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.
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.
In group therapy sessions, he heard other people describe the exact symptoms he had experienced—and realized that almost everyone in the group had been in trouble with the law because of uncontrolled symptoms.
After his diagnosis, Hoefs's wife, Donna, who had lost her mother to suicide as a result of bipolar disorder, confronted him: "I love you. This is not who you are. I know that. But I can't live with you if you don't do everything you can to get better. You don't have to be perfect. I will stick with you as long as you're working on your illness, but I can't do it if you won't do what you need to do." Hoefs took this seriously and dedicated himself to treatment.
As he began to stabilize, his psychiatrist talked with denominational leaders. She encouraged them to allow Hoefs to come back to King of Kings, not as a pastor but as a part of the church. This would provide an opportunity for others to understand mental illness, she said. It would allow healing and closure.
But not all the church leaders agreed with this plan, and Hoefs was not allowed to return. That's where grace took an unexpected turn.
"God told me I had to stand with him and not leave him by the side of the road." Karen Reynolds speaks with tremendous conviction about her part in the story that came next. She was the worship leader at King of Kings, and as she watched events unfold, she knew there was more to the story than a moral failure.
"I had known Brad longer than anyone else in the church. His family was family to me. I knew something was really wrong. He had been escalating in behavior; he was in dire need." She resigned her position, and she and her husband decided to follow the Holy Spirit.
They weren't alone. A group of about 20 people, all part of King of Kings, felt the same conviction: There is more to this story, and we must do something to help. They all had something else in common: "All of us had some family member with a mental health issue or had struggled with a mental health issue ourselves or, because of professional training, were more open to believing this was not a make-believe thing," says Ruth Belmont, one of the original members of this group. "My husband and I weren't looking to get involved," she says, "but God wouldn't leave it alone for us. We had to obey."
This group gathered in a home each week to pray for Pastor Brad and his family. They prayed for wisdom and direction. They began to worship together. Their numbers doubled to 40. Then grew to 50.
Eventually this group decided to quietly leave King of Kings and form a new church—the best way, they believed, to minimize the damage of potential conflict. They discovered that God had brought together a disparate, oddly connected group of people who had all the variety of gifts they might need: a pianist, worship leaders, and a missionary who was a gifted preacher and could serve as interim pastor.
But the new church wanted a permanent pastor, and they specifically wanted Brad Hoefs.
As the church began to form, they found friendship in Ambassadors Worship Center, a multi-racial interdenominational church pastored by Martin Williams, who invited the fledgling Lutheran congregation to worship with them on Sundays in the school cafeteria they were renting.
"They told us we didn't have to contribute tithes or anything; they just wanted to love us. They wanted to stand with Pastor Brad," Belmont says.
Williams had met Hoefs, but they weren't close friends. So why did he feel such a calling to support those who were seeking to restore Hoefs?
"I'm a Galatians 6 guy," Williams says. "I believe in restoration and the return to important use by God in a person's life. And I believe it takes spiritual people to restore spiritual people."
Williams has a background in sports management. "When you have a great player who gets injured, you don't just retire them; you rehabilitate them," he says. "Brad is one of the sharpest tools in the shed. He's very creative. He has an incredible mind to understand the Bible, how to reach people, and how to grow churches. The body of Christ worldwide needs this guy, needs this gift."
But there was one more piece to the puzzle. Williams didn't have a deep understanding of bipolar disorder, but he had seen it before. Three years earlier, when he was working as an associate pastor, his senior pastor had been diagnosed with manic depression, and Williams had seen this pastor work through his own diagnosis.
"I just figured the bottom line is, let's stick together until we find out what this is and then let's get back to the original assignment."
On Christmas Eve, the two churches together rented a Marriott ballroom for a special service. Some had fasted in preparation for a prayerful and prophetic time of discerning God's direction. During this service, the people of Ambassadors Worship Center gathered around those who had left King of Kings and anointed them with prayer and confirmation of their calling.
"We felt there would be lots of people who would benefit from a church that Brad would pastor, intentional about showing God's power in restoring people," Williams says. So he and his church sent out this new congregation: "You can't sit here forever, can't wait for the city to get over what happened. Now is the time."
"During that service, we all agreed a new church had been born that night," says Belmont. So the new group wrote a charter, rented a banquet facility, and began holding services just two weeks later. And they gave themselves an apropos name: Community of Grace.
Community of Grace officially called Hoefs as their pastor, but they barred him from doing any pastoral work until he was well. He was not allowed to teach, preach, or lead worship. They paid him a bit more than he had received in his previous position, and they told him to get well.
"We were not going to give up on him," says Reynolds. "We were called to stand by him and help him get better."
"They loved us. That's all they did," Hoefs says. "They came along and started to understand, along with my doctor and my therapist, and the healthier I got, the more they wanted me to be their pastor." So he worked on getting better, and after 18 months he began to ease his way into pastoral duties.
