When I was an eighteen year old freshman at UCLA, I became severely depressed and suicidal. Although I actively ministered to others – volunteering in the emergency room at UCLA Medical Center, for example – I irrationally believed that my family, and in fact the entire world, would be better off without me. During this period, my maternal grandfather, with whom I had much in common, told my mother that I needed God in my life. Although I did not fully understand his wisdom at the time, years later when I ministered to others as a psychotherapist, I did so with a growing appreciation that a higher power – acting through my graduate school instructors, clinical supervisors, and clients themselves – guided me and enabled me to empower my clients and their families to live with greater functionality, hope, and love.
When my grandfather died, my family asked me to give his eulogy. In asking me to perform this honor, my family enabled me to minister to those deeply touched by my grandfather’s life. On the way home from his memorial mass, as I drove over the San Francisco Bay Bridge, I started to have an out-of-body experience. I felt like a positive energy was pushing out and replacing all the negative energy in my body and soul. Trying to make sense of this seemingly mystical experience, I believed that God was calling me to the ordained ministry.
I needed a mainstream Christian foundation to ground me in discerning the purpose and meaning of this altered state. I turned to the Roman Catholic Church, the church of my extended family and heritage. God called me to the Church of St. Leo the Great in Oakland, where I attended the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) to confirm my Christian faith as a Roman Catholic. The pastoral associate at St. Leo’s taught the RCIA classes. She provided an excellent education in Roman Catholic theology, liturgy and ritual. She was a former Roman Catholic nun who completed seminary, left her order, married, and became a mother. She played a critical role in my formation as a Christian. She provided me a role model of what I could do as an actively ministering and vocationally trained, but not ordained, pastoral associate. But I saw in her, as well as many other religious women, a woman called to the seminary and ordained ministry, but unable to fully answer God’s call within the Roman Catholic Church. She affirmed for me what I could not accept – attending seminary without the possibility of ordination, regardless of God’s call.
While at St. Leo’s, I regularly met with a lay spiritual director. She was my first spiritual director, and provided me a role model of laity providing ministry I would have thought reserved for ordained priests. In addition, she was a mother and grandmother. Since I was a psychotherapist and desired marriage and family, I could see myself following a similar vocational path, yet still believed myself called to the ordained priesthood. She enabled me to see the work that I did counseling adolescent girls with severe emotional disturbances as a ministry. I, in turn, was better equipped to minister to my clients as a Christian.
As I approached my confirmation at St. Leo’s, I could not reconcile my nagging belief that I am called to the ordained ministry with the fact that the Roman Catholic Church does not ordain women. God then called me to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Benicia, California, where I ended up confirming my faith. This community embraced, loved and healed me as Jesus would. The Holy Spirit was tangibly present and at work in this church. At St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Benicia, my spiritual director counseled me that God calls me to take care of my health, specifically my mental health, and that marriage and parenthood are also calls. I heeded his advice, which was God’s call for me at that time. I sought and obtained improved mental health treatment and met my husband with whom I later started a family. St. Paul’s parishioners also discipled me. When I expressed regret that I had left my profession as a psychotherapist and was not yet ready to attend seminary, a fellow member of the congregation pointed out that we minister in daily life, whether it be in the business world or the helping professions.
In spite of my secular upbringing, both my mother and father have supported me pursuing my sense of call. When I had that spiritual experience at the age of twenty-one, my mother did not doubt its religious significance. She believed me when I told her that I thought I was being called to ordained priesthood. When I was thirty, my mother took me to meet her mentor, a former Jesuit priest and dean at Seattle University. Her mentor left the Roman Catholic Church, became an Episcopal priest, and at that time was directing an Episcopal ministry providing retirement communities to seniors. We discussed my sense of call, and he suggested that I consider a call ministering to the elderly.
As a young teenager, my father attended a Roman Catholic high school seminary. He found himself too attracted to the girls along the shores of Lake Michigan to imagine not marrying someday. He was proud and in tears when I went through rites and received sacraments in both the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches. My father is so in awe of God’s creation that he cries at sunsets, beautiful music, and the Olympics. He has passed on to me that sense of awe – a deep appreciation and love – of God.
My husband supported me in many ways so that I could attend seminary. He provides for us financially, is emotionally supportive, devotes time to our son, and helps around the house. My son and I are blessed to have him. My son is an inspiration – he has asked me deeply meaningful questions about God, death, and heaven since he was very young. My husband and son are gifts from God.
