Bishop Conley Discusses Extended Sabbatical for Mental Health

Over the 11-month sabbatical, Bishop Conley attended sessions with a Catholic psychotherapist, his spiritual director, a CMA psychologist, and a medical doctor.

Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska in St. Peter's Square, a day before the Canonization Mass of St. John Henry Newman, Oct. 12, 2019.
Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska in St. Peter's Square, a day before the Canonization Mass of St. John Henry Newman, Oct. 12, 2019. (photo: Daniel Ibanez / CNA/EWTN)

LINCOLN, Neb. — Following a nearly year-long sabbatical to attend to his mental health, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln explained his experience with depression, seeking help, and his return to his duties as a bishop.

According to Prime Matters, the bishop discussed engagement with mental health in a Zoom interview with Dr. James Link, a Catholic psychologist based in North Dakota.

Link said it is a difficult moment for a person to realize when they require external help with mental health and began the conversation asking the bishop when he decided the time was right to tackle depression.

“What was the pivotal moment where you felt, ‘This is more than I can manage?’ he asked.

Bishop Conley said the struggle did not happen all at once, and, instead, he spent about a year-and-a-half trying to soldier through this difficult time.

While his relationship with his family has always been strong and supportive, his father was a WWII veteran and a “self-made man,” he said noting that his sister and he were instilled with a can-do attitude. He said this is how he first encountered the struggle with mental health - “to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

As the McCarrick and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury scandals arose in 2018, he said a “sort of pall fell over the Church.” He then encountered local difficulties - having to remove some priests, undergo investigations into the diocese, close school parishes, and grieve the death of a young priest.

“Because I'm the bishop, I felt like I had to fix all these problems – I was praying, of course – but it was all wearing me down. I took all that pressure and stress upon myself,” he said.

“During the Second Vatican Council, when things were really uncertain in the Church and in the world, Pope St. John XXIII at night would pray, ‘Lord, it’s your Church, I’m going to bed!’ I would always advise people to do the same, but I wasn’t doing it myself. I wasn’t sleeping – and you can only go so long without sleeping. So I decided that I needed to find out what was going on.”

In March 2019, he was diagnosed with major depression disorder at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and soon began counseling and medication. However, he said, trying to pursue help on top of his episcopal duties only further deteriorated his mental state.

Finally, Bishop Conely discussed the problems with a familiar group of bishops: Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, and Bishop James Wall of Gallup. He was then convinced to take a break.

“We talked about it, and they convinced me to go talk to the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, who was present for the meeting. He was wonderful about it. I told him everything … and he said, ‘You need to take a break.’ He was very positive and supportive.”

“So it was really my closest friends – I mentioned some of them, and there was another priest I had talked to a lot – who encouraged me to seek professional help.”

Over the 11-month sabbatical, Bishop Conley attended sessions with a Catholic psychotherapist, his spiritual director, a CMA psychologist, and a medical doctor. Additionally, he said, he regularly engaged in exercise, such as golf and hikes, and social interactions with very close friends.

“[My friends] live in Phoenix, and I was at their home about three nights each week. Just sitting down at the table and having dinner with a great Catholic family was so therapeutic,” he said. 

“They have great, healthy kids and are very involved at Ville de Marie, a K-through-12 Catholic school that Luke’s parents helped to found. That kept me grounded, and I always looked forward to that,” he further added.

Since Bishop Conley returned to his office Nov. 13, 2020, the bishop has continued to pursue self-care practices and make changes in his life to maintain his mental health. He said, when he returned, there was a line out the front door of people with a to-do list.

He said he has been practicing saying “no” to more things and managing his time better. He said he is trying to keep office hours from 10 am to 3 pm so as not to over exhaust himself.

“Right now, I don’t have the energy that I had a couple of years ago. I can’t take on as much as I used to, nor do I want to take on as much as I used to,” he said.

“What this experience of mental illness has taught me is that life is too short to fill every day up from morning to night, even when we’re filling the day up with good things. So, really, finding the right balance – a healthy balance – is an art. I’m still working on the exercise piece.”

The bishop said it is important to be aware of the activities that drain his energy and the roles of a bishop that are life-giving and fulfilling. He said while administrative tasks like emails are tiresome, his spiritual commitment to the community provides him with energy.

“Yesterday, for instance, was a great day. We started Catholic Schools Week, and I went down to a K-12 school in Nebraska City. We had an all-school Mass with adoration and a Eucharistic procession. They managed to fit all the students in the gym, 6 feet apart, and for the procession I took the Blessed Sacrament to the door of each classroom. The students stayed in the room, but they all got down on their knees for the Blessed Sacrament. That was a very beautiful, life-giving event for me,” he said.

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