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.