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This happens a lot. I say something in one episode that just kinda stays with me and sometimes those thoughts expand into entire episodes. This is one of those times. Last week I talked about suicide rates among clergy and attributed that to the problem of not being able to feel Christ's love. Well, that's a major reason why they do it but it's far from the only one.
And tonight, we're tackling the subject of mental illness among the clergy. Mental illness – it's not just for parishioners anymore. It's a huge problem among clergy, particularly evangelical ministers in mainline denominations. That includes everyone from the Baptists to the Pentecostals and everything in between.
But before we get into that, let's take another ride down the rabbit hole of evangelical fuckery... Shelle, you have two stories for us tonight, one about a literal Peter and another about a fake prophet, yes?
So we're talking about mental illness among clergy and how it's dealt with. I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying upfront that it's typically dealt with pretty poorly.
The clergy are, and always have been, among the most overlooked church members when it comes to recognizing mental illness and they way it's dealt with in the local church is usually anything between uncaring, self-serving, and cruel. Most of the time, it culminates with the pastor being asked to resign – you know, so they don't have to shell out UI benefits and to scapegoat their own ignorant, compassionless actions – but often not before at least one round of vilification, and accusation that is typically very public and often polarizing to the congregation.
Now, I'm not talking about pastors that get shamed out of their positions for having affairs with the choir director's wife or for knowing, willful misconduct that would get anyone fired from any job. I'm talking about churches that mistreat their clergy to the point where the pastors totally burn out, then point fingers of blame at them while also pointing them to the door. I'm also talking about the absolutely vile way many church boards deal with disclosed mental illnesses and their pastors (who just want the opportunity to get well while continuing to pursue their callings). And let me tell you, this happens often.
What's even worse, though, are churches that turn a blind eye to what the pressures of church ministry do to their pastors and allow their leaders to simply deteriorate as human beings until they resign, are forced to resign (these fucking cowards rarely fire pastors outright), until they go so crazy they can't do their jobs or function in society anymore, or they die by natural or unnatural means. Now, I know that last bit sounds a little extreme and, fortunately, the worst of examples are rare. It's all the cases that settle somewhere in the middle that do the most damage, and that is where we are going to set our sights for this conversation.
U.S. Federal laws protects workers with disabilities in a majority of industries. In many or most cases, mental illness is considered a disability. Religious organizations, however, have always enjoyed being what I consider to be a shameful exception to the rule. Church employees, including pastors, are regularly fired (or, more to the point, coerced into quitting) if they dare to disclose having mental health issues.
The Americans with Disabilities ACT (ADA) requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for workers who have physical or mental conditions that affect their ability to perform their job duties. Anyone in any normal industry who believes they have been let go from a job over any disability, including mental illness, can sue. But here's the crazy part...
ADA rules don’t apply to faith-based employees who work for organizations that are defined as churches, and asserting rights under ADA rules is particularly difficult for members of the clergy.
“In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a “ministerial exception” to the ADA. “It’s religious freedom,” said Myra Creighton, a lawyer in Atlanta who specializes in disability law. “Courts don’t want to get into telling churches who they may hire or fire.”
And while I DO see the point, it leaves the door WIDE open for this privilege to be abused. And it's abused over all kinds of reasons, not just mental illness. Not wanting to pay a high salary, a perceived lack of attention to parishioners, church management practices that satisfy most but are perceptibly poor to that ONE board member, and “we don't like you anymore” are perfectly valid reasons to force a pastor out and no matter how discriminatory the reason, he usually has zero recourse and often won't qualify for UI.
Many go from parsonage to homeless in a heartbeat. I knew at least two ministers who were in their 40s and had to MOVE BACK IN WITH THEIR PARENTS (and by “they” I mean the pastor, his wife, and as many as four kids who literally found themselves homeless overnight because dad lost his position and they all had to vacate the parsonage on short notice). Some have to choose between their possessions and a place to put them, sometimes renting storage units to presere their possessions and memories, and then not having enough money left over to put a deposit down on an apartment after. These things literally, actually, factually happen and it is disgusting. Criminals get treated better.
For eight years, Brady Herbert led a booming church in Waco, Texas. The congregation had a couple hundred members when he took over and grew to an average of more than 1,200 people on Sundays.
By early 2018, he told the church’s elders he was burning out and needed a break. They gave him a paid leave.
