“… the jar he was making did not turn out as he hoped, so he crushed it into a lump of clay again and started over.” (Jeremiah 18.4, NLT).
Some months after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I returned to work as a pastor. It was difficult at first, but with much prayerful support, our ministry became fruitful. People who had hidden mental health issues for fear of judgment, now confided in me and together we grew in grace, offering our whole selves in worship and outreach among those who sought healing for body, mind, and spirit.
I was asked to serve as a mentor for students preparing for pastoral ministry. One weekend, they brought together mentors throughout the state for training on how to best equip persons for service in what can be a consuming career. Many topics were addressed: spiritual growth, emotional well-being, financial fitness, etc.
During one brainstorming session, we laid out some situations that had been particularly difficult to resolve. One mentor spoke up:
“We just discovered one of our candidates has bipolar disorder and we’re looking for a way to gently dismiss him from pursuing ministry.”
I held my tongue for some time. The conversation advanced from bipolar disorder to other psychological issues and back again. The general consensus of the group was that we need to restrict pastoral service from those emotionally flawed.
Finally, I spoke up,
“If we are honest with ourselves, we all have psychological issues. Personally, I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This does not prevent me from faithful service. We need to steer clear of judging people on the basis of labels and instead look at the character of their behavior.”
We should not discriminate on the basis of diagnosis but on the grounds of behavior. Some persons with bipolar are prone to sexual promiscuity which could include infidelity, addiction to pornography, even non-consensual sexual contact or exposure. These persons need to be firmly disciplined and, if not rehabilitated, dismissed from service. Other persons with bipolar become so obsessed with spending on frivolous things that they go in massive debt and engage in unethical behavior to get out. Such persons should pay their debts and be forced to take a leave. These sins/crimes can be committed by anybody. We should not treat persons with bipolar any differently simply because they have bipolar.
Can someone with a severe mental illness serve faithfully as a pastor? Absolutely, though not always. For many of us, the stress of ministry is so great that we become unable to perform our duties while juggling the stress of our illness. With much support from our families, friends, and church, we can succeed, but not always. Sometimes our illness progresses to the point of needing to step away and engage in another vocation.
Pastoral ministry is a hard row to hoe and it is even harder for someone with a mental illness. I encourage everyone who does persist in pursuing a call to use due diligence and seek the advice and oversight of trusted supervisors. The worst thing we can do is to keep our diagnosis a secret. The second worst is to publicly disclose in such a way that we become dependent on our church to take care of us. It is a tough balance to wrestle with issues of mental illness without further smashing our cracked pots.
Can someone with a serious mental illness serve faithfully as a pastor? What do you think?
Prayer: Father, I am a cracked pot in your hands. Mold me into one that overflows with your abundant grace to share with others.