Last Friday the evangelical ministry world was shaken by heartbreaking national news that a pastor had committed suicide. As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, 30-year-old Andrew Stoecklein — Lead Pastor for Inland Hills Church in Chino, California — took his own life after a dark and painful battle with depression and anxiety. According to reports, he was rushed to the hospital on Friday, August 25 when his suicide attempt failed. He was then immediately placed on life support while his church held a prayer vigil. Tragically, Stoecklein would pass away that same night. His wife, Kayla, shared the news on her Instagram account.
Unlike most pastors, Stoecklein, who had just returned from a four-month sabbatical, was open and transparent about his depression and mental health issues, and — ironically enough — was even teaching through a sermon series titled “Hot Mess,” in which he discussed some of his own personal “messes.” Moreover, he was undergoing psychiatric counseling for his depression and anxiety, a step which most pastors refuse to take as they believe it may be perceived as a sign of weakness (a common shortcoming among men in general.)
Nevertheless, despite all of the well-intentioned honesty and counseling, Andrew’s life was still cut tragically short. And he’s not alone. Last December, Pastor Bill Lenz of Christ The Rock Community Church in Wisconsin took his own life after a months-long war with depression. Wayne Oglesby of Texas — a pastor’s son who “followed in his father’s footsteps” — succumbed to discouragement and “emotional breakdowns” and eventually, on March 4, 2010, ended his life, leaving behind his grief-stricken wife, children, grandchildren and congregation. According to LifeWay Research statistics from 2015, roughly “one-third of pastors admit to battling discouragement (34 percent) or depression/the fear of inadequacy (35 percent) on a regular basis.” Also, “about a quarter say they’ve experienced some type of mental illness themselves (23 percent)” and “12 percent have been [officially] diagnosed with a mental health condition.”
Obviously the numbers speak for themselves. Although I never knew Pastor Andrew personally, my heart breaks beyond words for his family, his friends and his church. I cannot imagine the grief and loss they are enduring. All that I can do is pray for them. And yet, as a pastor’s son myself, I feel compelled to humbly offer what little insight and first-hand perspective I have. With that in mind, here is some of what I think you should know:
1) 21st Century ministry is no longer what it once was.
In addition to enduring a barrage of personal trials and tribulations and receiving an onslaught of criticism, the average pastor in today’s culture must simultaneously juggle hundreds of responsibilities and tasks that did not even exist just 20 or 30 years ago. This isn’t to say that these things are not necessary or important. But, they do add to the stress and strain of pastorship. There was once a time when pastors were expected to do little more than “preach, marry and bury.” These days have long since passed. Today they’re expected to:
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, folks. So, are we really surprised to discover that some pastors struggle with discouragement, stress, anxiety and exhaustion? Of course they do. They’re people too. I imagine they often feel much like Paul who — after suffering a surge of physical persecution and torture — said that “Besides those external things, there is the daily [inescapable] pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:24-28) Later, he even compares ministry work to the pains of childbirth when he says, “My little children, for whom I am again in [the pains of] labor until Christ is [completely and permanently] formed within you…” (Galatians 4:19, see also NKJV — “labor in birth”)
2) Pastors should have an accountability partner and/or close friend to whom they can vent about church life and ministry.
The importance of this simply cannot be overstated. Personally, I know that my own father would either go clinically insane or explode if he did not have his weekly lunch and breakfast sessions with his two best friends, both of whom have ministry experience themselves and can therefore understand, relate to, and empathize with his experiences.
3) Any pastor diagnosed with a mental health disorder should resign, no matter the size of his church or ministry.
Pastors, listen: I don’t care if you’re leading a church of 40 people or 40,000. If you’re struggling with serious psychological and emotional health disorders (which seems to have unfortunately been the case for Andrew Stoecklein), the best thing that you can do for yourself and your flock is to step down from your position and then seek professional help, guidance and counsel if you are not already doing so. There is no shame or embarrassment in this. In fact, you owe it to them, to yourself and — most importantly — to God to be honest and to take ministry seriously enough to resign. Rest in the assurance that Christ is more than capable of caring for your flock and bringing in a qualified shepherd.