While on leave, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder... Anxious about how the elders would react, he told them only that he’d been diagnosed with a mental-health condition and was taking medication.
A week later, he said, the elders made clear to him that he would not be allowed to return as lead pastor, and he agreed to resign. “When they got a whiff of mental-health issues,” Mr. Herbert, now 37 years old, said, “they wanted to wash their hands of it and move on, like a lot of churches do.”
The elders said Mr. Herbert resigned of his own accord.
And this sort of thing happens A LOT, especially in large, mainline evangelical denominations, but like with many things associated with the dark underbelly of evangelicalism, statistics on mental health and evangelical ministers are scarce.
Even pastors who have the nerve to do what's needed to treat an manage their mental illnesses and manage to hold things together vocationally are often fired (or “asked to resign”). Suicide among pastors is a common result of losing their pulpits.
“Although churches have grown more willing to discuss mental health in recent years, many congregations continue to believe that any mental-health problem reflects a spiritual deficiency or lack of faith in Christ.” This leaves many of these highly-enlightened creatures, both sitting on the board and in the pews to ask, “How am I going to listen to this guy if he can’t deal with his own problems?”
And the pressure that modern ministers often find themselves under is pretty intense...
“Tony Rose, a Southern Baptist minister who counsels pastors with depression, said there is a widespread expectation that Christians, especially pastors, “are supposed to have it all together.”
Some even go as far as attacking the pastor's prayer life as cause for mental illness because, of course, there is nothing that can't be effectively dealt with, and there is no problem too difficult to solve, through prayer. A minister with mental illness is a minister who lacks faith and/or spiritual discipline and, subsequently, needs to go.
Brady Herbert also said that he felt isolated in his job.
“In October 2017, he gave a sermon that touched on his struggles. “I have wrestled in recent months with my ability to lead this congregation through the season that we’re in,” he said from the pulpit, noting that attendance was dipping. “I have not handled it well at times in my own life and even in my own marriage.”
After the sermon, he said, one of the elders told him that if he’d gone one step further, he would have been out of bounds. The elders didn’t respond to questions about the sermon.”
Like with many pastors, the stress of a pastor's life continued to wear away at his mental health. There was tension at home and his marriage was suffering. In early 2018, Herbert broke down during a private service with his church staff during which he said that he “couldn’t lose his family over the job and would resign if necessary.” It was at this time that he was offered paid leave to get his marriage back on track. Sounds good on the surface, right? They agreed to up to 24 weeks PAID leave but described the leave as “indefinite” on paper.
It was during his leave that Herbert was diagnosed with Bipolar II – a mercifully more mild form of the disorder that presents with less severe manic episodes. He was put on meds to regulate the condition and returned after just nine weeks to meet with the church board. He was met with skepticism and some of the elders were not comfortable with him coming back.
“It sounds like you guys are telling me there’s no pathway for me to come back,” Mr. Herbert recalled telling them. He said he was met with silence and, in response, offered to resign.
The Harris Creek elder board said that “Brady advised the elders that he did not see himself ever being able to return to his former role as lead pastor at Harris Creek” and that he voluntarily resigned.”
Of course that was nothing but a big, fat lie.He wanted to come back. He had his shit together and was proactively treating his condition. The stuffed shirts on the board couldn't deal with the imagined stigma of having a pastor with mental illness so they turned into the lifeless, silent whitewashed tombs that they were and just gave him the silent treatment until he put two and two together. COWARDS.
Depression, bipolar, and other mental disorders are a huge issue among ministers as is mental and emotional burnout. Most who haven't been or at least lived with a clergy member really have little to no idea the pressure these people are under. They are expected to conform to a specific image, perform their duties on super-human levels, maintain high-levels of selflessness and self denial, and must never, ever, EVER tire of serving the people they are charged to lead.
They aren't allowed a lot of time to themselves (if ANY) and they are expected to tend to the spiritual needs of their faithful 24/7/365. I've even heard of pastors cutting vacations short to deal with things that crop up at church while they're away. And that's not even the craziest stuff I've experienced and/or witnessed myself. Most pastors are unabashedly used by people for emotional support and it is expected that the pastor assume the most appropriate role: pastor, counselor, confidant, friend, or any combination of the above when dealing with other people's problems.
