A Pastor With a Past Hoefs Giving Hope for the Future 12/25/18 12/26/18 10:49:38 AM
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Pastor Brad Hoefs founded Fresh Hope for Mental Health, an organization
that offers mental health services for people in jail, homeless shelters or hospitals. (Courtesy photo)
A Pastor With a Past
Hoefs Giving Hope for the Future
By Andy Roberts
The Daily Record
Salvation and hope are two of the greatest gifts to receive any time of year, but especially during the holiday season. Often, they come from a time and place where no one would imagine.
Such is the case for one Omaha-area clergyman.
From the offices of his Elkhorn church, Brad Hoefs can claim to be many things.
He is a Lutheran minister, a husband of 39 years, a father, a grandfather and a mental health peer support
counselor. He also lives with a bipolar disorder.
Marked by rapid shifts in mood, it is estimated that roughly 2 million Americans – or a number roughly equal to the entire population of Nebraska – face this challenge on daily basis. About one in four Americans suffers from a diagnosable mental illness in any given year. Of course, there is help, and that is what Pastor Brad Hoefs brings to those he serves.
It wasn’t something he always realized, and that realization came at a price.
The Wisner native moved to Omaha in 1985 as associate pastor for King of Kings Lutheran Church. Three years later, he was senior pastor of one of the nation’s fastest growing congregations. In 1995, as the church was moving to a bigger facility, it all fell apart during a major bipolar episode.
“Of course, it’s stress that sets it off,” Hoefs said.
Seeking relief from stress, he used to drive the hills on the edges of Omaha, sticking his foot out the door or window and using the mania to address his condition.
“Driving like a maniac, that was one of them,” he spoke of his releases.
Hoefs also would hear of a shooting on the radio and drive to the neighborhood where the violence
had just taken place for the thrill of it.
That was troubling enough. But then came the night when he was ticketed for lewd conduct at Lake Cunningham Park. Hoefs remembers the incident differently than it was reported and only recalls stopping to urinate on the sidewall of one of the outhouses because someone was in the doorway. Still, he was accused of doing something else by an undercover police officer who approached him.
“The bottom line was it made the newspaper and was in the newspaper for like a year and a half and it was extremely painful,” he said. The incident led to his departure from King of Kings.
The ticket was, in some ways, nothing more than a $50 fine, but: “It crashed my world.”
He was found guilty but won on appeal, deciding to pay the fine and move on. Hoefs doesn’t use mental illness as an excuse but sees it as the reason for what happened.
He was treated as an outpatient for bipolar disorder, something that ran in his family. It came as news, but was not terribly surprising, and he moved on.
“God can give you second chances and new beginnings,” Hoefs said. A group of people who supported him helped him start the new church – Community of Grace Lutheran Church in Elkhorn – because they didn’t feel what he had done was a sin.
For the better part of two years he focused on working to get better.
“They wanted me to be their pastor,” he said. “I’m still their pastor today.”
A second episode in 2002, similar to the 1995 incident, led him to seek additional help and eventually form a support group.
“I’m not a pastor that doesn’t have a past,” he said.
Working with his doctor, Michael Egger, Hoefs was encouraged to start his own group. While in other groups, he often found people living hopelessly with their diagnosis, this one would be faith-based. He and Egger agreed that the ultimate, and sure, hope in this world comes from the Lord.
Fresh Hope for Mental Health was born in 2009. Four years later, Hoefs released his first book, Fresh Hope: Living Well in Spite of a Mental Health Diagnosis. A second book is in the works as today Fresh Hope has chapters in 64 countries and he has the No. 1 Christian mental health podcast on iTunes.
Community of Grace Lutheran Church is moving as the church and Fresh Hope soon will have separate spaces. Hoefs will devote the majority of his energy to the mental health work beginning in January while remaining in a part-time role at the church.
Stating it in the most simple terms, Fresh Hope for Mental Health is a faith-based approach to mental health services. To say Hoefs is passionate about mental health and his belief that there can be a good life for those dealing with a diagnosis is to make a drastic understatement.
Faith and hope are the two pillars of that belief.
“When you’re going through difficult times, for the Christian, we know who wins,” Hoefs emphasized.
He has seen research that shows people who have faith get better sooner and stay better longer.
Hoefs has taken this ministry to the Douglas County Jail, where people are badly in need of hope in a facility that often has been referred to as one of the state’s largest mental health facilities. The last two years he has been teaching a 17-week curriculum at the jail and hopes to pilot a program called “Hope Navigators.”
“It’s very hard to find funding for new things,” he said, but it is his hope to take people beyond certification
as peer supporters to become hope navigators.
Those individuals would serve people leaving jail, homeless shelters or hospitals by helping them find services to maintain their treatment and not just setting them loose on the streets.
“You’re going to get them an appointment before they even get out of jail,” Hoefs said of the plan.
Still, the needs of too many with a mental health diagnosis remain unmet and the resources are inadequate with far too few beds available for inpatient treatment. “We’ve got to have walk-in clinics or walk-in mental health services,” Hoefs said. While some ministers have taken their programs to the street, Hoefs is working in the jail and in homeless shelters.
Pastor Brad Hoefs and his wife, Donna. (Courtesy Photo)
He hopes to add a navigator to his program at The Open Door Mission to help those like a stressed-out mother who is hospitalized but can’t get a follow-up appointment for weeks.
“How does she even navigate?” Hoefs asked.
Drug use, far too common among those with a mental health issue, only makes the situation worse in most cases, he said.
“To me, people that are using drugs, are medicating their own mental health pain,” Hoefs said. Other addictions – sex or alcohol – are to cover up pain and trauma.
There is a need for more providers and increased funding to cover the costs of treatment that many who suffer simply cannot afford. The system, which frequently puts people who are suffering together, often only serves to make things worse. Equally, if not more important, he said, is the need for people to understand that mental illness is real.
In the Christian community Hoefs tells people to stop spiritualizing mental health problems.
“Our bodies malfunction,” he said. “Mental illness is physiological.
It’s a chemical issue.”
People are not using mental health issues as an excuse for their behaviors, he stressed, and the need for help is real.
“There is no such thing as ‘Pull up your bootstraps, suck it up Buttercup,’” Hoefs said. “We’ve got to stop simplifying it.”
Medicine is just the start of the treatment, he said. A person who is suffering also needs to change what they think and what they do, but it can be done.
“You can actually be in charge of your own mental health and get better,” Hoefs said.
The rest of us have a role to play as well in addressing this concern. Hoefs offered education, understanding
and even taking a mental health first aid class at work as first steps.
But really, an individual who wants to help others can do a lot without training.
“One of the very simple things we can do is provide a listening ear to somebody,” he said. “But to do it without judgement.
“The thing all of us need is that friend who will listen, and who does it without judgement.”
Faith, and hope, saved Hoefs and turned his life around. As a result, he now offers a very simple message
to people living with a diagnosed mental health condition.
“You can live a full, faith-filled life despite having a mental health challenge,” he said. “It’s possible to live well.”
And that is hope – a most extraordinary gift.