Donny Weimar, 41, has been a preacher since 1989 and holds a doctor of ministry degree. When in college, he began to experience mood swings and panic attacks, which went untreated for 10 years. Later, his severe irritability resulted in repeated terminations from the churches he served. Donny was voluntarily hospitalized while working as a full-time minister, and received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. He lost that job too.
Courtesy of Donny WeimarAbout 10 years ago, I was working with a church in Collinsville, Texas, and I was having mood swings. I would become very irritable and would say things I shouldn't say to members of the congregation. I became defensive, and I even threatened one of the elders that if I wasn't accepted, I would move. Apparently I was in a manic state and didn't know it.
In fact, I didn't even know what bipolar disorder was. The church terminated me because of the mood swings, but I didn't have a diagnosis yet.
For a short time, I quit preaching and started selling roofing materials. However, that didn't work. So I went back to preaching, and I worked for about two years with a congregation in Valley Mills.
I was very depressed at the time, and the congregation supported me through my depression. I voluntarily went into the hospital, but when I started taking the antidepressant Wellbutrin, it flung me into mania. I didn't know what it was, but I was very euphoric. Then I climbed into a state where I was irritable and hearing voices.
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On one occasion, I left the house, got into my pickup truck, and ended up in a grocery store. I didn't know where I was or how I got there. My wife spoke with one of the church leaders, and they figured out where I was and came and got me.
When I swung into this euphoric state, the psychiatrist wanted me to go to the hospital to be evaluated. I went on his recommendation and stayed there for a couple of weeks. They stabilized me, and when I came out, I was balanced. I was very open and told the church what my diagnosis was. But the mood swings had already set in, and they were afraid of me.
The church leaders wanted to talk to the psychiatrist to understand what I was going through, but the psychiatrist refused on the grounds of HIPAA. [The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, is a set of rules that strictly govern patient privacy.] That bothered them, and they perceived me as not being open with my condition and stigmatized me.
There were members who became distant from me and demanded that the leaders fire me. One of the influential members who donated a lot of money to the church told the elders that if I were to continue with the congregation, he would move. It ended in my termination.
Next Page: Hiding the truth [ pagebreak ]
Hiding the truth
We moved to another state in the upper northeast, and I preached there for about a year and a half or two years. I was afraid that if the church officials knew I had bipolar disorder, they wouldn't hire me, so I told them I suffered from depression. But I still had mood swings because my medication wasn't quite right. I was at the point where the doctors were trying to figure out which medicine I should take and how much.
The doctor prescribed some medicine for me, and I eventually I slipped into a deep depression and became suicidal. Then when I sprang into mania, I had no choice but to tell the church leaders that I had bipolar disorder, and a week later, they fired me. They were weary of my condition and insulted that I had lied to them about being bipolar. They felt like they couldn't trust me anymore.
The Constitution separates church from state, and churches are able to do things that a normal employer wouldn't be able to do. I would never sue a church for firing me for bipolar disorder because the bible tells us not to sue other Christians.
But I sank very deep into depression, and I began to hear voices that my family couldn't hear. We decided that we would try to find a congregation that would accept me with my bipolar condition. I sent out about 50 resumes and decided to be open with my condition, but no one would hire me.
I interviewed with one congregation and they were going to hire me until I told them that I was bipolar. That was repeated over several congregational interviews. I was afraid that if I lied to the church, that the job wouldn't last anyway. So I was very open, and no church would hire me.
We moved back to Texas, and I'm now disabled and unable to maintain a job. I got two part-time ministry jobs, but both of those congregations fired me as well. I'm now unable to find another ministry position. I interviewed for one church in Texas as a youth pastor and the questionnaire they sent me asked if I had a mental illness, and what it was. I wrote that I have bipolar disorder, and I was immediately removed as a potential candidate for the job.
Next Page: No one will hire me [ pagebreak ]
No one will hire me
I'm now in a ministry team at our church. The church here embraces me, but it would never hire me as a full-time minister. There are others in the congregation who have bipolar disorder as well as seasonal affective disorder and anxiety disorders. One of the church leaders has a daughter who is bipolar. They're very supportive of me, even through various hospitalizations. This is the best congregation I've ever been part of.
I'm not accepted as a minister of the gospel in any of the churches I've been fired from; the bridge has been burned. On one occasion, I went to a congregation I had disrupted because of my illness. I sent them a letter and followed up with a personal visit to apologize for my actions. I wanted to help them understand that my actions were caused by an illness and that I am now functioning as a productive member of the church and society.
Recently, I rapid-cycled through mania and depression. I see my psychiatrist once a month, and he increased my Lamictal and added Celexa to deal with depression. I'm also on Risperdal, Cogentin for side effects of Risperdal, and Valium for anxiety. I have been hospitalized several times. But I'm with a good psychiatrist now, and he's very knowledgeable about bipolar disorder. I feel stable.
My family members struggle with my bipolar disorder, but they support me. My wife has said that she would never leave me unless I caused some kind of physical abuse in the family, and she has stood by me and has become my bedrock. She is my best friend. My children are young and don't understand the illness per se. I've explained to them that it's not their fault that I have to go to the hospital occasionally to adjust my medicines. They love me and embrace me.
Next Page: Educating the church [ pagebreak ]
Educating the church
I have a forgiving heart, and I understand that the church leaders were trying to protect their congregations. I think God has gifted me now to reach out to Christians with mental illness and help them understand that they can still be Christians.
Their mental illness doesn't mean they have to forfeit their faith. I would encourage churches to learn more about mental illness so that they can better minister to those who are in special need.
I have become a voluntary adjunct professor for Tennessee Bible College in Cookeville, teaching online courses from my home. I don't plan to go back into the ministry full time. I want to start a group education program for people with bipolar disorder, where members can lean upon each other and doctors and counselors as a support network to maintain health.
I wish people would ask questions about the illness and how it can be resolved. They don't have to fear people with mental illness. I carry pamphlets about bipolar disorder with me, and when I meet people, I pass out these pamphlets. The more educated they are about the condition, the better they understand that someone with bipolar disorder is a normal human being who can function in society very well.
Educating society in general is a very important step. I've become a facilitator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and we fight against stigma. The stigma is not just in the church; it's in society in general. The church is just an extension of society. The better educated society is about bipolar disorder, the better educated the church will be about it.
There are just as many people afflicted with bipolar disorder in the church as there are in society. The church is unique in that they want to help people, but when it comes to mental illness, they simply don't understand. If we educate the church, we will be a light to the community.
I was unable to empathize with people as a minister, and that bothered me. I prayed that God would teach me empathy. A month later, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I don't blame God for the disorder, although initially I was angry with him. Once I came to accept it, my faith was restored. I'm a stronger person today than I've ever been.