Called … and Bipolar
Mental illness and ministry can coexist
God has a purpose for your life, and it won’t always be this way.”
As a leader and minister, I’ve heard and spoken those exact words many times. However, that bit of hopeful assurance took on fresh meaning for me in 2019. At the time, I was working through a debilitating eating disorder, dealing with mental health issues, and leading people each week at our new church.
Purpose seemed distant. Life and ministry felt robotic. Yet I desperately clung to the promise that God was working in my situation.
It wasn’t the first time I had faced my own frailty. When I received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder years earlier, it was a gut punch to my faith. I assumed it disqualified me from ministry. I knew God had called me, but I thought church leaders were supposed to have it all together.
This was exactly the type of diagnosis church people frowned upon. I had heard pastors talk about mental health issues as worldly problems that would go away if only Christians could gin up the faith.
I thought, I can never tell anyone about this. So, I remained silent about my reality until the isolation and shame became suffocating.
Eventually I had to own my truth, get the professional help I needed, submit to the loving guidance of mentors, and use my voice to find freedom.
I no longer hide the fact that I have bipolar disorder and have walked through recovery from an eating disorder. I refuse to carry the weight of shame and guilt I once had. Instead, I walk in full purpose, knowing God is using my story to help others.
Through this journey, I have learned some important ministry lessons.
Extend the same grace to yourself that you give people in your church.
Initially I conditioned myself to keep moving by any means necessary. On days when I could barely get out of bed, I willed myself to go through the motions. I thought anything less would cast God in a negative light.
Most people never knew I was struggling. Meanwhile, pushing myself to the limit caused further mental and emotional strain.
I now know this was my grace deficit, not God’s. He never required leaders to pretend everything is fine. On the contrary, the Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
I finally accepted the truth that God’s grace is for me too — not just the people to whom I minister, but me, in all my brokenness.
When you are struggling as a leader, go ahead and say so. Don’t try to hide behind work or a fake smile. Admit you need help.
It’s OK to not be OK, but you don’t have to stay that way. Take the first steps toward receiving God’s grace.
Honesty increases ministry effectiveness. I realized I could start the church planting process with my husband from an isolated place, or I could share my journey from the start.
I knew God had called me, but I thought church leaders were supposed to have it
I was ready to put the secrecy and loneliness behind me. So, around Christmas 2017, I stepped in front of our new church and shared my bipolar diagnosis. It was the first time I had talked publicly about mental illness. I was terrified, imagining how people would react.
To my surprise, the congregation responded with grace. Some thanked me for starting a conversation that is often taboo in church circles. Others said it was a relief to know a leader dealt with the same kinds of issues they had.
What I thought would lead to judgment led to freedom for many. My ability to be vulnerable even when it was uncomfortable gave people at our church the opportunity to be vulnerable as well.
There is wisdom in not sharing every detail of your private life. How much to divulge is a choice you should make prayerfully.
Ministers often worry they will lose credibility if they open up too much about issues like depression or anxiety. However, I believe authenticity makes a leader more credible and relatable.
Being myself has given me a chance to demonstrate daily dependence on God. Not only has transparency been liberating for me, but it also gives people a window into my life. They can see the highs and lows, as well as the faith that sustains me. They also see the benefits of leaning on the Holy Spirit, going to counseling, and doing what’s necessary to maintain good mental health.
Don’t be afraid of vulnerability. Lean into it.
I have gained trust because of my vulnerability, which has led to ministry opportunities I might not have had otherwise. I never could have anticipated the ways in which God has used my life and testimony for His kingdom.
Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Jesus modeled what it looks like to be still. He regularly took time to rest, recharge and rejuvenate. The Son spent time praying and meeting with the Father.
Surely, we need to do the same.
I have learned that without self-care and soul care, I have less capacity to love and care for the community to which God has called me. In other words, my mental and spiritual health are ministry priorities.
Give God your struggles and fears and let Him care for you (1 Peter 5:7). Consistently spend time in His presence. Pray in the Spirit. Meditate on the promises of Scripture. Start a prayer and reflection journal.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
Mental illness and ministry can coexist. In fact, what I once thought would be the disqualifier to my dreams and purpose is the very thing God is using to help many in our ministry.
The greatest lesson I have learned from being a minister with a mental illness is that none of this is final for me. I lean into all God is doing right now. I participate with God in the miracle I want to see in my own life. I utilize the tools necessary to become healthy and effective, and I look to God to do what I can’t.
If you are dealing with a mental health issue, I encourage you to advocate for yourself, get the help you need, and trust God to work in and through your circumstances.
God is not about to revoke His calling on your life (Romans 11:29). He wants to show up in your situation and give you the compassion, strength, and faith to keep showing up for those you serve.
This article appears in the Summer 2022 edition of Influence magazine.