Mental Health and Disability 103: Who you Gonna Tell?


This is I think one of the hardest decisions when you suffer from depression. There are lots of reasons you dont want to talk about it: You’re ashamed, think you’re weak, don’t want to let others in, don’t want to receive “the look,” and a thousand others.

I guess that for the pastor (and really for most people), there are two layers of this question. If you are simply taking medication and therapy, you can probably keep the circle of people “in-the-know” fairly small. I’ve known a number of pastors who never told anyone in the congregation through the entire process. The advantage to this is that your illness won’t have a potentially detrimental effect on receiving calls, etc. In the business world, pretty much everyone will tell you never let anyone know you’re taking anti-depressants. I find this truly a sad commentary on our culture. For a culture that talks so much about being inclusive and receptive of people with “differing abilities”, mental illness is the exception. I have found that this is often true in the church. I would never begrudge a pastor who chose not to speak with his congregation about a mental illness.

Disability, however, is a different matter. If you apply for disability, then it is really impossible not to speak with your congregation about the matter. Your circuit counselor, with your input, will have to find someone to fill in for you while you are on disability, and someone, maybe several someones, will need to come into your parish to give them a little catechesis on mental illness and depression.

This is hard. I admit it. It is admitting what will be viewed by many as a weakness or even as a failure. You’re depressed because you aren’t strong enough to make yourself better (tell that to someone with a heart condition). No one likes that level of self-disclosure, least of all super-pastors. It’s a lesson in humility that is a good one, but painful at the time.

Yet in this disclosure lies freedom. It frees you to recognize your own illness. You don’t have to hide and pretend and act and do a show for everyone. You can actually be sick. Recognizing your sickness is the first step to healing. Sharing your sickness allows others to bear your burden with you. I think that’s in the Bible somewhere. Look it up. It is through our weakensses and trials that Christ is at work, showing the world His own suffering for us.

For myself, telling my congregation has been the best thing for my ministry since I was ordained. I won’t say that it has been picture perfect, that everyone has embraced us, or any kind of fairy tale ending. It has taught me (and my family) to look to Christ for strength, and not to ourselves, or even finally to my parish. My parish has taken care of me with generosity beyond expectation, and despite the bumps along the road, it has been a blessing for all of us.

I know it does not always work out this way. I know of pastors who have been forced to resign, undergo enforced psychological evaluation by their district, or worse. It’s sad, but true. Having said that, being straightforward and honest is always the best thing to do. That doesn’t mean make your whole life and psyche an open book. It does mean, however, not pretending or acting as if nothing is wrong when there is.

Christ is merciful. He will take care of you. Be at peace and bask in the glow of our Lord’s incarnation for you.

-DMR

10 thoughts on “Mental Health and Disability 103: Who you Gonna Tell?”

  1. Just wondering…
    Do you think it’s different for pastors who had been faithfully preaching about sin and the abundance of God’s grace, than it is for the typical pastor who preaches about “goodness”?

    If a pastor has been preaching a subtle theology of glory, then the congregation will have learned that message, and expect the pastor to buck up and pull himself together and fix his attitude. With God’s help, of course.

    But if a pastor has been preaching about people being poor miserable sinners and God’s solution to that problem, won’t the people have a different attitude toward the pastor’s weakness in the form of mental illness (or MS or cancer or whatever else)? The people will have learned that God’s grace is sufficient, and that His strength is made perfect in weakness. And that Love will have captured their hearts so that they react with mercy and patience when the pastor is proven as weak as they are themselves.

    (Not saying, of course, that a pastor whose congregation rejects him for mental illness has done something “wrong.” He could be reaping the results of his predecessor’s preaching.)

    I guess it seems to me that a congregation’s response to the pastor’s disability will, to some extent, be evidence of whether they believe the theology of the cross or the theology of glory.

  2. Just wondering…
    Do you think it’s different for pastors who had been faithfully preaching about sin and the abundance of God’s grace, than it is for the typical pastor who preaches about “goodness”?

    If a pastor has been preaching a subtle theology of glory, then the congregation will have learned that message, and expect the pastor to buck up and pull himself together and fix his attitude. With God’s help, of course.

