How could I serve in ministry with a serious mental illness?
How could someone riding manic highs dipping to deadly lows promote stable growth for a congregation?
How could I faithfully hear God’s voice in the midst of competing voices within and around me?
These questions stir my mind and stab my heart.
My mind says yes — I served as a minister with bipolar for almost two decades, a good dozen of which were quite fruitful.
My heart grieves that my illness progressed such that, in 2009, I stepped away from pastoral ministry for health reasons.
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, has allowed me to serve in ministry 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 fixture fell and I thought the End was near. I saw a church sign bent over and believed 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 laid hands on 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 I heard a compelling voice. 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 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.
Mental Health Ministry
God has not excluded me from ministry even though I have a chronic, at times debilitating mental illness. This thorn in my flesh has humbled me to recognize the sufficiency of God’s grace even in my weakest moments. In January of this year, a decade after stepping away from pastoral ministry for health reasons, I was hired as a Faith & Mental Health Advocate at St. Peter’s Lutheran in Columbus, Indiana. My job responsibilities are still being fashioned, but we know I will.
- Equip staff to respond to mental health issues.
- Promote compassion for those with troubled minds.
- Foster friendships with those who have a mental illness.
That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12.10)