In March of 2014, I published my spiritual memoir, Delight in Disorder: Ministry, Madness, Mission. Having served in pastoral ministry and gone mad, it’s now my mission to bridge the gap between faith communities and the mental health world. The vocation I envisioned when I went to seminary hit a large pothole, needed a major adjustment, even an overhaul. But the journey did not end.
It had been 25 years since I first became a pastor. I felt passionate about faith, was eager to lead the flock, and saw visions of big things ahead. My church was in a countryside village. The people were kind and generous. They encouraged me for my preaching skills even though I read from a manuscript. They were patient with my counseling even though I was still, “wet behind the ears.” They were particularly enthused about my growing family and expressed hope for evangelism by procreation. People saw in my thoughtful gaze, my caring smile, my patient pride, the look of a confident pastor.
In spite of what I looked like on this outside, on the inside I was being consumed. Periods of fervor were followed by lengthy bouts of despair. I began to dread being around people and would often retreat to my study. These struggles had a major impact on my marriage and family, leading to much conflict.
But God was faithful, as He always is. We made it through. We welcomed our second child into the family and I was called to another church, one with more resources and responsibilities. There, I became so enthralled by the pastoral honeymoon that I forgot all about my troubles.
One Sunday I delivered a sermon in which I said,
When we become ill, it is important to listen to our bodies and pray that God help us make necessary changes. Our ailments may be blessings in disguise. We may be expecting too much from ourselves or avoiding things we need to face. As we listen to our bodies, talk and reflect with others, and pray together, we can gain spiritual insight which will help us live healthier, more productive, more abundant lives.
The next day, I was in the seclusion room of a psychiatric hospital. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was told I would never work as a pastor again, that my marriage would likely end, and that I would spend the rest of my life in and out of psychiatric hospitals.
I’d like to say that by the grace of God, none of these things happened. But they did. I served another dozen years in pastoral ministry before my illness progressed to the point where I needed to step down. My marriage endured, for better and for worse, for a total of 25 years before the strain became too unbearable and we divorced. I’ve been back to psych hospitals several times, though not as often as I’d feared.
I can’t say God shielded me from the harsh realities of bipolar disorder, but I will say with confidence I have found God’s grace more than sufficient. The madness has been managed by medication and therapy as well as worship and prayer. I have not returned to pastoral ministry, but I do have a mission to spread the hope of the Good News to those like me who have troubled minds. More than this, to cultivate the compassion of Christ within the faith community for persons with mental illness.
Since the publication of Delight in Disorder, God has opened doors for me to carry out this mission. I have spoken to as many as 300 as a keynote speaker for the first Shattering Stigma with Stories conference to as few as 2 at a local mental health clinic. Together with my co-facilitator Eric Riddle, I have founded a weekly faith-based mental health support group. March 1 marks the premiere of our podcast Revealing Voices.
Yes, God’s grace is sufficient. But still bipolar disorder knocks me on my butt sometimes. It is the thorn in my flesh that keeps me spiritually humble and relationally unsatisfied, longing for eternal communion with Christ. I may not be emotionally stable in this life, but I look forward to the deep, dependable delight I will have in the next.