Some major church organizations, like the infamous Southern Baptist Convention, claim that there has been more discussion and more acceptance of mental illness in all levels of church ministry from the pew to the pulpit over the last two decades. And yet, they still manage to have very little involvement or oversight when it comes to local churches, leaving it to the pragmatism and objectivity of local church boards when dealing with mental health issues in their own ministers. I think it goes without saying that this really doesn't result in a lot of fairness or impartiality when it comes to taking reasonable action in situations of mental illness within the clergy.
According to the article, there is a “culture of secrecy” surrounding mental health in far too many churches. I like that term. It makes a good point. Churches don't like letting anyone either from within or without see their weaknesses. Some approach this from the position of protection. Most approach it from the position of silencing, ostracizing, and removal of anyone or anything that threatens to taint their image.
This is why most of them lie and tell the congregation that their pastor decided to leave. It doesn't fly over everybody's heads, but it does most people's. Those who are intelligent enough to see what's really going on often leave the church and sometimes commit to going wherever the ostracized minister manages to land (if that person decides to continue their ministry career – many do not). This is one of many things that causes church splits.
So, to recap: Brady Herbert requested a leave of absence, he took the time to explore what was going on with him. He got diagnosed with Bipolar II and after all of that – after doing what he took leave to do and his board knew it and endorsed it to his face - He was dismissed upon his return. This is a guy who successfully grew his church from a couple hundred to well over a thousand, remember. He was a successful pastor who knew and executed the duties of his job well. They shoved him out because he tainted their image.
And while I'm not terribly happy about so many people getting sucked into this religion, I have to assume many had already drunk the kool aid and saw greener pasture around this particular shepherd when they started attending his church. In other words, for good or for bad, he was doing his job and doing it well despite his illness. He was attracting people who had already drunk the Kool Aid and bringing new converts into the fold. He was able to lay aside the symptoms of bipolar and get shit done. That is strength beyond anything I personally know and yet, he lost his job because mental illness is a weakness on both personal and spiritual levels as far as his board of elders were concerned.
Then there's the story of Greg Atkinson. For years, he toed the line that he had made the voluntary decision to vacate his pulpit at Forest Park Baptist Church in Carthage, MO, but that just wasn't the case.
“He told the congregation in 2013 that the church’s insurance company had found out that he suffered from a “mood disorder” and refused to continue liability coverage if he remained on staff. He was stepping down, he said, rather than force the church to choose between him and insurance coverage. Then he moved to North Carolina and found a job at another church.”
When lead pastor John Swadley was asked about the situation, he admitted that Atkinson had been fired, citing that the the church's insurer threatened to terminate coverage if he was allowed to remain on staff. However...
“The church’s insurer, GuideOne Insurance, which insures many churches, disputed Mr. Swadley’s account. “We had no role in Mr. Atkinson’s departure from the church” said Christy Gooding, a spokeswoman for GuideOne. “We do not ask any questions related to mental illness in our underwriting process.”
Atkinson now works as a church consultant. He worried at the time about going public with his bipolar diagnosis and he was right to be. He thought it would be “shooting his career in the foot” and he was right. He decided to embrace truth and, just like with anything else that involves the truth, he was met with aggressive aversion from the “people in charge” at his church.
Atkinson was inspired to go public with his story, at least in part, by Jarrid Wilson, a personal friend and mental-health advocate who was also a pastor at the Harvest Christian Fellowship megachurch in Southern California. “In 2018, after several celebrities died by suicide, Mr. Wilson wrote a post arguing that—contrary to the view many Christian denominations held for centuries—suicide does not always lead to hell.”
He said: “You wouldn’t dare say that someone who died of cancer is going to hell just because of their illness would you?” Mr. Wilson wrote. “Then please don’t assume someone who died of suicide via severe depression is going to hell either.”
Today's forecast: unsettled weather conditions with a near 100% chance of a violent shit storm, right? It gets worse...
In September, [Jarrid] Wilson killed himself. He was the third prominent Southern California pastor to die by suicide in just over a year.
And that, right there, is just one of the reasons – and it's a significant one – why I hate this religiona nd all it stands for. Here was a guy who was clearly thinking in the right direction. He was thinking clearly about so much of what he, himself was going through. He didn't kill himself. The faith that taught him to look at himself with less value than he deserved did.
And if you aren't angry at what you're hearing yet, I give you the Ginsu Knives “but wait... there's more!” story for this particular episode and I do think this one warrants a trigger warning. If you suffer from Religious Trauma Syndrome that centers on interactions with church elders, you might want to skip the next few minutes.
