Where do we even begin to reflect upon the unexpected suicide of a pastor?
Pastors stand before the congregations that they serve every week as men and women whose faith is supposed to be unshakeable. Pastors preach about trusting God in every circumstance in life, they are invited to journey beside people who are struggling, they’re expected to be able to point people toward community resources that are available to people who struggle with anxiety and depression, and they’re expected to consistently put the needs of others before their own needs or the needs of their families. But what happens when it’s the pastor who’s overwhelmed and who is walking through a “dark place” that’s all-too-often marked with loneliness, isolation, heavy burdens, and little support?
Last week, Pastor Andrew Stoecklein decided to end his lonely journey through that “dark place” by leaving his wife, Kayla, and their three sons behind, and by voluntarily entrusting himself into the hands of the God that he believed, with all of his heart, would forgive him for deciding to end his own life. I can’t even begin to imagine what was going through Andrew’s mind in his last moments. Pain. Confusion. Regret. Anxiety. Depression. Hopelessness. I’m sure he had unfulfilled hopes and dreams. I’m sure that he had things that he had hoped to do with his wife and sons. And I’m just as sure that many people who knew Andrew were shocked by his decision to take his own life. But, maybe, we shouldn’t be at all surprised that Andrew made the choice that he did because many surveys indicate that pastors are struggling, right now, and issues of basic mental health and stability have become a central part of serving Christ.
Did you know that nearly half of all graduating seminarians will leave ordained ministry after serving the Church for less than five years; and that, many of those same newly-ordained pastors will never return to the Church or even walk through the doors of a church building again? Did you know that many new pastors are called to serve congregations that are not able to offer them the types of compensation that they need to both pay their bills and service financial debts they created while attending seminary? Did you know that many pastors struggle with the fact that their spouses have come to resent the Church’s never-ending demands, and that many pastors spend sleepless nights struggling with the fact that their children totally abandoned the Church because they have come to resent the many times they’ve been told that their needs must be set aside because of the “more important” needs of people in the Church? Many pastors are struggling with anxiety and depression as they continue to serve in a setting where it’s hard to find volunteers and adequate financial support to maintain healthy ministries and to create new ones. How do pastors continue to live their lives self-sacrificially in a rapidly-changing culture, even in the Church, that’s shifted away from Christ’s clear call to “take us your Cross”? (Luke 9:23) How can pastors and their families continue to thrive in an always-expecting and always-draining culture that is built upon constantly rising demands and the expectations of rampant consumerism?
The story of Andrew Stoecklein is very sad; but Andrew’s final decision and tragic end can serve as a wake-up call to the entire Church and to all who claim to be a part of Christ’s Body in the world. Many pastors who continue to faithfully serve the Church would admit they drink too much, and even more of them would tell you that they’re taking anti-depressants and medications to treat anxiety. Many would tell you that they’re traveling through the same “dark place” where Andrew walked; and they’d, also, tell you that they can’t share their journey with others because even people in the Church look at mental illnesses and emotional struggles as a character flaw, or as a sign of moral weakness in a Christian’s life. Many pastors would tell you that they have not been able to maintain lasting friendships; because, every time they’re called to serve a new congregation, they need to walk away from all of the friendships that they’ve built and begin at “square one” in a totally new community. Many pastors find themselves in a position where they can’t even draw upon the support of their colleagues because their colleagues are just as overwhelmed by the challenges and expectations of daily ministry that they are. And the money that pastors need for counseling isn’t always available either. It’s a recipe for disaster. It’s a situation that the Church, the Body of Christ, must find a way to address if it wants its leaders to remain healthy and effective in ministry.
So, where does the Church, the Body of Christ, go from here?
- We, sadly, can’t help Andrew Stoecklein at this point; but, we can, as Christ’s people in the world today, join hands with each other to offer care and support to Kayla and her three sons. Friends and family members are collecting money to help Andrew’s family; and, if you would like to help, you can CLICK HERE to join the many others who are offering their support and care. Why not do that, right now?
