church window and cross
Author Leif Gregersen hasn't always had a warm welcome at a Pentecostal church he attended. (Stock photo: Daniel Tseng/Unsplash)

Topics: Spirituality | Opinion

A pastor’s attitude showed me that not all clergy empathize with mental illness

I longed for belonging and respect, but the church I attended didn't always offer it


“Hello Pastor Mike?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

“Pastor Mike, this is Leif Gregersen. I’m in the hospital.”

“Which hospital?”

“I’m in the Grey Nuns, on the psychiatric ward.”

“Well, there’s nothing I can do for you.”

“Can’t you just ask someone to come and visit me?”

“Whose fault is it you’re in there?”

The conversation ended there. As a person with a mental illness, I had come to cling to the idea that people in authority understood mental illness and would empathize. I had thought that ministers believed in love for all of God’s children. But my pastor didn’t see mental illness that way and he didn’t understand mine was a genetic illness, triggered by trauma, not something caused by drug or alcohol abuse. Schizophrenia had run in my family for generations, as did bipolar disorder. A tormented existence and way too much stress for one young person to handle set off the illness. I hate to think Pastor Mike considered my illness as something I deserved.

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It was a strange series of events that had led me to calling my youth pastor that day. I first showed signs of severe mental illness at 18. There was a string of hospitalizations, repetitions of being put on medications and improving and then discontinuing them and becoming ill.

I had hoped it would end at age 20 when I accepted my illness and my treatment. I returned to Edmonton from Vancouver to find a doctor, reconcile with my family, and finish school. One day, I wandered into the Pentecostal church near my apartment and experienced the beauty of being around people who wanted to know and worship an all-loving, all-knowing creator. When I called the youth pastor from the church I was attending, I was in the hospital because I had stopped taking one of my medications, not knowing it would make me ill again.

Leif Gregersen headshot
Author Leif Gregersen didn’t always feel welcome at a Pentecostal church in Edmonton as he dealt with mental illness. (Courtesy photo)

Before that, living alone with few resources or contacts, I longed for what I saw as belonging and respect. I went to a few Catholic masses but didn’t understand them. But I loved the beauty of the buildings, lighting candles and the reverence the people had.

I ended up attending the Pentecostal church for eight years. Pastor Mike, the youth pastor, eventually moved on to bigger and better things. I always had the sense that the pastors in the Pentecostal Church were more worried about their careers and their income than truly serving God.

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It bothered me a lot that even after eight years, I was never fully considered Christian. Some mocked my unemployment. Others mocked my poverty and isolation. Some faulted my parents. And then, a Pentecostal minister ran for prime minister spouting conversion therapy and his belief that dinosaurs walked the earth with early man and nearly won. I was done. I found a new youth group with people who seemed to understand Jesus better than anyone. I rediscovered Catholicism.

Now, years later, I am not Catholic. But I have a small, solid faith in a loving higher power. I look for much gentler messages from him or her. Like the time I remembered the phone number of a close friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years after a Catholic mass, and we reunited. Or when I was on vacation and finally reconnected with an old church friend, now a United Church pastor and his wife. Both the pastor and his wife had been true friends in the Pentecostal church and it was almost a completion of my spiritual journey to see them again and understand that we still respected and cared for each other. I was able to witness their faith, their hard work, and their love. We were able to laugh and joke about old times and it renewed me. For once, I didn’t see those eight years as wasted.


Leif Gregersen is a writer in Edmonton.

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  • says:

    Iam a retired Pastor but I AM NOT A DOCTOR. I have extensive training in counseling but I AM NOT A DOCTOR.


    Years ago my son, who tipped into Schizophrenia & has an IQ of 200 plus according to his psychiatrist, sent 3000 letters to ministers of the United church warning them of the evil that is spreading thru our society; HE WAS RIGHT as seen clearly in the growth of gun violence in Canada. SIX, only SIX pastors wrote back in sympathy & offer of help to me. 2994 either wrote angry letters, called the police, or saw the letter as threatening; the RCMP officer who phoned me from Sask. said that the letter was not threatening when I asked. The above is an accurate history & I suspect that nothing has changed as that letter obviously went to leadership in the U.C. in the various Provinces.

    In my experience the Administration of the U.C. have always backed
    preferred to NOT challenge the Church congregation. The pages devoted to Pastor/Church relations reflects this as many more pages are devoted to the conduct of the Pastor than to the conduct of the Congregation. This past summer a church did not receive any help from"Presbytery", now called something else, when they had difficulties around their Pastor & a young person on trial as he entered the U.C. ministry.

    Action by the leadership of the various denominations is required but we prefer to bumble along rather than expect honesty & good faith to guide relationships. Like Education- solve the problem by shipping one person to another pastorate- God really is dead.