This is the story of Scott Capp. He was a pastor who had worked at several churches in Illinois. One of those churches sent him for biblical counseling for mental illness. The geniuses that ran the program recommended against medication for Capp's mental-health issues (because of course they did).
In 2014 he landed a job doing fundraising for Chicago's Moody Bible Institute, also his Alma Mater.
“In July 2017, he emailed a suicide note to his family and friends, including some co-workers. In it, he discussed his bipolar disorder and the breakdown of his marriage, neither of which his co-workers were aware of, according to his parents, with whom he was living at the time.
Mr. Capp didn’t try to take his own life that day, but checked himself into a hospital, where he stayed for 10 days. His boss visited him while he was there, his parents said, and he was placed on administrative leave from work...”
He was bing responsible. He knew that there were issues inside his head that needed to be addressed and he was proactive in addressing them. Now let's look at what that level of responsibility and self-assessment netted him.
“The day he returned to work, on Sept. 11, he was fired. That same day, he posted another suicide note to Facebook, which mentioned his termination, then killed himself. He was 46.
“They should have worked with him, knowing his level of distress, and they at least could have given him the grace of some time,” his father, Patrick Capp, said. “A Christian organization ought to be more tolerant in a case like that.”
Moody Bible Institute declined to answer any specific questions about Mr. Capp’s employment or termination. “Mental health and well-being is a priority at Moody and we are constantly seeking how to best come alongside and support our community,” Brian Regnerus, a spokesman for the institute, said in a written statement.”
This person didn't want to die. Pure and simple. But the people in his life who were supposed to be reflections of Christ's love robbed him of his sense of self-worth to the extent that he just couldn't see any reason to continue. 46 years old and his life is over. I've already had three more years than he did and I see no finish line in sight. I have a big bucket list. I can't even think of what I'd miss out on if I just checked out now and I say this knowing that I suffer from Anxiety, Depression, PTSD, and RTS. You know what I don't have in my life? Evangelical influence. And that, I'm certain, is at least a large part of why I'm still breathing.
I look at the picture of Scott Capp in this article and I see a good looking guy who had so much left to do with his life. What a pointless waste of life that could have been averted by simply applying some of that love and acceptance that they think is modeled by their savior.
The Assemblies of God in particular has a very unsavory zero-tolerance policy for mental illness within its clerical ranks, and while every AG church is considered sovereign, they all take their cues from one another and from the General Council. That means that attitudes and policies that show up in one church have a ripple effect and the more intolerant and unsympathetic those policies are, the faster they spread. Why? Because it gives the policy- and decision-makers just a little bit of something those people prize above anything else: power.
What's worse, is that they manufacture reasons to fire pastors they don't like and often assert that mental health issues exist where they don't... at the point of accusation. There is a lot of power in suggestion and when other people - a group of people decide they're going to make an accusation about you, it immediately starts sowing seeds of doubt. “Maybe there is something wrong with me...”
And then add to the equation, “Clearly God is trying to tell me something through all this...” and now you have a very toxic cocktail of suggestion and doubt that can actually lead to serious mental health problems and those problems can quickly escalate to self-destructive actions and behaviors, sometimes leading to thoughts of or attempts at suicide.
I won't even get into the particulars of how most evangelicals approach treating mental illness because we've done several episodes on that already, but here's a one-sentence summary: they vilify any kind of mental health treatment that doesn't include indoctrination and “spiritual guidance.” In other words, if it's secular, it's craaaap!
But the mental health community is fighting back. There are currently a small but well-organized number of mental health services that provide treatment to ministers anonymously so they can get help and not be found out by board members or vindictive pew-sitters. Now, Focus on the Family, according to the article is one of those organizations, but they're only one.
There are also secular organizations out there that follow the same basic confidentiality model who provide actual, clinical, secular help with deference to the pastor's spiritual leanings. Sometimes you just have to compromise a little. These are still people we're talking about here and everyone, I don't care what they believe or even what kind of craziness they perpetuate, everyone has the right to live their lives out from under the weight of mental illness if an out can be found. And it could lead to some getting and staying unbound and I am all for that. It will never happen without competent, clinical help, something that Focus on the Family will never be able to provide, but which they have, ironically, become the catalyst for secular organizations to emulate with more effective therapies and more positive outcomes.