- We can also begin to address the many struggles and challenges that pastors and their families are facing by creating an atmosphere in our congregations where we acknowledge that those who struggle with mental illnesses, depression and anxiety are not weak and somehow lacking in faith. Mental illnesses and emotional struggles are a natural part of many people’s lives, and we need to more openly and compassionately accept that truth. Pastors aren’t exempt from the types of challenges that other people face. Pastors face times of emotional struggles and move through times of grief and pain in the same way other people do. We need to acknowledge that and allow pastors to step-down from the “pedestal of perfection” that we want them to occupy in our lives and in our churches.
- We can stand beside faithful pastors in the Church by insuring that they have adequate health insurance that includes coverage for mental health. Many churches are struggling to find ways to cut their budgets and reduce their spending. It’s tempting to reduce the pastor’s level of health insurance coverage to save money, or to expect the pastor to assume a larger part of the cost of coverage for him/herself and his/her family. However, when we consider doing that, we need to realize that expecting the pastor to assume a larger part of the cost of health insurance (while the insurance company is expecting the pastor to assume more of the cost of healthcare through increased deductibles) can create a situation where a pastor and the pastor’s family are not able to afford the care and support that they need. Many pastors abandon their therapist and even stop taking prescribed medications at the beginning of each year (as many others do) because they simply don’t have the money to continue seeking-out the care and support they need.
- We can support faithful pastors in the Church by extending the gift of friendship. As I mentioned above, pastors and their families are forced to abandon significant relationships and friendships every time they move to a new congregation and to a new community. Imagine what it’s like to give-up almost all of your friendships and relationships four – possibly even five or six times – in your adult life. Where does a pastor and the pastor’s family begin to form new relationships in a new place? If it doesn’t happen within the Church, the Body of Christ, where does it begin? Many pastors and their family members report that they have no friends, and that they don’t have any significant support outside of their own household. Sadly, many congregational members don’t know their pastor and are not familiar with the very real and deep struggles in the pastor’s family until it’s too late. I don’t know how long Andrew Stoecklein struggled with depression and anxiety. I don’t know the burden that Kayla and her sons carried as they watched Andrew walk through his “dark place,” and as they came to see that there wasn’t anything they could do to help him. If the Church is truly a place where “people matter,” we need to find ways to include pastors and their families in caring ministries of the Church – realizing that, if we fail to do that, tragedies will continue to unfold and faithful pastors in the Church will continue to perish.
- We need to realize that many of the struggles that pastors are facing in ministry are outgrowths of our continuing struggles with congregational stewardship. Pastors are often called-upon to “fill in the gaps” when a congregation’s mission-partners (members) aren’t assuming responsibility for vital parts of their congregation’s ministry. No pastor can hope to remain mentally healthy in an atmosphere of always-increasing demands, expectations and obligations – and in an atmosphere of an ever-shrinking pool of volunteers and ever-tightening financial support. This is, perhaps, the most serious issue that the Church must address if pastors and their families are going to find a healthy and sustainable way to answer God’s call. Elected leaders in every congregation of the Church must join hands and search for new ways to address the important issue of stewardship – realizing that the Body of Christ can only remain vital, experience growth and live vitally when every part of the Body is doing its part. (1 Corinthians 12:25)
My heart continues to ache for Andrew Stoecklein, for Kayla, and for three little boys who will never have the chance to know their father as a man of passion, commitment, and Christian love. My heart aches for the people at Inland Hills Church as they continue to grieve the loss of a 30-year-old pastor who had so much to offer to the Church. We, of course, can’t rewind the hands of time – but we can learn something from the tragedy that unfolded last week in California. May the Lord speak to our hearts and remind us that the Church is a place where “people matter” – and where pastors matter, too.
If you’re contemplating suicide and need help: CLICK HERE RIGHT NOW!