[I wrote this piece a few months ago for a different publication but decided not to publish it. But, I think it needs to be said, especially with the way that the mentally ill are often treated in both churches and workplaces]

“You know I’m bipolar and I’m going through a rough patch right now. I’m having to straighten some stuff out with my kid at school and, well, I’m just spiraling. I can do A and B, but I’m not able to do C. I will do D instead and pick up C in a week or so when I feel better. It’s just a trigger and I can’t do it.”
About three years before I said this to my boss, my senior pastor, I was diagnosed with bipolar 2 disorder. I also have anxiety disorder. They work in great tandem to make each other stronger and make my life more difficult. And, so, I work hard to keep them at bay. And when I was diagnosed, one of the first conversations I had was with my senior pastor, my boss, at the church I was working at.
My confession of the diagnosis also came with a question: “Do you want me to resign?” I wanted to know if it was more appropriate to resign and not risk the backlash that comes with the stigma, especially from some church people, of having a life-altering mental illness. My pastor/boss asked me to do two things: first, he did not want me to resign as I was a real asset to the church (it’s hard to find a person with experience and a PhD willing to work part-time, but I was) and he did not want me to tell anyone. And not telling anyone was a condition of me continuing to work at the church.
So, as I went through my work at the church, I did my job and did not let anyone in on my illness. I sat through meetings where my anxiety was eating me alive and gave no one a clue or any indication that I might be sick. I led trips completely depressed, not knowing if I might make it home or be found somewhere in another place, but I couldn’t tell anyone or ask for the help I needed. Or, the best, is when I would lead a trip and be hypomanic and no one—teens, adults, cars, whatever—could keep up with me or my ideas.
The frustrating aspect of all of this was that I would get performance reviews or job evaluations and people would mention some of these various “idiosyncracies” that I had and it would be a problem. I was being criticized often for having an illness that I was just learning to live with and that I could not tell anyone about.
Now, before I continue, it should be noted that I really, really liked my job. I really, really liked the people that I served in ministry. It was an ideal spot and they were very supportive of me and my family. They were also supportive of different programs that I started, such as peer-to-peer support groups for troubled teens and adults (another area church told me that they did not want “those” kind of people in their church or using their facilities) and ministries to the poor and homeless in our area. So, I was comfortable and felt good there and we were working together to do very good things.
Eventually, though, I had to talk about my mental illness. I was becoming more involved in conversations around mental illness and faith, as well as just describing what it is like to live with a mental illness. I talked to the pastor and he was quite reticent of me being open, but I told him that I was going to “drop the bomb” in the next sermon that I preached. After a little back and forth—and him telling me to expect some major backlash—I finally convinced him that speaking on my mental illness was going to be a positive for the congregation. And it was. The congregation was incredible and supportive and many people were allowed to speak out about their own struggles, both with mental illness and other things, after I confessed having a mental illness.
However, things began to disintegrate between myself and the boss/senior pastor after that sermon. I was told multiple times that no one knew what I was doing at the church, what my job entailed, and was generally criticized. During this time, I was running a summer program for the underserved in our community, planning multiple groups, and doing my regular duties, which included visiting the sick and elderly. When I asked who I could talk to or who was saying these things, the answer was never solid or specific. And the real kicker was that the pastor, my boss, controlled all the apparatuses where I could make a complaint or ask questions. He was in charge of all those places, so there was nowhere to go and no one to ask. And, when I did ask people on the committees supposedly saying these things, I was told I was doing a good, or great, job.
Things came to a head when I told my boss the quote that opens this piece. His response was, “I don’t really care what you are going through. I need you to pick up some more stuff because I have things going on [he and his family had recently received two foster children, so he was completely justified] and I need you to do more now. I don’t care about what you’re going through, I need you to do A, B, C, D, and E.” It also came out later that he referenced my bipolar disorder to people when discussing why I was not getting things done (usually things I did not know about or that were not my responsibility).
I was at a loss and I didn’t know what to do. I considered resigning then because I knew I could not live up to the expectations being placed on me, nor could anyone else. However, I stayed because I felt like the church was doing good work and helping people, which we were. But, knowing I had no recourse within the church to be critical of my boss, I contacted the higher-ups in my denomination. And this is where things got very difficult for me. When contacting the person directly above my pastor, I was told to just do what the pastor asked. When I responded that I felt I was being discriminated against, I was told that the church can’t discriminate against people. When I went above this man to the highest up, I was told they were invested in the pastor and in his ministry for the next 40 years.
My conversations with these two men broke me. I was having a hard time continuing on in an organization that literally allowed discrimination of various church employees in order to protect pastors they had picked. (According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, I was discriminated against for my disability, bipolar, but churches are not privy to the ADA). I am still heartbroken about the way I was treated by so-called leaders in the church.
I resigned about a month after these emails and conversations, when I felt that the senior pastor played on my bipolar 2 disorder one time too many. It was literally the only recourse that I could take.
Now, I want to say a few things to conclude. First, it is probably apparent, but I am a little bitter about what happened. The church is supposed to be a safe place for all people, even its own employees. And it was not to me. But, I also know churches that are great and accepting and have the protocols in place to make sure what happened to me does not happen in their church. I have a former student who is bipolar and has all the protocols in place for him to succeed in his church. So, my experience is not universal, but it is a common one.
Lastly, I still believe in the church. My organization Here/Hear works with churches to set up peer-to-peer support groups and to run various workshops and discussions on mental illness in their communities. We do this because we believe churches can be places of change for communities and can be places where the community looks for great change. They are gathering places where good things can happen.