In most industries, federal laws protect workers with disabilities, including mental illness. Church is an exception. Employees including pastors are still regularly fired after disclosing mental-health problems.
For eight years,
led a booming church in Waco, Texas. The congregation had a couple hundred members when he took over and grew to an average of more than 1,200 people on Sundays.
By early 2018, he told the church’s elders he was burning out and needed a break. They gave him a paid leave.
While on leave, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he said. Anxious about how the elders would react, he told them only that he’d been diagnosed with a mental-health condition and was taking medication.
A week later, he said, the elders made clear to him that he would not be allowed to return as lead pastor, and he agreed to resign. “When they got a whiff of mental-health issues,” Mr. Herbert, now 37 years old, said, “they wanted to wash their hands of it and move on, like a lot of churches do.”
The elders said Mr. Herbert resigned of his own accord.
Statistics on mental health and pastors are scarce. But psychologists who specialize in treating ministers say that Christian pastors are still regularly fired after church elders discover they suffer from depression, bipolar disorder or other mental-health problems. It’s more common in more fundamentalist evangelical churches, which make such decisions at a local level, according to these psychologists.
Even pastors who are receiving treatment and performing well in their jobs are still sometimes dismissed, psychologists say. In some cases, pastors have died by suicide shortly after being fired.
Although churches have grown more willing to discuss mental health in recent years, many congregations continue to believe that any mental-health problem reflects a spiritual deficiency or lack of faith in Christ.
a psychologist in Tennessee who works with churches, said he treats multiple pastors each year who were fired, at least in part, because they disclosed their mental-health conditions. Two he’s seen in the past year both told the congregation they had resigned, then moved to another state. “It’s a very common concern,” he said.
Diagnoses of depression have been rising in the U.S. for decades, in part because Americans have become more willing to seek treatment. More than 4% of Americans had been diagnosed with major depression as of 2016, according to a study by BlueCross BlueShield. Just below 3% of U.S. adults have bipolar disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The national suicide rate jumped 39% between 2000 and 2017, the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released data.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are required to make “reasonable accommodations” for workers with physical or mental impairments. Those who believe they were fired because of a disability can sue.
Those rules don’t apply to faith leaders. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a “ministerial exception” to the ADA. “It’s religious freedom,” said
a lawyer in Atlanta who specializes in disability law. “Courts don’t want to get into telling churches who they may hire or fire.”
a Southern Baptist minister who counsels pastors with depression, said there is a widespread expectation that Christians, especially pastors, “are supposed to have it all together.” A 2013 study by LifeWay Research, an evangelical polling organization, found that about half of evangelicals, fundamentalist and born-again Christians believe prayer can heal mental illness.
Share Your Thoughts
How can churches help pastors with mental-health issues? Join the conversation below.
Yet depression and burnout are relatively common among ministers, Mr. Rose said. They face pressure to fill the pews on Sunday, field requests from parishioners at all hours, and seldom have peers at work with whom they feel safe discussing their own struggles.
“If they want to stay in ministry, the last thing they want to do is go public,” Mr. Rose said.
president of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest protestant denomination, said there is a growing willingness to discuss mental health today compared with 20 years ago. In decades past, he said, a congregation might have asked, “How am I going to listen to this guy if he can’t deal with his own problems?”
Still, the denomination exercises little control over whom local churches hire as their pastors. Mental health—unlike, for example, the definition of marriage—isn’t mentioned in the core doctrine, the Baptist Faith and Message.
a psychologist and Assemblies of God minister, said it was once the norm for pastors to be fired if they disclosed mental-health problems to their congregations. “It’s now much less so,” he said. “Tragically, it still exists in some quarters.”
The result is a culture of secrecy surrounding mental health in many churches.
A number of services confidentially connect pastors with counselors. Some offer in-person retreats; others, like the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family, offer anonymous counseling by phone. Some employ licensed therapists; others steer clients away from medication, reflecting the skepticism toward psychiatry in some Christian circles.
told people for years that he’d made the decision to resign from Forest Park Baptist Church in Carthage, Mo.
He told the congregation in 2013 that the church’s insurance company had found out that he suffered from a “mood disorder” and refused to continue liability coverage if he remained on staff. He was stepping down, he said, rather than force the church to choose between him and insurance coverage. Then he moved to North Carolina and found a job at another church.
Mr. Atkinson now says his resignation letter was a lie: He was fired several weeks after disclosing to the lead pastor that he suffered from bipolar disorder.
Asked about Mr. Atkinson’s dismissal,
the lead pastor at Forest Park, said he decided to fire Mr. Atkinson after their insurer told church officials they could lose coverage if he remained on staff.
“We have to be able to get insurance—I didn’t see that we had any choice,” Mr. Swadley said. “I have great compassion for people who struggle with mental illness. I struggle with depression myself and take an antidepressant every day.”