Like with many things, there are those within the ranks of Christianity who have clearer, far more level heads when it comes to the very real things that people go through. One in particular, the Christian Reformed Church of North America, understands the unique struggles faced by ministers that lead to or are exacerbated by clerical life. In an article titled Clergy and Mental Health, they outline some alarming statistics gathered from Lifeway Research and the Centre for Clergy Care.
Although most congregations and pastors do not want to face it, our research revealed that many ministry leaders live with mental illness.
The number of pastors diagnosed with clinical depression was double the national average.
Forty five percent sought advice from their family doctor regarding stress and anxiety issues.
Nearly one-fourth of all pastors (23 percent) acknowledge having “personally struggled with mental illness,” and half of those pastors say the illness has been diagnosed. (LifeWay Research)
Not surprisingly, pastors accede to their own and to their congregations’ demands to perform, neglecting time for self-care and for their own faith nurture.
On average, pastors surveyed are working 50 hours. A quarter of them work more than 55 hours.
Nearly 40 percent take fewer than three days off per month.
Many ministers neglect regular exercise, personal devotions, and relaxation to find more time for serving or to avoid feeling guilty.
Ninety four percent of pastors said that although they read Scripture to prepare sermons, it rarely nourishes them personally. (Centre for Clergy Care)
And while I only spent a year in organized ministry, I spent loads of time doing ministry work before and after and I can tell you one thing for certain: I relate to ALL of the above. ALL of it. They didn't take into account people like me who hold down ministry positions while not being paid, working sometimes three jobs outside church to make ends meet. I put in 20-30 hours a week at Mission Impossible and never saw a single paycheck. I was handed a $300 stipend on my last day, an amount that came out to a tiny fraction of a penny per hour served. Factor in the times I spent money out of pocket because the church refused to fund or reimburse things and I don't think I even broke even on my own investments. 55 hours? Try 25 hours at the church, 12 hours at a radio station, and 30 hours working two sales and telemarketing jobs each and every week. That scenario is at least relatively common and it is disgusting.
To end things off, I want to just share a few thoughts off the cuff with this. I want to talk to the pastors out there for a minute, then I want to talk to those of you who are still in this and think your pastor might be going through a personal crisis. Lastly, I want to address those of you who are out and might have left because “that guy was fucking crazy...”
Pastors, I get it... I've seen it all, from shitty board members to passive-aggressive congregants to lies, insults, gaslighting... you name it, I've seen it and I've experienced it. I lasted a year. If you've been at this for years or decades you have a strength that I simply do not possess and that strength deserves to be acknowledged.
Thank you for doing what you do and doing it at the expense of your own self, your personal comfort, your own self-care, but it's time for you to start thinking about these things. It's time to start getting well. It's time to start being you. It's time to start looking into a future that includes the abundant life your savior promised but can never actually deliver. You know who can? You. And it's time to start pursuing it.
I know what you have sacrificed. You sacrificed your intellect derailing a promising future to go to Bible college. You sacrificed your dreams for the sake of your calling. You've spent years trying to build something good on a foundation of sand. It's time to let it fall. It is not too late to learn a new skill, to start a business, to just get another job. Take your life back before your vocation takes it from you. Please.
If you're still in: see something? Say something. If something seems off, you're right. It is. Say something. Don't let your pastor crash and burn. Reach out. Offer support. Ask “Are you OK?” Invite your pastor to dinner and enjoy the time spent together as people not Christians, not leader and subordinate. It's something that is sadly lacking in his life. Don't put on a show. Don't try to create a spiritual atmosphere around pot roast. Just be you and let him be him. I promise you it's not something he's used to and it will mean so much.
Just knowing that someone else “gets it” could be the difference between that person ending his life and beginning to see and explore the value of it. In a worst case scenario, you might lose your pastor because he realizes his self-worth and gets out. In a best-case scenario, you'll follow his example and finally make the break yourself. If you've listened this far, you're at least considering it.
If you're out and you know a pastor who might be in crisis, do something. Reach out, contact him (or her, but it's almost always him). Again, ask if he's OK. Let him know that help is out there. Position yourself as a friend and take genuine interest in his safety and well-being. Be someone who BELIEVES him about his illness and doesn't judge. Let him know he's right to want clinical help. Provide him with good options or avenues of treatment and offer support. You could be saving his life and in so doing, also leading him to a place where he gets away from a lifestyle and work atmosphere that's killing him and starts getting unbound.