The pastor’s unforgivable sin

Thirty years ago when I started full-time ministry, there was an unspoken, unforgivable sin for pastors in the conservative, evangelical world where I found myself – don’t get divorced.  If you did, for whatever reasons, your ministry was over.  It was in the “liberal” churches that divorced pastors could find a home.  Today that has changed.  I have many divorced friends now serving as pastors of evangelical congregations.  This blog post is not to discuss if this is right or wrong, or even good or bad.  It is simply to point out, “The times, they are a changin.”

However, there is another unspoken, unforgivable sin for pastors that remains.  Surprisingly, it is on the opposite end of the marriage spectrum.  While divorce involves the breaking of marriage vows, this other unforgivable sin has to do with keeping them.  This other sin is this – if you are married to a spouse with mental illness, your ministry is over.  Let me tell you my story.

My family and I have been in several small, often struggling churches over the years.  We have greatly enjoyed our opportunities to shepherd some wonderful people, but the difficult assignments have been hard on my wife and three daughters.  My wife’s health has suffered.  Many years ago, she was diagnosed with a mental illness.  For years she responded well to treatment, but the side effects of her medicine lead to weight gain and fatigue.  This, along with the stressful pressures of ministry, has resulted in her battling arthritis, colitis and fibromyalgia.  She is in constant pain.  She has very little strength or energy and has difficulty living up to the unwritten pastor’s wife expectations that most churches have.  When she reached menopause, her tired and broken body could no longer fight the mental struggles, even with the help of medication.  Her mental illness is now out-of-control.  Her medicine is no longer treating her effectively, so she is home-bound and doesn’t make it to church very often.  In spite of her challenges, she deeply loves the Lord.  She remains very wise and gifted, but she does not fit what most churches are looking for in a pastor’s wife.

I love my wife dearly.  She is my best friend.  I cannot imagine life without her.  She took her marriage vows seriously when married to a struggling pastor.  “For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part” – she stuck by these vows while I took her into some very hard ministry situations.  She is an amazing women.  And while she struggles, I, too, remember those words we stuttered before “God and these witnesses” some thirty years ago.  And because we take these vows seriously, my ministry as a local church pastor is over.

The denominational leaders I talk to are sympathetic to our situation and would never say that I won’t serve in a church again, but I can’t say they are hopeful for my placement.  The real problem is at the local church level.  I don’t know of a church board that would consider me.  While they all say, “We don’t have expectations for the pastor’s wife – we are hiring you, not your wife,” this simply isn’t true.

Many people tell me that they are not considering me because they care and want what is best for my family.  Perhaps it is best for my family to not have the stress of church ministry anymore.  But if you tell me these words, please don’t act like you are doing me a favor.  I received my call to ministry when I was a young teenager.  That call has not been rescinded.  I am told that I can serve God in other ways.  I am told I can easily become a chaplain.  Believe me, every hospice and prison chaplaincy opening I see available I apply for, with no positive response, even though I served as a nursing home and a jail chaplain in the past.  To become a hospital chaplain, I would need at least two years of training to get the required Clinical Pastoral Education credits needed, despite the fact I was a paid hospital chaplain for four years.  Being in my mid-fifties, I don’t have the time to pursue this, and I certainly don’t have the finances.  And while chaplaincy is an honorable option, I was called to local church ministry.  That is where my heart yearns to serve.  I guess staying true to my marriage vows somehow nullified my calling from God.  Believe me, this doesn’t feel like any favor – it feels like church discipline.

There is certainly a stigma attached to mental illness in evangelical circles.  I am pleased that this is changing, due in part to the tragic deaths among family members of prominent church leaders.  Ministries to the mentally ill are now beginning in our churches.  Seminars and symposiums are being held to address this topic.  A few brave churches are actually allowing pastors with diagnosed ailments to serve.  But I have not heard among all of these recent discussions any talk of what to do with spouses that are ill.  I think most churches just wish families like mine would go away.

So we go away.  We try to find work, but are told with our advanced theological degrees we are overqualified for the entry-level jobs we apply for.  We shrink back, hearing the gossip among Christian friends that we must be struggling because we are not holy enough, obviously in bondage to demons and secret sin.  Family can’t fix us.  Friends don’t know how to befriend us.  Everyone becomes frustrated that we don’t “get better.”  We are told that if we just confess  our sins, try the latest expensive supplement, go to this healer or that exorcist, have this person pray for us with enough faith and the right formula – all will get better!  And we try it all, but things don’t get better.  People get weary of our struggles.  We become more isolated and alone.  And the worst question of all is this: “What is this doing to our precious children?”

