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.