I used to joke about two endings that were possible as we endeavored to plant this church. In one scenario I would be curled up in a fetal position at the end of my bed after a failed attempt at planting a church. In the other scenario I would see myself standing before a church that did not exist before. I never thought that I would experience both those scenarios at the same time! On July 20th, 2015 I, Fr. Tony Bleything, entered Rogers Memorial Hospital’s residential treatment program for mental health and substance abuse.
You may be thinking; “Wait…what?” or, “Rehab, you were planting a church weren’t you?” This is where the fetal position scenario comes into play. One year after getting honest about my battles with my church leadership and others close to me my, I found myself right where I started, except a lot worse. It wasn’t the drinking really, though I did relapse two times over that year, it was my emotional health.
When I entered Rogers Memorial Hospital I was diagnosed as a severe depressive with a secondary anxiety disorder. In layman’s terms, burnt out. I was at Rogers for 40 days (crazy right?). Those 40 days of wilderness were the hardest thing my family has yet to face. It devastated my wife, my kids, my friends, and my church. By my second week at Rogers, I had to come to terms with the possibility of losing my marriage, my vocation, and my community all because of my actions. But, praise be to God, this is where the scenario of standing in front of a church that didn’t exist before comes in (Remember…I said that before).
From the very beginning of my, let’s call it a meltdown, my family and I were very transparent. Though I was not there the day my associate read a letter to the congregation written by my wife and I, it was relayed to me that it was very powerful service. Lots of prayers were said, lots of tears were shed, and people left hopeful. One parishioner said that the “Grace of God felt palpable.”
Through it all, my Bishop (The Right Rev. Dr. Todd Hunter) and my diocese (C4SO) were an incredible support system. The Diocese gave extra to our church to help my associate devote more time in my absence. They provided a priest with a Doctorate in Pyschology as my pastoral care person, and the made regular visits to come and see us throughout my time away. The most powerful thing to hear was; “You are the rector of this community, we want to help you get healthy and see you fully restored to the congregation.”
I did not return to the congregation in a full time capacity for six months so that I could take time to restore broken relationships with my family and my community. I celebrated Eucharist for the first time on Christmas eve of 2015. During my time away I had many one on one meetings with my parishioners. They were hard meetings, but good. Lots of tears were shed, many were able to freely express their anger, betrayal, frustration, and sadness they experienced because of my behavior. In the end, we experienced true reconciliation, mercy and grace because of these meetings.
Honestly, most church plants, if this happened, would shut their doors and call it quits. Christ Redeemer continued in my absence with a lot of help coming from people in the church. I have been honest with my past from the beginning and have often talked about my desire for people to experience a church that allows them to ‘fall apart in community’. I experienced exactly that reality. All my greatest fears were set before me (loss of family, vocation, community) and in the end, none were taken and they are stronger now because of this trauma.
I’m thankful for my relapse, I know that it was God doing for me what I was unable to do for myself. I never want to go through it again, and through prayer, the grace of God and healthier rhythms of work and rest…I won’t.
In one of the Apostle John’s Letters (the first to be exact) he writes; “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin”. Amen, right!
If you are around us at home, you will often here this; “You are my child, there is nothing you can say or do that will ever make me love you less”. Believe it friend.