Seven years later, after his nephew was injured in a bus crash and he accidentally took a double dose of medication—followed by a skipped dose to "make up for it"—Hoefs had a relapse. And a second citation. That's when a small group of pastors, led by Jim McGaffin of Liberty Christian Center, came alongside Hoefs and committed to meet regularly for accountability. "We're not going to hurt you," they said. "We're going to do everything we can to keep you standing." And they have been standing with him for 11 years.
Hoefs realized he had to take steps to preserve his health long-term. He gave his wife and his accountability group full access to his doctors. "I had to choose to believe that I couldn't trust my brain. My mind is not the problem. I have the mind of Christ. But when my brain doesn't function right, I'll be out of my right mind, and I've got to trust some people around me who love me and are going to point it out."
He tried joining support groups, but he was depressed by the utter lack of hope he found there. "They were always using the word coping, 'I'm trying to cope with this.' And I thought, I can't cope. I've got to live." So he started a Christ-centered support group at Community of Grace and named it Fresh Hope. Hope is what it's all about: "I tell people when they've just had their first episode, or they've had their third or fifth episode and now they're going to do something about it, 'You have the choice to fight to make sure this is the sickest that you ever get.' I don't think people understand that they have a choice. There's a huge amount of hope."
And contrary to common fear that a mental-health support group might kill a church, after starting the Fresh Hope group, Community of Grace experienced 110 percent growth in one year. That group has now helped about 500 people.
And now Fresh Hope, which Hoefs didn't plan as more than one group at Community of Grace, has grown beyond his church, city, and state. It has become a nonprofit ministry that continues to grow nationally. And God has healed the relationship between King of Kings and Hoefs and Community of Grace. The two churches have even hosted events together.
Fresh Hope isn't the only church-based ministry for those dealing with mental illness.
Retired vice president of Wake Forest University Bob Mills sits at the helm of Transformed Minds, a network of mental health professionals, influencers, and individuals whose lives have been altered by mental illness, who share a passion for a more Christlike response to mental health.
Matthew Stanford, professor of psychology, neuroscience, and biomedical studies at Baylor University and author of Grace for the Afflicted, has partnered with others to form the Mental Health Grace Alliance. Headquarted in Waco, Texas, with a branch in Los Angeles, the alliance offers support to people with serious mental illness and their families. Like Fresh Hope, the Mental Health Grace Alliance is founded on hope and the promise that people with mental illness can thrive and enter a recovery process that helps them manage their health and restore a sense of purpose.
"Our growth has been amazing," Stanford says. "I believe it's simply a reflection of a great need that has been long ignored by the church. Presently there are few faith-based options for individuals struggling with serious mental illness. But I do believe we are at a tipping point. The church's response toward those with mental health problems has generally been negative, but I'm starting to see signs of change."
At the same time, some pastors are opening up about the ultimate mental-health taboo: their own mental health needs. Pastors Rick Warren, Perry Noble, Frank Page, and others have written about their own or their family's struggles with mental health problems. Ministry and mental illness are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the pressures of church leadership put clergy at elevated risk for anxiety disorders, depression, and other problems.
In Memphis, Tennessee, one church leader has started a movement to help. Domeniek Harris, co-pastor of Dominion Living Ministries, along with her husband, Brian, and other pastors, has formed a network of Christian leaders and counselors who are beginning to minister specifically to pastors in Memphis-area churches. As Harris read abou the loss of Georgia pastor Teddy Parker, Jr., to suicide in November 2013, she was disturbed to two reasons: "He was a pastor. And I could identify with everything that he said."
As she heard stories of other pastors around the country dying by suicide, Harris felt burdened by their deaths but didn't know what to do. So she talked with her husband and co-pastor, and he said, "I want you to pray it out. And whatever God says to do, that's what you do."
So Harris prayed and received a response: "Protect the pastors." She sensed God calling her to reach out to two other pastors. One of them, Dianne Young, who is also a licensed therapist, confirmed taht God was calling her to the same response. The second pastor, Darryl Woodson, who ministers to wounded leaders, felt the same burden.
As she talked to other pastors and counselors, the network began to grow. The result is When Pastors Pray, a citywide prayer gathering for pastors across denominations, races, genders, ages, and stripes, on the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is followed by a one-day event in March, designed simply to let pastors receive ministry. Fifty church leaders and spouses showed up and opened up. "You wouldn't believe the weight and stress that's on these people," said Harris. "It was incredible to see them open up."
Still to come: group therapy sessions just for pastors, a resource center, more events and prayer meetings to offer support. Harris's hope is "that pastors will have an opportunity to be able to say what really goes on in their lives without being stigmatized and without being judged. Pastors need counseling on a regular basis. They are dealing with all the issues in their church. When you're dealing with that, plus your own life, where do you go to get an outlet? We don't want to lose another soldier. We don't want to lose another pastor to suicide."
Among the most powerful tools in that fight are the stories so many have to share. As people like Brad Hoefs openly discuss mental illness, their stories will teach in ways that facts, statistics, and arguments can't. As churches like Community of Grace respond in love and understanding to people who need support, such churches will become havens for people who are poised to receive some of God's most striking redemptive work. Grace is, after all, our best reason for hope.
Amy Simpson is senior editor of Leadership Journal and author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission (IVP, 2013).
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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