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How My Pastor Failed Me When I Needed Help the Most

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I want to share a story with you of an encounter I had with a clergy member of my church that showed me he had no compassion for those with mental illness.

In 2008, I was struggling with coping with my mental health condition. I was suicidal and barely functioning. My best friend, who I went to church with, was at a loss as to how to help me. She asked if she could call our pastor and let him know what was going on. I agreed.

Soon after I received a call from my pastor. He asked me what was going on and I communicated that I was really struggling with my mental health and did not know if I was going to make it. I was not in imminent danger, but I was close.

He did not offer to pray with me.

He did not offer to call someone for help.

He did not offer to visit with me.

He did not tell me I was God’s child and that God wanted me to live.

Instead he said, “Well if you decide to do something stupid call me.” I assume he was talking about me killing myself.

I got off the phone and cried. Now what do I do. Even my own pastor thought I was not legitimately ill.

From that point forward, I struggled even more with my mental health. Everyone at church knew. I even had another family at church caring for my daughter while I was away in the hospital. At no time did my pastor come to me and support me in any way. No phone calls, no visits, no cards. During all of this, I was on the elder board of the church and chair of the worship committee.

Months later, I asked a family at our church if they would be willing to care for my daughter for a year while I tried to recover. Instead of calling me back they called the pastor to discuss the matter with him. The pastor then called me. Mind you — this was the first call since the night I was suicidal. He asked how I was doing and I told him I was still having a hard time. He said, “I do not know why you are calling around asking people for help. You are becoming a burden and need to stop asking people to help you.”

I was stunned. Here was my own pastor telling me my suffering was not legitimate and I needed to deal with it on my own. I was also aware that there were other people in the congregation with longterm health issues who the church deacons were helping on a regular basis with visits to the doctor, laundry, meals, visits and more.

He could have asked me what I needed. How he could help get me the support I needed. I needed someone to care for my child, and instead he shunned me and blocked me from getting support from my church family.

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A couple of weeks later, I got a call from a friend who was also on the church elder board with me. I had missed the meeting that night and she called to tell me she had witnessed something that disturbed her, and it related to me. The pastor had brought up my situation at the elder board meeting (though he knew hardly anything since he had not reached out to me directly). He told the elders he felt I was a danger to my child and that he was considering calling child protective services.

This was disturbing to me on so many levels. Here was a man in authority who thinks I am harming my child and he does not pick up a phone to call me. Instead in a public forum, he discussed my mental status and declared that I am a threat. This was a room of my peers — now what were they to now think of me?

I confronted him the next Sunday. He stated that his wife thought it was going too far to mention it in the session meeting, but he thought it would help me. He never apologized or spoke to me again about what was going on with me. I had now made up my mind to stay as far away as possible from him.

I experienced spiritual abuse by my pastor. He set his own ego ahead of caring for me. He did not understand mental illness, so he treated me as an other instead of as a child of God. I did file a complaint about him to the elder board, but no action was taken. As far as they are concerned, he walks on water.

I eventually left the church I had been a member of for 16 years. I have struggled since to find a church home that I can trust. 

How to Be an Inclusive and Welcoming Faith Community
(from the National Alliance on Mental Illness):

“Faith and spirituality can be an immensely helpful component of someone’s recovery from mental illness. A place of worship is a safe space for people where they can feel welcomed and have an instant sense of support and community, but how they are treated within this environment is crucial to that feeling of security. Here are a few guidelines to follow to include someone living with mental illness into your congregation:

  • Always keep in mind that a person living with a mental illness is a person first.
  • Check-in with the person or their family.
  • Ask them what would be the most helpful.
  • Invite the family to sit with you at church services and events.
  • Making an effort to talk to them and show that you care and understand.
    • Instead of trying to fix their problems, just listen.
    • Don’t belittle someone’s mental illness.
  • Offer to pray with them and for them.
  • Offer a place to belong,
  • Offer to cook a meal.
  • Plan a home visit.
  • Learn about mental health.
    • Invite local mental health leaders to speak with your congregation.
    • Learn to recognize symptoms.
  • Convey a message of acceptance and compassion.”

Many people in the Black community turn to clergy to find help for their mental health concerns. My minister failed to make my experience welcoming and inclusive. I do not know if it was a training issue (he had been a minister for over 30 years) or whether he was willfully indifferent to my suffering.

I now host trainings for faith leaders and tell my story, so they can do better.

Getty image by Damir Khabirov

Originally published: July 11, 2020
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