My foot stands on level ground;
in the great assembly I will bless the Lord. (Psalm 26:12, NRSV)
Looking back over my nearly twenty years of parish ministry, I’ve served some pretty great congregations. Certainly, there were particular individuals who tried to make my life miserable (as there always are). On the whole, however, the churches I’ve served have been warm and welcoming bodies of Christ who have helped me function to my fullest as a minister with a mental illness.
Brothers and sisters in Christ can be a great help or a tremendous hindrance to someone who has bipolar. I have been blessed to serve alongside many who have challenged me to do my best while still loving me at my worst. This combination has helped keep me relatively balanced; together we’ve been able to accomplish some wonderful things in the spirit of the LORD.
As with the course of my illness, I had many peaks and valleys in my years of pastoral ministry. It is true that at my worst, when I needed intensive treatment, church members had to carry a greater load (though in my denomination, they often received guidance and support with this). I was absent for lengthy stretches during treatment. When I was physically present, I was sometimes so emotionally stymied that I could perform only basic tasks.
For a good portion of my ministry, however, God graced me with the ability to balance my commitments, to be creative and care compassionately as a “wounded healer.” My experience of confinement (a sort of “exile”) in psychiatric hospitals gave me unique insights into the spiritual needs of persons in prison, home bound, in nursing homes, or hospitals. My struggle to function while depressed encouraged people who experienced dark times themselves. My journey through recovery from addiction inspired many taking their first steps away from destructive drugs and harmful habits.
You might think it improbable that a congregation can be successfully led by a minister with a mental illness, but while it is difficult, it is entirely possible. All it takes is a commitment to be faithful within the covenant God has given us – to keep each other honest and true as we each do our part for the work of the LORD. It can be challenging, but when it happens well, what a testimony it is to God’s grace!