    But if a pastor has been preaching about people being poor miserable sinners and God’s solution to that problem, won’t the people have a different attitude toward the pastor’s weakness in the form of mental illness (or MS or cancer or whatever else)? The people will have learned that God’s grace is sufficient, and that His strength is made perfect in weakness. And that Love will have captured their hearts so that they react with mercy and patience when the pastor is proven as weak as they are themselves.

    (Not saying, of course, that a pastor whose congregation rejects him for mental illness has done something “wrong.” He could be reaping the results of his predecessor’s preaching.)

    I guess it seems to me that a congregation’s response to the pastor’s disability will, to some extent, be evidence of whether they believe the theology of the cross or the theology of glory.

  3. All that you say is good and right to a degree. Unfortunately, I haven’t found anyone in the congregation that even wants to understand mental health or disability. I had asked the chair of the Board of Elders and the Congregation President about a temporary disability to address some depression issues and they wouldn’t even hear about it. The only thing they kept saying is we can’t afford that sort of thing. They were unwilling to even go to the Circuit Counselor or Disptrict President to discuss the possibility.

    The result is that I was forced out of the parish and have been on CRM for about 1 year. No calls, no interviews, no nothing from the district or church body just be warm and well fed…

  4. All that you say is good and right to a degree. Unfortunately, I haven’t found anyone in the congregation that even wants to understand mental health or disability. I had asked the chair of the Board of Elders and the Congregation President about a temporary disability to address some depression issues and they wouldn’t even hear about it. The only thing they kept saying is we can’t afford that sort of thing. They were unwilling to even go to the Circuit Counselor or Disptrict President to discuss the possibility.

    The result is that I was forced out of the parish and have been on CRM for about 1 year. No calls, no interviews, no nothing from the district or church body just be warm and well fed…

  5. God be with you. I know you have suffered far more than you should, and it sounds like there may be more to come.

    Having said that, they simply can’t say “no” to disability. It’s a medical issue between you and Concordia Plans. While it may be tragic to have to go to that point, you can apply and receive disability without their permission. Concordia Plans pays you while you are on short-term disability, and your congregation is obligated to take you back after you are off disability.

    This is black letter and really quite simple stuff, whether you’re talking about mental health or not. Your “employer” cannot refuse you disability if it is a part of your benefit package. If you are on Concordia Plans, it is a part of your benefit package.

    This is really why I believe that pastors need to have an ombudsman of some sort. Someone that can advise them on these sort of matters.

    God bless you. I will keep you in my prayers, and wish I could do more

  6. God be with you. I know you have suffered far more than you should, and it sounds like there may be more to come.

    Having said that, they simply can’t say “no” to disability. It’s a medical issue between you and Concordia Plans. While it may be tragic to have to go to that point, you can apply and receive disability without their permission. Concordia Plans pays you while you are on short-term disability, and your congregation is obligated to take you back after you are off disability.

    This is black letter and really quite simple stuff, whether you’re talking about mental health or not. Your “employer” cannot refuse you disability if it is a part of your benefit package. If you are on Concordia Plans, it is a part of your benefit package.

    This is really why I believe that pastors need to have an ombudsman of some sort. Someone that can advise them on these sort of matters.

    God bless you. I will keep you in my prayers, and wish I could do more

  7. I didn’t really have to deal with employer issues, since I am a stay-at-home homeschooling mother. Telling my extended family had tragic consequences, however. On one hand they insist I get “the help I need” (so I can fulfill their warped expectations of me) and on the other hand they see me as permanently messed up and incapable of doing anything, ever. I’ve had to cut off all communications with them, which oddly enough has helped my mental state.

    By the way, thank you for hosting this site where depression can be discussed openly and from a Lutheran perspective. Hope you had a happy holiday.

  8. I didn’t really have to deal with employer issues, since I am a stay-at-home homeschooling mother. Telling my extended family had tragic consequences, however. On one hand they insist I get “the help I need” (so I can fulfill their warped expectations of me) and on the other hand they see me as permanently messed up and incapable of doing anything, ever. I’ve had to cut off all communications with them, which oddly enough has helped my mental state.

    By the way, thank you for hosting this site where depression can be discussed openly and from a Lutheran perspective. Hope you had a happy holiday.

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