It seemed everything good had suddenly collapsed. His calling, his career, maybe even his family, were lost. In one confusing moment, he had morphed from successful pastor at one of the fastest growing churches in the nation into public disgrace. He had fallen from family man to family embarrassment, a source of grief and pain to the people he loved. And he didn’t even understand why.
Growing up, he had watched his father deal with symptoms and a diagnosis of manic-depression. His dad took medication, but the family wasn’t supposed to talk about it. As an adult, not understanding his family history, Pastor Brad Hoefs spent months taking risky steroids prescribed by his doctor. Soon after, he began to have times of surging energy, creativity, and nonstop drive. Over the next 15 years, he lived under tremendous stress as pastor of a large church, and now, as senior pastor, he had just battled through 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 challenges. He would go away to a hotel and work day and night, barely sleeping, for days. He would come home with months’ worth of work done in five days. For five or six months, he had been riding a wave of enthusiasm and productivity most people could only dream of. And his church, King of Kings Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska, rode this wave right along with him, growing from 800 to 3000 in seven years.
But with this soaring mood came something darker he couldn’t name—a sense that he was out of control. He needed to ground himself, to manage his emotional flights. So without understanding why, he engaged in risky behaviors that seemed to help by producing a sense of guilt: “I would feel bad. It would bring me down so I could manage.” He sped along country roads at night, opened the car door, and touched his foot to the gravel passing by underneath. He visited places where people had been murdered. He went to dangerous locations late at night. Sometimes he drove all night and came to awareness at breakfast, in another city, with no idea of how he’d arrived. And 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 an arrest for indecent exposure. Sitting in his car, with a ticket from a police officer in his hand, he experienced something he never had before: a crushing and desperate depression that made him want to end his life.
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. He and his family didn’t understand what had happened, and the church and denominational leaders struggled to determine how to handle it. Church leaders privately asked him to resign. Under his therapist’s direction, he told them he would deal with this question later and he went away to a hospital in Michigan to get some help. “I was ready to kill myself. I had a plan.”
At this hospital in Michigan, he did get help. He received the blessing of a diagnosis that made the last several months of his life make sense: 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 the manifestation of the disease. He also received some comfort in group therapy sessions, hearing other people describe the exact symptoms he had experienced—and realizing that almost everyone in the group had been in trouble with the law because of uncontrolled symptoms.
After his diagnosis, Hoefs’ 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 receive treatment and 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 some healing. It would allow closure.
But not all the church leaders agreed with this plan, and Hoefs was not allowed to return. That’s where grace took over.
More to the Story
“God just 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 him 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. We must do something to help. And they had something in common: “All of us had 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, who was among the original members of this group and who had seen the effects of mental illness in her own family. “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.” So this group began gathering in a home each week to pray. They prayed 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. And they started to become a church.
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. And as they formed that church, 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, ushers, worship assistants, and a missionary who was a gifted preacher and could serve as interim pastor.
But the church still wanted a permanent pastor, and they specifically wanted Pastor Brad Hoefs.
As this new church began to form, they found friendship in Ambassadors Worship Center and Pastor Martin Williams, who offered a solution to the challenge of outgrowing the home where they were meeting. Ambassadors of Worship invited this fledgling 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.
Pastor 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,” he 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.” Pastor 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. The church needs this gift.”
But there was one more piece to the puzzle. He 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. He 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 this 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 formally called Hoefs as their pastor, but they barred him from doing any pastoral work. He was not allowed to teach, preach, or lead worship. They paid him 18 percent 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 about 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. That’s when a small group of pastors, led by Pastor 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.
Shaken by this relapse in his mental health, Hoefs realized he needed a better understanding of his illness. And 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 also 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 a few years later, 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. I think 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 experience 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 soon internationally. And God has healed the relationship between King of Kings and Hoefs and Community of Grace. The two churches have even hosted events together.
To learn more about this growing ministry and how you might start a Fresh Hope group, see the ministry’s website here: http://freshhope.us/
This article originally appeared in Leadership Journal.
© 2015 Amy Simpson.