’re trying to help people with their anxiousness while you’re trying to figure out your own.

Shawn: Yes. A hundred percent.

Jon: Wow.

Shawn: That was the first time, and that was about four years in. And I started taking medicine. I didn’t tell anybody except for my wife for a long time because I was super embarrassed and I just didn’t know what to do with it.

Jon: So if there’s a pastor out there, and I want to be respectful of your time, I could talk, let’s just keep talking after this. But if there’s a pastor out there that’s considering getting help, what would you say would be a couple of, as we close up here, what would be a couple of triggers that you would say, “Yes, if you’re thinking that feeling, that doing that, being that, if you’re there”, and I know, I don’t want to put you on that spot because you’re not a psychologist, you’re not a psychiatrist.

Shawn: Yeah, no, one of the thing things you learn when you take as many courses and counseling and therapy classes as I’ve done now, it’s very similar with everybody and it’s slightly different with everybody. Everybody has different triggers. For some people, it could be a song. For some people it is pressure at work. For some people it is a real chemical imbalance. For some people, it’s something that they haven’t dealt with in their past. There’s so many. I think for me, I don’t know. Here’s what I knew. Before I had my big breakdown in 2019, that whole year leading up to it, here’s the thought that I had had many times and I never told anyone. I don’t know how long I can last because I know I can’t live like this forever. I’m hurting that bad on the inside that I’m gutting my way through it.

Jon: That’s good.

Shawn: I can’t do this for several years. I don’t know how long I can do this. And I had that feeling, I had no idea what to do with it. Because again, I felt so trapped.

Jon: And you pull up your bootstraps and figure it out and do another day.

Shawn: That’s it. So I would just take one Sunday by one Sunday by one Sunday by one. But I knew in the back of my mind, you put me on a polygraph test, I would’ve told you the way I’m feeling inside, I can’t survive this long term.

Jon: I think that’s what I was looking for, man. Just some sort of a thought. And if somebody’s thinking that thought, I don’t know how much longer I can do this, then it’s time to do something. Talk to somebody.

Shawn: Then it’s time. Yeah, that’s it.

Jon: Talk to somebody you trust.

Shawn: And I would say it starts with, I would say you need to get some people on your team that help you run whatever organization it is that you trust, your family. And that little group can go, okay, what sort of help would be best for me, but let’s get serious about seeking some help.

Jon: Submit to someone and go through the process.

Shawn: The hiding it, man, it just grows. It just grows and grows in the dark. And again, pastors, I think we feel a sense of, I wouldn’t say pride because we feel stupid for doing it, but we feel honorable. It feels like an honorable thing to do. I’m saving people from my dysfunction. So it’s honorable that I carry some of this by myself. And there’s just nothing in scripture that says it’s honorable to carry any of it by yourself.

Jon: Zero.

Shawn: It’s all the opposite. It’s bear each other’s burdens and pity the one who falls and has no one to help him up. And as pastors, we put ourselves in that position and we don’t have to.

Jon: That’s so true.

Shawn: And I just didn’t know that.

Jon: Well, there’s so many pastors that we’ve seen obviously make drastic mistakes because they didn’t deal with something, or sadly, take their life. So that’s why this book’s so important. So Shawn, man, thank you for writing the book. Thank you for your vulnerability. It’s refreshing. It’s refreshing to me as it was to your church. And I promise you, it’s refreshing to anybody who listens to it. So your vulnerability, your humility is truly inspiring. And I pray that all of us pastors can learn from it, man.

Shawn: Thank you. Thank you, John. Thanks for having me on.

Jon: Yeah, man. I appreciate you so much. So to the listeners, thanks again for watching and listening to the podcast. Give Shawn a follow. Shawn, if they want to be a part of your ministry, check out what’s going on at Red Rocks or social media. What’s the best way they can kind of follow you or get connected with you?

Shawn: Gosh, I’m so bad-

Jon: Just give them your cell phone number. His cell phone number is 555-67-

Shawn: No, it’s my Instagram. It’s like, @ShawnJohnsonRRC. The weird thing in saying that is, as so many people right now in the world have, there’s like three accounts that are one notation off of that.

Jon: I know, I know.

Shawn: And they’re emailing everybody asking for money and all these fake accounts. It’s crazy.

Jon: Preach.

Shawn: But yeah, it’s Red Rocks Church and And you can get all that stuff.

Jon: Just Google him. Shawn Johnson.

Shawn: And what you’ll get is the gymnast.

Jon: Oh, hey. You’re in good company.

Shawn: No kidding. Funny note to end this. When my Attacking Anxiety came out, my sister sent me a screenshot of and it was my bio and it was Shawn Johnson, the gymnast’s picture. Pastor Shawn Johnson, da da da da da. And it’s a picture of, and it was an older picture when she was younger on a balance beam. And it was like, Shawn Johnson. I’m just like, “Man, God knows how to humble us, doesn’t he?”

Jon: That’s the next cover of your book, man. Just go with it.

Shawn: That’s it.

Jon: That’s awesome. Oh man, I love you. Appreciate you so much, man. Thanks for all that you do. Thanks for being my friend. Thanks for being on the show, brother.

Church InTension
Church InTension
The Church InTension podcast is a place to have healthy conversations about areas of tension and the intentions of the Church. Hosted by Dr. Jon Chasteen and powered by The King's University and Gateway Church.