Growing Grace for Mental Illness

The ministry rise of Brad Hoefs was meteoric, and his collapse was just as sudden. In one confusing episode, he went from successful pastor at one of the fastest growing churches in his denomination to a public disgrace. From family man to family embarrassment. He didn't understand why, and neither did they.

Growing up, Brad had watched his father deal with symptoms of manic-depression. His dad took medication, but the family wasn't supposed to talk about it. Not understanding his family history, Brad, as an adult, spent months taking steroids prescribed by his doctor for a medical condition, not knowing that these steroids could have unfortunate side effects.

Soon after, he began to have times of surging energy, creativity, and nonstop drive. It paid off. King of Kings Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska, rode this wave right along with him, growing from 800 to 3,000 in seven years.

He lived under tremendous stress as pastor of a large church, and he had just endured a long and taxing fight with the city to purchase property that would allow his church to expand.

Ironically, he had never felt more alive. He was invigorated by the challenges. At times he was so inspired, he would go away to a hotel and work day and night, barely sleeping, for four or five days at a time. He would come home with months' worth of work done in five days.

He was riding a wave of enthusiasm and productivity most people could only dream of.

But with this soaring mood came something darker he couldn't name—a sense that he was out of control. He needed grounding, to manage his racing thoughts and emotional flights. So without understanding why, he engaged in bizarre behaviors that seemed to help ground him.

I can't 'cope.' I've got to live! - Brad Hoefs

He sped at 80 mph along country roads at night, opened the car door, and touched his foot to the pavement passing by underneath. He visited places where people had been murdered. He went to dangerous locations late at night. The effect of these experiences? "I would feel bad. The guilt would bring me down so I could manage," he said.

Sometimes he drove all night and found himself eating breakfast in another city, with no idea of how he'd arrived, no memory of the previous eight hours.

One night, driving around the city, he stopped to use the bathroom at a public park with a bad reputation. Here, in an incident he remembers too dimly for true recall, his dream life turned to a nightmare in the form of a citation for indecent exposure. Sitting in his car, with a ticket from a police officer in his hand, he felt something he'd never experienced before: a crushing and desperate depression that made him want to end his life. "I was ready to kill myself. I had a plan," he said.

Local media reported on the story of his citation, and his church and the community were shocked.

"For the next three months we basically bled to death," Hoefs says. No one could understand what had happened. Church leaders privately asked him to resign. Under his therapist's direction, he told them he would deal with that issue later, and he went to a hospital in Michigan to get help.

There he did get help, receiving a diagnosis that helped explain the last several months of his life: bipolar disorder, or what his father had known as manic depression. He learned that in the genetically predisposed, the steroids he had been taking can trigger a manifestation of the disease.

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