And pastoral ministry is indeed to be taken seriously. It is not for the faint of heart, nor for the one who cannot endure the mental, emotional and spiritual pressures. The author of Hebrews says that spiritual leaders literally “keep watch over your souls” and “guard your spiritual welfare as those who will give an account [of their stewardship of you.]” (Hebrews 13:17) That is a colossal and solemn responsibility.
4) Pastors are not invincible.
The reality that Paul understood well — and I fear too many young pastors do not — is that he was breakable and weak. Paul knew he was not invincible. Pastors experience the same full circle of human emotions that we all do — including doubt, disillusionment, discouragement, and anxiety — and yet they often ignore them under the assumption that God will handle these issues because they are so busy doing His work. While it is certainly true that “God’s grace is sufficient” and that His “strength is made perfect in weakness,” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10) pastors should simultaneously care for, monitor and tend to their own psychological wellbeing the same as anyone else. Moreover, congregants should regularly encourage and pray for their pastors.
I can promise you — from firsthand experience — that there is a whole world of pastoral tribulation which occurs behind-the-scenes, far away from Sunday and Wednesday activities. This world is rarely spoken of, especially by pastors themselves. But, it is real and The Enemy lurks there. Be on guard and, most importantly, be ready to support and defend your pastor when the attacks come.
It is burdensome and seemingly pointless to discuss what is at the core of the sexual abuse epidemic within the Catholic Church. Indeed tens of thousands of people have flocked to social media and the airwaves to opine on why this scandal has happened — before taking the time to read the facts, do some historical research, or even meditate and pray. As you know, this sort of nonsensical behavior has simply become standard protocol in our society these days. No one listens to rationality, reasoning, evidence or biblical truth. They simply spew a lot of inane ideas and worthless conjectures before moving on to the next soap opera. Thus a meaningful conversation becomes nearly impossible and all the more frustrating to implement.
However, the need for a coherent discussion is nonetheless necessary and critical, particularly as this scandal has resulted in so much brutal scrutiny of believers and criticism of the Catholic faith.
In the midst of the cacophony, I’ve noticed a rather disturbing theory that appears to be the most common, even among people who profess to be “believers” within other denominations. One Facebook user summarized it like this: “Well, if only Catholic priests were allowed to marry, this sort of thing wouldn’t be happening.”
Yes, that’s the overwhelmingly brilliant answer from most of America on how to solve the problem of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church: Just let those poor, pitiful priests get married. Then they wouldn’t have to go around raping little boys and girls. Never mind that Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison recently published a letter in which he openly admitted that there is undeniably “a homosexual subculture within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that is wreaking great devastation in the vineyard of the Lord.”
Never mind that this report from Catholic News Agency reveals an unbridled, unchecked and prevalent gay culture within the Archdiocese of Newark. As you’re probably aware by now, this is where the homosexual predator priest Cardinal McCarrick served for quite a while.
Never mind that one report documented a priest who raped a girl and subsequently forced her to get an abortion.
Never mind that another report documented a priest who made a hospital visit for a little girl who was having her tonsils removed and instead raped her while he was there.
Oh, and never mind that the current Archbishop of Newark — Cardinal Tobin — once vehemently advocated for an “LGBT pilgrimage and Mass.”
Obviously the problem here is not that these Catholic priests were expected to adhere to celibacy requirements, but that they intentionally and knowingly chose perversion instead of righteous living. They chose the "practices of the sinful nature" which are "clearly evident" as "sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality (total irresponsibility, lack of self-control)..." (Galatians 5:19-21) In fact, the Apostle Paul himself boldly declares that “it would be better for [them] to marry” than to “burn with passion" (1 Corinthians 7:1-9), although it should simultaneously be noted that marriage itself certainly does not solve the moral dilemma of sexual depravity, lusts and temptations. Marriage is not a magical cure. One can still be married and struggle with tendencies toward homosexuality, pedophilia or any number of other sexual sins. And, I think it goes without saying that molesting little kids or living a gay lifestyle certainly qualify. Not to mention that the mere act of intentionally causing a child to stumble and be involved in such sin is worthy of being drowned in the ocean with a millstone around your neck. (Matthew 18:1-6) The ultimate cure, of course, is confession of one's sins (1 John 1:9), true repentance (Acts 3:19), and a daily walk with Christ.
