The woes of ministry can quickly lead a pastor into the throes (and lows) of life.
Andrew Stoecklein, the 30-year-old lead pastor of Inland Hills Church in Chino, California, battled anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Hardly anyone knew of the panic attacks. After a four-month leave he came back, preaching through a series on mental illness in the church.
“There is hope, and there is help available,” Andrew preached—himself fighting mental illness and loneliness.
Twelve days later, Andrew died by suicide.
Many pastors silently battle what Andrew faced. Jarrid Wilson, another 30-year-old pastor at megachurch Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California, also died by suicide in 2019. More recently, Darrin Patrick, pastor of Seacoast Church, died by his own hand on May 7, 2020.
I was and am one of those pastors, except that by God’s grace, I survived to fight another day and share my story with others.
My Brush with Suicidal Thoughts
About a year and a half ago, I nearly took my own life during a bout of deep depression, intermingled with high anxiety. I went to the ER, was given Ativan and sent home, but my symptoms worsened. My wife brought me to see a psychiatrist, who asked, “Have you had thoughts about harming yourself?”
I responded yes. In fact, I had made plans.
I was placed on an immediate three-day hold, and we were sent to crisis care at a nearby hospital until a bed opened up for me in a behavioral health institute. Ever since I was discharged from that facility, I’ve undergone continued care and treatment. We closely monitor my mental health to prevent this from happening again.
I’m sharing this because I don’t want you, someone you love, or your pastor to die by suicide. Andrew Stoecklein’s death struck my wife and me hard because like him, we are a family of five with three young boys. At the time of his death, I was 31 and a lead pastor of a church in Southern California. It was too close to home.
Contributing Factors to Depression in Ministry
There are many contributing causes to depression for pastors. Here are just five.
Loneliness. Loneliness can contribute to depression when a pastor feels he has no one else to talk to. If he cannot share his deepest laments and struggles with anyone else, bottled-up emotions can become toxic.
Weight of pastoral responsibility. With everything a pastor sees and hears in the trenches of ministry, it’s easy to get jaded and resent the church. On top of this, he must continue to carry the emotional weight of the pains, fears, criticisms, suffering, and transitions in the church. This is no light task.
Ministry doesn’t go as planned. To name a recent example, COVID-19 changed pretty much everything. A family leaves. The church budget suffers. Attendance is low. Staff are cut. Sheep bite. People in the church you thought you knew turn on you. Pastors take many of these changes personally. The feeling of failure can overcome a pastor.
Just because. Depression can happen to anybody—even pastors—with no apparent cause. Some people are more prone to depression, and depending on life circumstances or genetics, a pastor can get depressed too.
Spiritual warfare. I mention this last because too often Christians jump to this as the first and only reason. Spiritual symptoms do not necessarily mean there is a spiritual cause for depression. Still, spiritual warfare can certainly be at play in what appears to be only physical or cognitive.
Many other things can get a pastor down in ministry: a never-ending workload, congregational needs, criticism, church finances, saying “yes” too much, or avoiding sabbath rest. The list could go on.
How to Help Your Pastor’s Mental Health
If you’re a pastor experiencing depression, you are not alone.
And if you are a church member aware of your pastor’s battle with depression, don’t leave him alone in this battle. Pray for him daily. Many pastors who suffer from depression will also need family support, counseling, pastoral care (from another pastor in the area), healthy diet and regular exercise habits, adequate rest, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), EMDR therapy, and possibly repenting of sinful habits.
If you are a church member aware of your pastor’s battle with depression, don’t leave him alone in this battle.
A pastor may need to see a psychiatrist for antidepressants. Having a prescription isn’t at odds with trusting in Jesus to provide us with help. Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer to “give us this day our daily bread,” recognizing that God provides us with our daily meals, even if we get our bread from the baker. Some of us—at least 26 percent of us—have to also ask God to give us this day our daily pill. We pray for relief from anxiety and depression, and God uses means—just like he uses a grocery bakery for fresh-baked bread—to help us find relief.
Clinical depression is an illness; it’s not a sin. Sin can aggravate depression, of course, but depression is a sickness that requires treatment just like other bodily ailments. Like with the treatment of any other illness, some approaches are more effective than others. There’s no magic pill that beats this battle for everyone. Sometimes, even the best ongoing care and treatment is not enough to prevent another tragic death by suicide.
That’s why, as Christians, we must bring this deadly battle before the Lord, taking our dark burdens—and those of our loved ones—to the place where hope is found: the cross.
Beyond Highs and Lows
At the cross, Jesus stood defeated, and yet because of the resurrection he stands victorious. The cross is the place of weakness where all powerful foes fall down. The cross is how we deal with all hardship.
If you are depressed, look to Jesus, the high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15). Look to Jesus, who endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Heb. 12:2). Look to the one who knows suffering deeply but who also, at the cross, redeemed it completely.
I’ve come to learn that Christian joy is not a feeling of being high instead of low; it’s a posture of submission to God. It’s not a fleeting mood. Joy readily receives what God gives us, and says—like Jesus in Gethsemane, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
As Psalm 16:11 and many other Psalms capture, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy.” With James we can learn to “count it all joy” when we “meet trials” (James 1:2). “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul asks. Nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35, 39).
Every color in this world was intended to make us rejoice. The Monday blues and the weekly grays. The dark clouds of Good Friday and the sunrise of Easter Sunday. I’m learning to live with the color God has given me. Today, I find that color is mostly gray. Maybe you do too. And that’s ok.
If you are a pastor like me who deals with depression, or if you know someone who is, be reminded today that—as C. S. Lewis once said—“though our feelings come and go, his love for us does not.”