Some time ago, I invited readers to submit questions about faith and mental illness. My intent is not so much to give advice, as to share portions of my own story that could be helpful. One reader sent me a question about what to do when your pastor is displaying symptoms that could indicate a mental illness. After praying about it a good bit and revising draft after draft to sift out personal opinion, this is what I wrote:
I began to exhibit symptoms of mania and depression when I entered pastoral ministry at the age of 26. I would thrust myself into work for hours upon hours, sometimes days and days. Then I would crash and get out of bed only for the bare essentials. I don’t know precisely how this impacted my congregants because no one talked with me about it. I suspected they talked about me instead of to me. My ministry was strained, but by God’s grace, it was still fruitful. After 3 years, I was called to another church that meant more opportunity and responsibility.
It was at that church that I became fully symptomatic. I began to see visions and hear voices that were influenced by my spiritual journey (it didn’t help that I was leading a study of Revelation). My behavior was erratic. I exhibited mood-incongruency; crying through sermons that weren’t sad, laughing in the middle of serious meetings. Some leaders tried to talk with me but in the moment I couldn’t hear their concern.
I remember two things that helped motivate me to get help.
First, a retired executive, Bob, dropped by my office and asked if he could take me for a drive. I agreed. We drove maybe for an hour. I was rambling so much, he couldn’t get a word in edgewise. And he didn’t try. He just patiently listened.
We stopped at a lakefront cabin. It was simple, but adorable. I wondered just why we were there. He told me when he was experiencing a great deal of stress in his career, he was encouraged to take a retreat at a friend’s cabin. He said it made all the difference in the world. Then he reached in his pocket and handed me a key. He said, “Consider this yours to use whenever you feel the need.”
The second helpful thing was something an elderly but spry woman did. Her name was Pat. She was known as one of the most fierce prayer warriors we had. Each week she hosted a prayer meeting for a group of women in the church that grew to over a dozen. They would spend hours in prayer, lifting up concerns as well as praises to the Lord. My wife became a member of this group and found the support invaluable as she adjusted to an unfamiliar community in a new role as pastor’s wife.
When I began exhibiting bizarre symptoms, it greatly affected my wife. For a time, she resisted sharing this with her prayer group, but eventually she could bear it no longer. She asked me during one of my more depressive times if she could ask them for prayer. I agreed. She did. The women listened to her and faithfully lifted up our needs to the Lord. The thing I respect the most is they didn’t desperately rush in to fix me. Instead, they waited for God to work in my heart.
One Monday morning I crashed. Hard. My wife encouraged me to call Pat. Her husband Dick arrived at my door within minutes and took me to their home. He built a fire and Pat poured me some coffee. I talked. They listened. Eventually, after I was all talked out, we moved to prayer. I don’t know what was said, but there was something about that prayer that opened my eyes to see I needed professional help. I called my wife and we drove to a nearby hospital where I was admitted, diagnosed, and treated. I still had a long journey ahead, but by the grace of God and the support of God’s people, I was able to serve in pastoral ministry another dozen years.
I can’t tell you what to do to encourage your pastor to seek help, but I do encourage you to pray fervently. Maybe even let him know you are praying for him, without indicating you know what he is going through or what he needs. If you know a spiritually mature prayer warrior in the church, go to him or her and lay out your concerns.
I will join you in prayer for your pastor. If there is more I can do, let me know.
Do you have any experience responding to symptoms of mental illness in a church leader?
Have you been a church leader who has struggled with mental health issues?
What stories do you have?