I don’t have any answers to this difficult dilemma.  All I am asking is that a discussion among God’s people begins to take place.  Please.  If not for my family, please start talking for the one-in-three pastor’s families that will experience mental illness in the future.


Author: Brian Heinen

I am simply a Christ-follower who wants to share the incredible Savior I met with others.

9 thoughts on “The pastor’s unforgivable sin”

  1. Thanks for your transparency Brian! Please know that you are not alone..that you do have a family around you here, and some of us commit to being available to you at any time. I do believe that God still has a place for you in the areas of your calling and gifting. Let’s get together and pursue this.

  2. My wife suffers with fibromyalgia, headaches, fatigue and the many other things that go along with such an illness.
    She is a RN certified as a Faith Community Nurse. She has not worked outside the home for over four years now. I joined Interim Pastor Ministries primarily because the Intentional Interim ministry fits my gifting and because in that ministry the wife can take a backseat role. It allowed my wife to rest and heal.
    After serving two difficult interims during those four years we felt the need to serve in one place until I reach retirement age. At retirement age I could take a break between Interims because I would have some retirement income.
    We found a small Church, candidated and became their permanent Pastor and wife.
    I’ve been honest with the leadership about the energy that my wife has.
    I try not to put pressure on my wife to serve and I am doing much better at being an advocate for her. She has asked for prayer many times.
    It is very challenging for both of us but I try to keep in mind that she is the one suffering physically, emotionally and spiritually. I love her dearly.
    With my wife not working we also had to adjust to losing her RN wages and benefits.
    I don’t anticipate losing my current position but if I did I would without hesitation return to serving with IPM.
    My wife is involved in ministry encouraging the woman but at her own pace. She’s honest about her situation and she gives herself permission to cancel an appointment if her headaches, fatigue or pain are unbearable.
    Thanks for bringing up this topic.

  3. Thank you Pastor Brian. That is very well said. That is the exact thing that we are battling in schools as well as churches. Me traveling church the church doing character awareness programs and mental health podiums is something that tugs at my heart because of my own children. I’m gonna continue to fight and stand up stand out for those who can’t help themselves including pastor ministers evangelist teachers.
    Thank you for such a beautiful writing sharing your heart. I will continue on the front line.

  4. Hi Brian,
    Thanks for writing. My heart goes out to you. I grew up with a dad who had problems with mental illness. I can only imagine what it would be like to be in your situation. I’ll keep praying for you.

  5. I have no words that are probably anywhere near adequate.

    Different situation for me and my family, but similar results.

    It certainly can be frustrating to be around people who theologically and philosophically deny the “health, wealth and prosperity” gospel, but practice it in real life.

    I wish we lived closer together geographically.

  6. Hi Brian & Leah, julie and i loved reading your heart message, cried and prayed as we too have syruggled(me, john) ever since those days at crown. although we have been following you, we were unaware of your circumstances. Know you are loved, we are praying and taking it to the throne.

  7. Brian,
    Thanks for your story. I have been physically so down for the last five years I have not searched out for others trapped in circumstances that don’t change but to go farther down hill.
    Your issues are like mine. I have heard the self righteous tell me of my hidden sins, tell me I don’t know how to chase the demons away, I was probably not called to preach, a man cannot lead a church if his wife and children are not perfect and able to work in the church. (My wife has crippling arthritis and a 48 year old daughter who is an uncontrolled elliptic and a drug addict.)
    But I kept pushing on through 4 small churches, until 2005 when my 10th heart attack and 30 years of fighting this body with about everything you could think of.
    People kept telling me to lean on the Lord. I think there were times I leaned so hard it might have been difficult for Him to keep his balance. I had to be careful not to become cynical with the self righteous advice givers.
    I feel your pain and anguish. I do know that waiting on the Lord is painful, but He has you and your family near the top of his list.
    I have learned and believe that God does not necessarily call a man’s wife and children. It is you he wants while taking care of the family. My last 10 years of preaching was in a 30 person church I started myself. Super wonderful saints. I still stay in touch with most of them through the blessing of electronics.
    Sorry for the rambling on and on but wanted you to know I love you and yours and you are not alone.
    Larry Shaffer

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