The church’s insurer, GuideOne Insurance, which insures many churches, disputed Mr. Swadley’s account. “We had no role in Mr. Atkinson’s departure from the church” said
a spokeswoman for GuideOne. “We do not ask any questions related to mental illness in our underwriting process.”
Mr. Atkinson said the move that followed his termination was difficult for his family. Six years later, he now works as a consultant to churches, and said he worried going public with his bipolar diagnosis would be “shooting his career in the foot.” Still, he decided to do it.
“Pastors have done so much damage over the years saying, ‘If you just pray more you wouldn’t be depressed,’ ” Mr. Atkinson said.
Mr. Atkinson said he was inspired to go public, in part, by
a friend and mental-health advocate who had been pastor at Harvest Christian Fellowship, a Southern California megachurch. In 2018, after several celebrities died by suicide, Mr. Wilson wrote a post arguing that—contrary to the view many Christian denominations held for centuries—suicide does not always lead to hell.
“You wouldn’t dare say that someone who died of cancer is going to hell just because of their illness would you?” Mr. Wilson wrote. “Then please don’t assume someone who died of suicide via severe depression is going to hell either.”
In September, Mr. Wilson killed himself. He was the third prominent Southern California pastor to die by suicide in just over a year, in addition to several others around the country. A Michigan pastor, police say, staged his own death to look like a homicide rather than a suicide.
worked for years as a pastor at several Illinois churches, including one that sent him for biblical counseling that recommended against medication for his mental-health issues. In 2014 he took a job fundraising at his alma mater, Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.
In July 2017, he emailed a suicide note to his family and friends, including some co-workers. In it, he discussed his bipolar disorder and the breakdown of his marriage, neither of which his co-workers were aware of, according to his parents, with whom he was living at the time.
Mr. Capp didn’t try to take his own life that day, but checked himself into a hospital, where he stayed for 10 days. His boss visited him while he was there, his parents said, and he was placed on administrative leave from work.
The day he returned to work, on Sept. 11, he was fired. That same day, he posted another suicide note to
which mentioned his termination, then killed himself. He was 46.
“They should have worked with him, knowing his level of distress, and they at least could have given him the grace of some time,” his father,
said. “A Christian organization ought to be more tolerant in a case like that.”
Moody Bible Institute declined to answer any specific questions about Mr. Capp’s employment or termination. “Mental health and well-being is a priority at Moody and we are constantly seeking how to best come alongside and support our community,”
a spokesman for the institute, said in a written statement.
Like many ministers, Mr. Herbert, the pastor in Waco, said he felt isolated in the job.
In October 2017, he gave a sermon that touched on his struggles. “I have wrestled in recent months with my ability to lead this congregation through the season that we’re in,” he said from the pulpit, noting that attendance was dipping. “I have not handled it well at times in my own life and even in my own marriage.”
After the sermon, he said, one of the elders told him that if he’d gone one step further, he would have been out of bounds. The elders didn’t respond to questions about the sermon.
The stress of the job continued wearing on him, and he began fighting frequently with his wife. Early in 2018, Mr. Herbert broke down crying during a private service with staff. He said he couldn’t lose his family over the job and would resign if necessary. The elders offered him a paid leave to work on his marriage. (Mr. Herbert said the leave was scheduled to be 12 weeks, with another 12 weeks possibly to follow. The elders, in a written statement, said the leave was indefinite.)
During his leave, Mr. Herbert said, he was diagnosed with Bipolar II, a form of the disorder with less severe manic episodes. He started on a new medication and, after about 9 weeks, met with the church elders and reported progress in his health and his marriage. He said he was met with skepticism, with elders offering reasons why he should not come back.
“It sounds like you guys are telling me there’s no pathway for me to come back,” Mr. Herbert recalled telling them. He said he was met with silence and, in response, offered to resign.
The Harris Creek elder board said that “Brady advised the elders that he did not see himself ever being able to return to his former role as lead pastor at Harris Creek” and that he voluntarily resigned.
At first, Mr. Herbert said, he didn’t want to divide the church he helped build. He wrote a resignation letter, which an elder read on stage. Shortly afterward,
chairman of the elder board, emailed Mr. Herbert, “You’re taking a very high road this week and it’s very appreciated.”
Mr. Underwood said, “I was probably primarily thinking about the gracious tone of his resignation letter.”
Mr. Herbert and his wife eventually grew to feel as though they, and the church, were lying, and said they wanted to tell the truth about what happened. “There’s such a stigma about mental illness in the church,”
the pastor’s wife, said. “It can be seen as something you’re responsible for.”
The Herberts now live with their three children in Colorado. He’s working for a window-covering business, and consulting for some nonprofits. Their marriage has been solid since his diagnosis, they said.
Mr. Herbert hopes to be a pastor again, but the experience in Waco has left the family wary of church. Though they found a new church in Colorado, they no longer go every week.
“It’s like I got kicked out of my family,” Ms. Herbert said.
Write to Ian Lovett at Ian.Lovett@wsj.com
Copyright ©2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8