And if getting married means that you can no longer be a Catholic priest, then so be it. Hang up your robe and throw away your collar. Pray and seek God’s will for the next chapter of your life. At least your conscience and soul will be clear before your Creator. Better to walk in the Truth and the Light than to risk forfeiting your soul to the eternal fires of Hell. Indeed, there is actually nothing unbiblical about being a pastor/priest and simultaneously being married. However, there is something unbiblical and immoral about sexual sins like pedophilia and homosexuality. That much is clear and inarguable.
It’s also worth noting that God often calls many Christian men and women alike — of various denominational beliefs — to a life of “singleness” for His divine purposes (Matthew 19:9-12) and yet the vast majority of these folks don’t wind up in the news for sexual abuse crimes. The reasons for a life of celibacy, singleness or sexual abstinence often differ widely in scope. Not everyone who adheres to such a life is doing so because he or she is in a ministry leadership position (although that could be the case for some.) There are also countless individuals — believers and unbelievers — who choose singleness in order to more actively focus on their careers; or out of fear of making the same mistakes their parents made; or because they feel safer when they’re single than in a relationship; or any number of other sound psychological, emotional or biblical reasons.
So, could it be that this priestly sexual abuse crisis actually has far more to do with perversion, debauchery, wickedness, satanic evil and sin than it does with any sort of Catholic celibacy requirement? Could it possibly be that “man’s heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Could it be that these men made active choices of their own volition to give into sexual temptation and perversion; to give into their sin natures?
Could it be that “the celibacy requirement” is nothing more than a theological scapegoat upon which so many people seem to be blaming this horrific tragedy so that they don’t have to confront the real problem? Perhaps — just maybe — the notion of confronting sexual sin makes us uncomfortable because we know it’s not just a problem within “the Church.” It’s a problem within society. It’s a problem within our culture. And it’s a problem within our own hearts.
Perhaps that’s why we are so squeamish about it.
And yet, it is all the more reason why we should confront and combat it.
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In the wake of Tuesday’s horrifying grand jury report on the sexual abuse epidemic within the Catholic Church, it has become increasingly clear that there needs to be a deep and serious process of expulsion among the global Catholic priesthood. That process needs to begin right now. There is no time to waste. There is no reason to delay it. There are no excuses to justify what has happened.
The document names over 300 predator priests, over 1,000 identifiable victims, and details an endless amount of brutally grotesque and shocking cases spanning a period of 70 years, some of which involve ruthless sexual assault, rape and even multiple abuses by the same priests within the same church. In one instance, a priest forced a little boy to pose naked and mimic the crucifix position of Christ. Fellow ministers took photographs of the boy, which were later printed and distributed on campus as child pornography.
Another report documents a priest who demanded that a little boy perform oral sex on him. Afterwards, he rinsed the boy’s mouth with holy water.
Another report documents the case of a young girl who was raped by a priest and subsequently forced to get an abortion.
Another report documents a victim who was “tied up and whipped with leather straps” by a priest.
Another report documents a priest who visited a young girl in the hospital because she was having her tonsils removed. He decided to rape her while he was there.
I could go on for the next three days listing additional cases, but I have neither the time nor the stomach to do so. As equally disturbing as the abuse is the fact that much of it was made opportunistically possible by the head bishops who — for whatever deranged reasons — chose to look the other way, rather than address the sin and evil in their midst. This is nothing short of Satanically wicked and, as far as I’m concerned, places them in the same league as those priests whose crimes they are guilty of attempting to hide. As I mentioned on Facebook recently, there is indeed grace and forgiveness under the cross for these men, but they should no longer be allowed to wear the collar or serve within ministry capacities. In fact, they should be publicly named, charged and criminally prosecuted. Lock them all in prison forever. Sin has consequences and justice must still be served. (And I suspect it will be, whether here on Earth or in the realms of Eternity.) Moreover, the truly faithful and honest priests who do remain (and, yes, they are out there) should be preaching sermons that denounce the depraved and fallen state of our culture.