When my husband and I were first dating, he refused to go to church with me. In fact, after he joined me once at an Episcopal service, he said, “Don’t ever ask me to go to church with you again.” I found his rejection painful and difficult to reconcile with my belief that someday I was supposed to go to seminary. Over the years, his stance on going to church changed. After we married and moved to Petaluma, we attended the local Episcopal, Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches and decided to become members of Saint Vincent de Paul Catholic Church where we had our son baptized. During services, my husband would point to the beautiful stained glass windows and explain them to our infant son. Sharing faith with my husband and seeing that faith grow has taught me hope and patience. My husband’s faith continues to grow; in fact, he listened to the entire New Testament on CD during his daily commute. My son has inspired me.
Shortly before my husband and I started dating, I moved to Hermosa Beach and started attending St. Cross of the Sea. As my husband and I developed our nascent relationship, I met with my third spiritual director, a female Episcopal priest. She and I discussed discerning my possible call to the priesthood, as well as my relationship with my then boyfriend, now husband. Her counseling helped me to proceed patiently and attentively with both calls.
Mission Lutheran Church, the church I attended when I first wrote this paper and first attended seminary, supported me in attending Fuller. When I informed the pastor of my desire to pursue vocational training, he did not question my call and recommended Fuller to me. He reassured me that there were successful bipolar pastors who were aware of their illness and maintained treatment. The retired pastor’s wife told me that she did not doubt my call, that she could see it in me. Fellow members were supportive, asking me how classes were going. The community fostered growth in advanced religious education, for their Congregational Ministries Coordinator also started attending Fuller.
Religious retreats have played a pivotal role in my spiritual formation. The first retreat I attended was at San Damiano in Danville. During a week-long contemplative retreat, I received transformative healing through prayerful and transcendent spiritual and religious practice. At this retreat I received a deeply meaningful education regarding the Christian mystics, with whom I identify. Years later St. George Episcopal Church welcomed me to a retreat at Sisters of St. Joseph. The women from St. George’s warmly and lovingly embraced me as Christ would, and encouraged me on my faith journey.
My friends from high school unconditionally loved me. The love we shared as a group of friends was perhaps too much a rarity among high school adolescents. Back when we were in high school and college, when I claimed to be agnostic, a close friend and I would debate the existence of God. He continually challenged my agnosticism. He never gave up on me and was very excited and supportive when I first experienced the call of God. My friends, including friends of other faiths, share our passions and faiths. Two high school friends in particular encouraged me to pursue attending seminary. One was raised an Episcopalian and now practices Judaism with her husband. The other, a spiritual healer of Jewish descent, has a God given gift of healing love. She was there for me when I was suicidal at eighteen. I owe my life to her. If it were not for her love and support, I would not have been able to love and care for others since.
In my mid-twenties, I was getting ready to leave a position as a legal assistant when a co-worker suggested that I get a job at a non-profit. I ended up working at a battered women’s shelter and going to graduate school in psychology. Although I did not see myself as performing a ministry, God was very much directing me.
My psychologist and I often discussed my faith, theology, and sense of call. She encouraged me to pursue my vocational and professional passions. Upon telling her my stories as a psychotherapist and describing how I loved my clients, she said that I must have been an excellent psychotherapist – caring, compassionate, and knowledgeable. Her support and positive opinion of me encouraged me to believe that God has given me gifts that I am called to use in helping others.
Many of my former clients were Christians who needed respect and support for their beliefs and values, as well as an integration of their faith with their healing process. My former clients and their families taught me about the human spirit, about resiliency, and about the healing power of love. I witnessed God’s unconditional and forgiving love. My clients inspired me and taught me compassion.
Fellow friends and acquaintances with mental illness have taught me a great deal. Faith is very important to those of us with mental illness. Belief in God’s love and acceptance is invaluable. We all need God, prayer, and hope. We are close to God in pain and sickness, as well as in health. Faith enables us to minister to one another.
Over the years, I have been mentored by mental health practioners. Those in the healing professions are ministers. Fellow mental health workers reaffirm each other’s value and purpose. They provide each other mutual support, and share a passion for knowledge and healing.
Perhaps God is calling me to a mental health ministry. If so, then the lessons of love and compassion I have received over the years, my personal experiences as one with mental illness, and my professional history as a psychotherapist should equip me to equip others.