News Flash: There Are Mentally Ill People in Church

“Crazy” is considered a slur in many circles these days, and yet it’s a word used Mad Men Nippleoften to describe everyday life:

  • My schedule is crazy.”
  • Those kids are driving me crazy.”
  • Are you crazy?”

Some people even believe that Christians – and other people of faith – are a little crazy to believe in God, miracles, the power of prayer, etc. Others say there’s merely a fine line between ecstatic spiritual devotion and brain disorders.

But the truth is that any seasoned pastor has witnessed serious mental illness in parish life. A professional therapist once sent me this book so I might understand a borderline parishioner who was hurting and hurtful, while mayhem ensued in our congregation.

Our spiritual communities are comprised of people with addictions, schizophrenia, depression, phobias, and combinations of all the above. They serve alongside us as elders and deacons, teachers and choir members, office volunteers and nursery workers. [To be fair, some pastors also suffer with serious mental disabilities, but the hope is that they will be removed from professional ministry – at least temporarily – to ensure healthier congregations. It’s hard to shepherd God’s people if the shepherd is lost and sick.]

Do we prepare future pastors how to spot behavior that can perpetuate dysfunction and create havoc in a church system? I haven’t seen such classes, but maybe you have.

I know from experience that the best laid plans for mission and ministry can be sabotaged by just one person who wrestles with serious insecurities much less demons. And small congregations with limited members seem especially susceptible. If small churches are struggling to keep members, they will tolerate unhealthy behaviors for a long time.

Pastors out there:

  • Did you get any seminary training in identifying mental illness?
  • Did you receive strategies in working with difficult people whose difficulties might be connected to brain diseases?

Yes – many of us received Clinical Pastoral Education, perhaps even in a mental health facility, but what about basic training in dealing with bullies, liars, saboteurs, and passive-aggressors?

Congregations increasingly include such folks, and it would help to have the beginning of a clue how to identify those who need a special kind of pastoral care. Ideas?


Image from last week’s episode of Mad Men. Sadly, Michael Ginsberg is truly mad.

7 responses to “News Flash: There Are Mentally Ill People in Church

  1. I feel your pain on this issue. I have been there and I was glad to hear you talking about it. We need to domthat more. It is true that we aren’t prepared to diagnose mental illness, but that’s not the work of our profession or vocation. The diagnosis undertaken by an amateur (like those of us with MDivs) is at best, no help to anyone. The hard truth I had to face was that borderlines and other persons with mental illness only take center stage in an otherwise dysfunctional community.


  2. Hi Jan – I think this is a critical issue. I do wish I’d been better prepared for this. Also, here is a link to the UCC’s Widening the Welcome effort, which has sponsored some excellent conferences on this:
    Thanks again for posting such helpful and thought-provoking pieces!


  3. Healthy congregations/healthy leader resources are one approach to helping assess one’s own role, and what else might be going on with others. Suggest and as places to start


  4. Pingback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg

  5. I am a long time reader and first time commenter. I have been stuggling for the past 10 years with treatment resistant depression that has recently been diagnosed as bipolar 2. With the new diagnosis has come a medication that finally has lifted the depression, and a new awareness of the existance of hypomania, a mood that is rewarded in ministry because of its high productivity and energy. I have served local churches as pastor and interim for the last 28 years, and have done work with which I have been proud in each of the ministry settings in which I served. If anything, my work with my mental illness has enhanced my ministry because it has made me more open and sensitive to the issues of individuals struggling with mental illness. I believe I have been a competent, caring, skilled pastor during these years of struggle.
    I am therefore concerned with your statement, “To be fair, some pastors also suffer with serious mental disabilities, but the hope is that they will be removed from professional ministry – at least temporarily – to ensure healthier congregations. It’s hard to shepherd God’s people if the shepherd is lost and sick.” I find this comment to be a sweeping generalization of the wide spectrum of mental illness suffered by clergy and lay people alike. In my ministry I have encountered clergy and laypeople who suffer with mental illness, and who are successful in their careers and their personal lives. To have a life long mental illness is not necessarily to be “lost and sick.” With proper medication, therapy, and a willness to be complient with treatment, many talented individuals serve in ministry.
    I would ask you to be more careful in your categorization of the mentally ill and mentally ill pastors. It is a difficult process to accept that one is mentally ill, and the mentally ill can serve as effective pastors, just as treated diabetics can serve in almost any area of work. I saw this blog post quoted on another site, and it concerns me to see this stereotype continued without understanding and compassion.


  6. Thank you so much for this excellent comment. As a person who also struggles with brain issues, I am still learning about all this both for myself and others. I would not like to believe I am personally “lost and sick” either. Thank you and bless you in your ministry.


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