Mixing Ministry with Mental Illness3 min read

How could I serve in pastoral ministry with a serious mental illness?

How could someone riding manic highs dipping to deadly lows promote stable growth for a congregation? How could someone who hears voices pretending to be God presume to interpret God’s Word?   How could I serve as a pastor with bipolar disorder?

These questions stir my mind and stab my heart.

My mind says yes — I served as a pastor battling bipolar for almost two decades, a good dozen of which were quite fruitful.

My heart grieves that my illness has progressed such that I am now deemed disabled from service.

The story I want to share here is not what led to my decline but what, by the grace of God and with the help of the church, allowed me to flourish as a pastor with a serious mental illness.

Persistent Prayer Partners

I fell into the pit of psychological despair while at a peak in my ministry. The church was growing. The Spirit was moving. Suddenly, however, strange symptoms began occurring. I would cry in the middle of sermons over trivial details. A light fell and I thought it was a sign the end was near. I saw a church sign bent over and simply knew we were under spiritual attack. I quickly called on a spiritually mature older couple in the church who listened to my plight and prayed fervently with me. When it became clear I would need to be admitted to the hospital, they prayed for me and anointed me with oil. It was not something familiar to me, but it was soothing and in the moment calmed my troubled spirit.

From those early episodes throughout the remainder of my ministry, prayer has permeated my pastoral service. I eagerly sought out active pastors prayer groups. I carefully cultivated prayer partnerships within congregations I’ve served as well as among the community at large. At a village church in the Finger Lakes of New York, I co-led a daily prayer group where we read through the Bible and lifted up particular praise and prayers each weekday morning. I am convinced that early and frequent prayer petitions kept me from total collapse and indeed saved my life from an impenetrable pit. The discipline of prayer has also placed me on solid ground such that I was able to come before the throne of grace – not only for myself, but for others – to seek and find the Lord’s mercy and guidance.

Hearing God’s True Voice

One of the symptoms I experienced when I first went to the hospital was hearing what I believed to be the voice of God.  When I started taking medication to quiet the strange voice, the medication also muted the authentic voice of God I would “hear” in silent prayer.  I thus found it necessary to adapt my prayer life. Rather than spending time in silent meditation, where I might hear a false voice, I took to reading the Psalms and allowing them to become my words of prayer, then writing down my reflections and thoughts on what I believed God was saying. I would share these prayer journal entries with my wife and other trusted Christian friends. This process of discernment was a way to “test the spirits” as the Scriptures advise and kept me from following many false leads.

 

Being the Body of Christ

How could I serve in pastoral ministry with a serious mental illness?

Though in my case it is not currently possible to serve any longer behind the pulpit, my experience tells me a psychiatric diagnosis need not necessarily serve as a death sentence for a pastoral career.  With plenty of prayer, faithful Scripture study, guidance among the saints, and an investment of love and support, someone with a “broken brain,” can not only survive in pastoral service, but thrive to serve others as they navigate treacherous dark pits themselves.

2017-05-30T15:07:51+00:00

About the Author:

I am a man with an unquiet mind who delights in the One who delights in me.
  • Lyn C

    Prayer is an absolute necessity for God’s children. How can we go through the week, or even a day – sometimes an hour, without seeking our Heavenly Daddy’s help?
    I struggle sometimes (make that a lot of the time) with prayer. Not for others, but for myself. Praying for others is much easier, but when it comes to praying for myself, the tempter whispers, “God isn’t going to listen to you, you’re too sinful…too wicked…you’re a failure.” It’s those times that I need to remember, that when Satan reminds me of my past, I need to remind him of his future. I’m a blood-bought child of the Living God; my sins are forgiven and HE remembers them no more.

    • Absolutely, Lyn. I sometimes begin to wonder where I would be without prayer. But I don’t even want to go there.

  • This question of discerning “true” voices from “false” ones is of intense interest to me. Do you have other posts where you discuss in more depth how you discriminate between the two and what their differing characteristics are? Fascinating, important stuff.

    • Sharon, you’ve just given me a great idea for my next post! ???????? As I compose my thoughts, let me ask you… how do you discern God’s true voice?

  • Elizabeth Lee Ann DiVergigelis

    I am so delighted to find your blog Pastor Tony! Finally, someone with Bipolar Disorder that loves and knows the Savior personally that I can read and related to on a Biblical level!! Oh, what a Godsend you are to me on this Sunday Evening!!! Consider your blog bookmarked in my favorites.

    • I am also delighted you found your way to our website. I pray you find our reflections meaningful and inspiring.

  • Pingback: Re: Mixing Ministry & Mental Illness | Delight in Disorder()