Therapy and Prayer

A former pastor seeks to address a topic long considered taboo in churches

Therapy and Prayer
Jake Thomas
Wayne Deibel used to be a pastor with an undiagnosed mental illness. Now he's helped to form a faith-based support group where people can share their common experiences and recovery.

Wayne Deibel stands in the kitchen in north Spokane's Lidgerwood Presbyterian Church, in front of about a dozen people who drove through ice and snow for a meal of chili and cornbread, and to discuss a common problem that's frequently left undiscussed in places like this.

As Deibel speaks, his expression brims with enthusiasm. His eyes light up. He gestures emphatically. He speaks with the urgency of a pastor giving a sermon. That's because he used to be one. Tonight, in a way, he's reprising that role.

"We all know people who have mental illness, and you don't have to go very far to find them," he says.

Everyone here tonight is part of Fresh Hope, a support group for people who've been diagnosed with a mental illness, as well as their loved ones. This group seeks to incorporate people's spiritual lives in their recovery while broaching the topic of mental health with churches, which have long been unsure of how to address it. In 2014, a survey from LifeWay Research, a company that polls church leaders, found that 66 percent of pastors rarely or never talk about mental illness, and only a quarter of churches have a plan to assist families affected by mental illness.

"But you've got to figure these things out," says Deibel. "We need a place for our brains and our hearts."

These days, Deibel sells insurance out of his Spokane office. Previously, the self-described "people person" spent 25 years as a pastor in Presbyterian churches in Cleveland and parts of California before an undiagnosed bipolar disorder helped to end his last job in St. Louis.

During this time, he was grappling with bipolar disorder, a mental illness marked by periods of high energy and joyful, manic intensity followed by depressive episodes.

Deibel, 55, recalls how he'd wake up suddenly at 3 am as if a rock band had set up next to his bed and just turned on their amplifiers.

"There's no way I was going back to sleep. My mind was like, boom!" he recalls. "I used to say I don't go to bars, I go to Kinko's."

One morning at 3, he awoke with a lyric from a Larry Norman song blaring in his head: "Without love, you ain't nothing without love." He drove to Kinko's and began printing photocopied papers that he assembled into a 8-by-10-foot mural with bright, psychedelic colors featuring the lyric. "I didn't know what I wanted it to be," he says. "I just wanted to do something and I kept going and I taped it to newsprint." He posted it in his house. His family and visitors weren't sure what to make of it.

Other times, his mind would be racing with some idea that he just had to share with a friend.

"I would get phone calls from Wayne, sometimes in the middle of the night," says Keith Beebe, a longtime friend of Deibel who chairs Whitworth University's theology department. "And he would not be aware it was 2 in the morning or 4 in the morning."

Another time, he remembers coming to his church in Cleveland early, printing out pictures of congregation members and pinning them to the wall, along with Bible quotes, in the head pastor's office. Deibel used yarn to represent connections that he thought the church should be making. His head pastor didn't appreciate it.

"He said, 'I'm going to come back in 45 minutes and you need to take this down,'" Deibel recalls.

In the 1990s, he returned to California with his family, where he helped set up a new church in the Clovis area. Betty Braddy, who worked on new church development for the Presbyterian Church, remembers Deibel being an energetic pastor who incorporated his love for music into the church's services. She also remembers times when his condition manifested. He would make brash decisions, such as deciding to move the church to a permanent location without consulting church committees.

The church fell apart after its permanent locations kept falling through. Deibel took his family to St. Louis for another pastoring job. There, he says, he clashed with its other leaders over the church's direction, which was made worse by his untreated condition. "My mental health definitely ended that job," says Deibel.

His condition also affected his family life: "There were times when I would get angry, and I would go to hotel for a night, because I knew with that type of mania you're just frustrated." In depressive episodes, he was unable to get out of bed, but would get up for Sunday services.

At age 45, Deibel saw a psychiatrist to get help with his sleep problems, leading to the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. He sees a counselor and is on medications, but says he still struggles with noisy sporting events or even large family gatherings. Now he's finishing up a book that he hopes will start a conversation with churches about mental health.

"You gotta have both [therapy and prayer]," he says. "Otherwise the church is just propagating the stigma. I think the church is making the progress, but it's slow progress. In our society it's slow progress." ♦