The Empty Chair

Years ago, long after I’d become a Pastor of a Church, I use to boast that “Having a messy desk was a sign of the Kingdom of God.”  Little did I realize that it was also a sign of bipolar disorder.  My desk wasn’t just messy, it was chaos.  No neat piles of books or files or papers.  Just chaotic disorder.  My assumption was that someone who was busy, doing lots of ministry, never had time to clean their desk.  Oh, I was busy.  It is estimated that the usual Pastor will deal with sixteen major issues in any given week:  Sermons, deaths, programs, counseling, hospitals, programming, community activities, Bible studies, visitation,. Not to mention two teenage children and a working wife. All in a days work.

It was a wonderful church.  In our first four years there the attendance went from 130 to nearly 230.  I can’t take the responsibility for this.  Had a great Christian Education, Choir, and other staff. Most important, it was a congregation willing to take risk and open themselves to the leadership of God’s Holy Spirit.  Our fifth year started off with a bang.  I turned 45 on May 6th.  On May 10 I had the first of what would be sixty funerals in twelve months. That’s one a week for a year.  For three months I averaged a funeral every three days.  Often I would leave the cemetery to go to the hospital where another church member or their family was dying.  Many of these were people in key positions in the leadership of the church.  All of them were personal friends.  By the end of July I was worn out.  Life seemed out of control.  How can a Pastor say no to the family of a dying loved one.  On top of this was all the regular activities of a Pastor and Parent. I felt like a pinball in a pinball machine. A flipper would strike and I would bounce all over the place

My Doctor diagnosed me with insomnia, depression, and chronic fatigue syndrome.  I was exhausted. Few people knew my personal distress.  Some were angry because I wouldn’t “give in” to what they wanted me to do.  Others just loved and prayed for me. They were aware of my situation.  However, I was blind to the depth of my personal health.  I was not able to function as the Pastor.  It took two years to recovery, all the while trying to function as a Pastor. At the same time I was caring for a church family who had a terrible murder in their family.

I use to be proud of my ability to multitask on many levels. I was able to start a project, but never seemed to get them complete.  I still have about six books part way finished.

One of the first signs of bipolar disorder is an inability to concentrate or focus. I could do ten things at once but not remember a one of them an hour later.  I was trying to go in many directions buy I wasn’t making any progress at all. I was trapped in my own mind and couldn’t get out.  It’s like the song, “It’s a Small World After All”  going round and round for days (Now you can’t get the song out of your mind.)  Don’t worry Mental Illness is not contagious.

Plus, I’m a very private person.  Thoughts are kept inward.  That’s part of what it means to be a Pastor.  You know lots of people’s secrets, and joys.  But they never know the depth of hurt you are experiencing.

For nine years I grew deeper and deeper in a pit of despair. It was a new Church with good people. Then, in 2004 I got a serious infection in my leg.  Probably what they call MERSA but they could never determine.  I was still battling with depression and insomnia.  Couldn’t sleep at night.  Got into things where a Pastor should never venture.  I was lost, alone, and hurting. It was utter confusion in my mind.

Then in 2005 I was placed by the Bishop on involuntary Leave from the Pastorate.  It took about three months before I was diagnosed with bipolar 1 and my leave was changed to medical leave.  Since then, life has been a wandering existence. There was grace in so many ways.  God took care of my family, provided us a home, income, and a purpose. My mother had developed Alzheimer’s.  For eight years my siblings and I cared for her each weekend.  If I had been a Pastor, I couldn’t just tell my church, well it’s time for my turn at Mom’s.  But God had set me free to help.

I had lost my job.  Once told I had a mental illness my future as a pastor was over. How could the Bishop go to a church and say, “We’ve got this great pastor for you, only one thing you need to know. He’s mentally ill.”  What church would accept such a person as Pastor. So I had no job, in a town where we had few friends and no other family.

But this wasn’t the end.  But that is a story for another day.  God is faithful.  He has a plan, a plan to prosper, give hope, and a good future (Jeremiah 29:11).