With all of that being said, I think it is important for us as believers to step back, take a deep breath, and reflect upon a particularly relevant and important reality during this overwhelming controversy: Our leaders, pastors and priests will inevitably fail us in some way. This goes for every industry and every religious denomination, especially considering that the so-called “sexual abuse epidemic” is not limited only to the Catholic Church. Indeed, many folks in the Protestant Christian demographic would argue that it’s actually worse within their denomination. There have also been several reported cases among Buddhists and Muslims. Even the Jewish community has battled childhood sexual abuse according to a recent study by Science Direct.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying every pastor or priest will fall into sexual immorality. Obviously the vast majority of them — across denominations on the national level — have not done so. What I am saying is that there is no such thing as a perfect pastor or perfect priest. They do not exist. We would do well to keep this in mind. As the son of a pastor, I speak with some credibility here. Trust me. They will screw up. They will make mistakes. They will have leadership blunders. They will forget to attend funerals or weddings. They will say things they will later regret. They will unintentionally offend someone. After all, they’re human beings like the rest of us. (Romans 3:23) And any pastor worth his salt will readily admit this.
Instances of sexual abuse, however, are quite different. God Himself had stern words for shepherds who intentionally inflict sin and immorality upon their own sheep. (Ezekiel 34:2-10) Thankfully, as Christians and church congregants, we do not place our hope or confidence in our pastors. We place our hope in the true High Priest, the “great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God…” (Hebrews 4:14) Why do we do this? Well, because He is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” and “has been tempted in all things as we are, yet is without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) He is perfect. We are not. He leads. We follow. He understands our needs and trials when no one else can.
Let the media coverage explosion of the Catholic Church scandal be a lesson to pastors and priests everywhere: You have a Divine Calling on your life to nurture, shepherd and guide your flock. This is not to be taken lightly. It is not a responsibility to be shouldered carelessly. Every word you speak matters. Every action you take is critical. Every eye in your congregation is on you — perhaps now more than ever.
But, at the same time, you are not perfect. Try as you might, you will still struggle. You will occasionally let your flock down. When you do, Christ will be there to pick them up. And, in His immeasurable grace and love, He will pick you up too. You may fail them, but He never will.
Seasons of waiting can be excruciating. The other day I was chatting with a close friend who’s going through a difficult pregnancy. Although she and her husband are thrilled about becoming first-time parents, my friend is battling through a series of torturous health issues. Some of them are related to the pregnancy, some of them are not. Some of them are medication side effects. Some of the additional health issues have occurred at the most random and inconvenient intervals within the last couple of days, which is only compounding the stress and agony of waiting on this little pain in the butt — er, I mean — little bundle of joy to arrive in November. Indeed if it weren’t for the seriousness of the situation, it would almost seem satirical or unrealistic at this point. In a recent text message exchange, I even said, “You just can’t catch a break.” Undoubtedly the next several months will seem to like a hellish eternity at times. And even after the birth, many physical trials and challenges will likely still remain.
In praying for my friend as she awaits the birth of her first child, I found myself reflecting on the mysterious, perplexing and often utterly infuriating concept of “waiting.” Naturally, it is most difficult to wait when we cannot see or predict the likely outcome or, particularly, when we are in pain during the season of waiting itself. This pain could be physical, mental, emotional or even spiritual. It could even be all of these combined. Regardless, it would obviously be much easier to wait if we were at least promised some sort of positive outcome at the end.
Your baby will be beautiful and healthy and you will recover well.
Your family will come out stronger on the other side of this horrible divorce.
Your career ambitions and endeavors will flourish after you graduate.
Your church will have an amazing explosion of growth and record attendance numbers by this time next year.
Your prodigal child will come home one day.
The surgery will be a success.
You’ll eventually meet your soulmate and live happily ever after.
If only God could throw these specific promises out to us as anchors in the midst of life’s tumultuous storms, perhaps then we would at least feel the overwhelming reassurance of tranquility and peace while we “wait.” Perhaps then we wouldn’t find ourselves begging for just the slightest bit of affirmation; just the smallest bit of scraps from the Table of Divine Comfort & Security.
But, as you know, God is not in the business of doling out inspirational quotes that read more like motivational speech titles than biblical truths. So, although you’re trying to keep your head above water, you probably feel like you’re drowning. You probably identify with the psalmist David: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart all the day? How long will my enemy be exalted over me?” (Psalm 13:1-2) Not exactly the sort of wording or phraseology you seek to find on one of those cheesy motivational posters at Walmart.
