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How My Dad’s OCD Trained Me for Ministry

Photo of Matt DabbsMatt Dabbs | Bio

Matt Dabbs

Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

Although I went on to study theology, I started out studying psychology. I got my bachelor’s in psychology and went onto the University of Florida to work on a clinical psychology doctorate. I got about halfway through the PhD program, however, when September 11 reframed my priorities. I decided to go into the ministry and went onto get my MDiv. But I’ve always been grateful for my background in psychology. It sometimes helps me to view ministry through a psychological perspective, as I’ll explain in a minute.

I not only studied psychological illnesses in school; I grew up around it.

My dad, who passed away from dementia-related illness in 2017, struggled all his adult life with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). My mother thought it was super cute watching him from the window before she met him, how he would walk around his car and check all the doors. She thought, Oh my, how very responsible! Little did she know at that time what forty years of marriage would teach her: OCD is not very fun to deal with.

My father’s OCD meant there were all sorts of unwritten rules in the household.

You had to know what to do, what not to do. Such as, never put ice trays on the counter. Why? Because one ends up going back on top of the other, and then whatever got on the bottom of one tray goes into the other tray. Avoiding contamination (and the anxiety it produces) is key!

He worked the perfect job for someone with OCD: a high security clearance, GS 13 position in the government, in which he had to lock everything down. Even though we lived in the middle of nowhere with no neighbors nearby, he would key lock the door going in and coming out. Every time, no exceptions. I remember going outside briefly and coming back in, only to have him ask why I hadn’t locked the door. “You gotta check the house.” So I had to go through and check every room, every closet in a 5,000-square-foot house for a possible intruder.

In our home, his anxiety became our anxiety.

I remember one time when my wife and I and her parents were over at my parents’ house. I came around the corner and saw my father-in-law sitting in dad’s chair. “Get up! Get up!” I told him, worried that any moment my dad would come in and see someone sitting in his chair. (The last time I had seen someone else unknowingly sit in Dad’s chair, Dad afterward took the chair out to the garage and never sat in it again).

I didn’t realize until later that we had a codependent relationship. He had a problem, and we all danced around it and tried to make it work. And that made it not just his problem; it was our problem too. We were “enmeshed,” transferring our emotions and anxiety on to one another. When he was anxious, he would make sure that we were anxious. When I did something outside the lines, he made sure I knew that I’d created distance with him. It was a gap I would have to close, for example, by checking every nook and cranny of the house.

It turns out this was perfect training for church ministry!

I love my father and I love the church. But they often share some unfortunate similarities. Have you ever noticed that churches can have unwritten rules about what you can and can’t do? And how when the rules are disobeyed, there’s some major anxiety? Those rules become most clear to insiders when a new person shows up and begins asking question you aren’t supposed to ask or they do things you aren’t supposed to do without knowing it.

“We’ve never done it this way before.”

We think that’s a preference statement, but it’s usually a statement of anxiety. Churches fracture when we can’t handle differences without giving into anxiety. People don’t typically leave a church because of a theological problem (even if it’s framed that way), but because somebody made them feel anxious and others (usually church leadership) didn’t fix it and close the gap like they wanted.

Church members’ anxiety then becomes the anxiety of elders and ministers.

Consider this scenario: the minister preaches something that unintentionally offends a church member, who then goes to an elder to fix the problem. To rescue the offended family from their anxiety, the elder reassures them: “Don’t you ever worry about hearing something like that again. Not in this place.”

Or how about this scenario: an energetic 24-year-old minister out of grad school has a vision for the church he feels God has led him to. He presents it to the other church leaders, and although they agree it’s a great idea, they tell him it can’t work. Why not? “Well, because sister Sue is going to be really upset, and she’s been here a long time . . . .” They killed the vision by allowing one person’s anxiety dictate the direction of the church. In these situations, the person with the lowest threshold for anxiety wins the day and controls the decisions and direction of the congregation.

By rushing in to rescue people from their anxiety and close the gap as quickly as possible, we are actually not giving people what they need.

What do they need? They need to grow and learn to manage the gap. It’s not as though it’s healthy for them to never feel anxious about anything. Jesus Himself was constantly doing things that raised the level of anxiety for His disciples—and it was good for them! It’s a good thing for Christians to learn to grow and get along with people who aren’t just like them, even if such things temporarily cause them anxiety.

Jesus told us to love each other as we love ourselves. But that doesn’t mean that we are each other. Your emotions don’t have to become my emotions; your anxiety doesn’t have to become mine. But more on this solution in my next Renew.org article.