I’ve grappled with this verse off and on for many years, particularly since my childhood Epilepsy returned in 2009 after being dormant for almost two decades. Of course, the “enemy” could be anything from sickness and pain to job searches or broken relationships. And as we are in the heat of the battle — and in the season of waiting — we desperately want to know ‘how long?' “How long must I wait?”
In answering this question, I have no great theological wisdom or exegetical interpretations with which to impress you, nor would I even do so if I did possess such attributes and abilities. There are many pastors, teachers, biblical scholars, and authors who can accomplish this far better than I can. (And some who do so and still wind up saying nothing of value.) Moreover, I do not even have the answer for your specific timetable or season of waiting. There is only One who does, and I shall leave that up to Him. What I do have is a personal Journey of Waiting — one which I am still in the midst of — that has taught me to embrace the incredible rewards and joys of simply waiting, as painful and uncertain as the process itself may be at times, and to anticipate whatever God may have on the horizon.
To further illustrate this beyond David, I turn to the all-too-familiar account of the prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament (the original pessimist who actually turned out to be a realist because God really did allow the city of Jerusalem to fall to an invader, despite what the false prophets of his day were saying.) If there’s anyone who understands the painful process of waiting, it’s Jeremiah. He’s often referred to as “the weeping prophet,” and who could blame him? After all, the poor guy witnessed exorbitant amounts of sin, wickedness and debauchery among his people, as well as famine and starvation, the likes of which even compelled “the hands of compassionate women” to “boil their own children” so that they “became food for them.” (Lamentations 4:10)
But, Jeremiah also exhibited great determination, persistence and patience. For over 40 years he continued to preach his repetitive and socially-unaccepted message of warnings and repentance to a sinful people who refused to turn back to God. In short, Jeremiah waited. He could have left. He could have walked away. He could have given up altogether. Instead, he remained unflinchingly still, right where God wanted him. Can you imagine investing over four decades of your time, passion, zeal and energy into generating a desired outcome only to never see it come to fruition? That seems like a lot of futile effort and pointless waiting. Most of us can hardly commit to a Netflix account or smartphone brandname for six months.
The more I study and meditate on “Biblical Waiters” like David and Jeremiah — and reflect upon my own life and circumstances — the more I see an incredible Truth: These men didn’t place their hope in what God may or may not do for them specifically. They just trusted in God. Period. Why? Because they knew the character and heart of God. And that was enough. Did they still struggle with their faith and wallow in misery and impatience at times? Absolutely. (Jeremiah 12:5 ) They were human beings. Nevertheless, they were willing to follow God and take risks for Him. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that says a lot.
And, in the kingdom of God, waiting often has beautiful rewards and benefits. David would go down in history as a man after God’s own heart. Jeremiah would become the human manifestation and subsequent representation of God’s mercy, grace and restraint. When we wait, we learn to develop patience. God sharpens us, refines us, and builds our character. He prepares us for the plans that He has for us. Waiting forces us to stop, be still, and spend intimate time with Him. Then we can become ever more dependent upon Him, which only leads to deeper growth, connection and more abundant joy. Talk about rewards.
I’ve come to see my season of waiting quite differently now. I no longer view it through a lens of inconvenience and frustration, but through a lens of opportunity, possibility and hope. This isn’t because I’m an optimist or because I’m clinging to some grand and glorious vision from God. It’s because I’m clinging to Him. Just Him. In the end, that’s all I really have to do. It’s all I need to do. He knows what my future holds. He has my best interests at heart. He provides my daily needs. That’s enough for me.
It’s all about growing and developing during the process of waiting. Even that can be an unexpected and joyful reward (not to mention an exciting adventure.)
Are you in a season of waiting? My challenge to you would be to remember that there are rewards to be found during this time — the most incredible and valuable of which is the opportunity to cling to God rather than cling to whatever particular desired outcome you were seeking. Slow down, take a deep breath and allow God to handle the outcome. He has the eternal perspective in mind. And that outcome will be so much better and healthier than anything we could have imagined or created for ourselves. Remember that waiting isn’t just about surviving and making it to the end of the journey, it’s also about growing and developing one’s character along the way.
Jeremiah and David learned this well. Will you?