Converge Responds: anxiety, depression and suicide among pastors
Dr. Bruce Hopler
Executive Director of Church Strengthening
Church & pastoral health
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching andteaching. 1 Tim. 5:17
"Please pray for me and the boys. I don't know how I am going to face this, I am completely heartbroken, lost and empty. Never in a million years would I have imagined this would be the end of his story…"
This was posted on Instagram by Kayla Stoecklein, wife of pastor Andrew Stoecklein, 30, of Inland Hills Church, a megachurch in Chino, California, shortly after he took his own life. Though I did not know him, my heart breaks over the pain Andrew must have been going through, and for his family and his congregation.
The devastating news of Andrew’s suicide shocked the world last weekend. Unfortunately, it is not an isolated case. Depression, anxiety and suicide amongst pastors seem to be on the rise. I wish I could say this was an anomaly, but those of us who devote our lives to serving churches and pastors have many other stories we can tell.
Sobering realities of ministry
Depression and anxiety are as real as ever, and in recent years these issues are finally being acknowledged as a form of mental illness. It feels like we are reading more and more stories of people of all ages and walks of life making really damaging, life-altering decisions. It is a misnomer that Christians, especially those in ministry, are “depression proof.” Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.
Pastors are under enormous pressure to be top-notch communicators, high-capacity leaders and perfect role models in all areas of life. Pastors are often expected to start and lead ministries to meet every demand and desire, be profound pastoral counselors, carry financial pressures and lead rapidly growing churches...and the list goes on and on. Whether they lead a church of 50 or 15,000, pastors face immense pressure.
The uniqueness of the pastoral role is not that it carries pressures but rather the kind of pressures that go with the job. Pastors, of course, face the same pressures as other high-level leaders (amount of work, responsibilities, leadership, family, finances, etc.). But few others will ever understand many of the other stresses they face daily.
Pastors often face unrealistic expectations, have little emotional downtime and perform in a fishbowl environment. They carry the spiritual and emotional weight of their congregation through counseling and managing staff and volunteers. They are expected to be available 24/7 and carry an ongoing heaviness that the work is never done.
Those burdens are often compounded by a low salary that doesn’t reflect their education and experience. For most, there is an unforeseen loneliness in the role of “shepherd of the flock.”
Pastor, you have not been granted immunity
As you can see, it is not only the unique kinds of pressures a pastor faces, but the commixture of all of these elements which lead to a unique, toxic challenge. We all know that pastors are human, but the underlining expectations presume that they are superhuman. Yes, they have the Holy Spirit (like every other follower of Christ), but they also have the same emotions and the same limitations.
Much of the pressure a pastor feels comes from the outside; but more often, this pressure comes from the inside. Pastors often put enormous pressure on themselves to perform. They work long and hard hours helping other people, foolishly ignoring holistic soul care of their body, spirit, emotions and mind.
Some adopt a false mindset that because they are serving a supernatural God, they can operate at a supernatural pace, believing God will cover all of the personal issues that they ignore. What appears noble and spiritual at the time is actually an unbiblical treatment of our bodies (1 Cor. 16:19-20).
In truth, we are not immune to depression as followers of Christ. We are human like anyone else. King David expressed deep woes in the Psalms. The prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19), immediately after the height of his ministry, experienced utter despair, defeat, aloneness and vulnerability. He wished his life was over, believing everything was pointless.
Today, Elijah would be diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Even the apostle Paul was internally burdened by a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7-10) he could never seem to be freed of, and he found himself doing things he hated and wished he had never done (Rom. 7:15-20).
Solutions for the struggling
So, if a biblical or modern-day Christian leader can experience mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, what is unique about Christianity? The difference is we don’t have to walk alone.
Just as the Lord told Paul in 2 Cor. 12:9 he tells us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Our natural selves like to promote and push forward our strength. We want to present ourselves as those who have it all together. In contrast, scripture says that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.
In other words, God’s power is greatest when we are at our weakest. Contrary to our desire to be self-sufficient, God wants us to walk with him (Matt. 22:37), and to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2).
Unlike many pastors, Andrew Stoecklein did seek out professional help in his final months. Sadly, it appears that it was not soon enough. Many pastors, though, continue to suffer silently and anonymously. The dark night of the soul needs never to be lived out in isolation. Living in a vacuum with this level of weight is dangerous and destructive.
Churches, pray for your pastors, support them and encourage them to be in community with other pastors to build one another up. No one should journey alone. We need to surround ourselves with healthy life-giving networks as we are better together.
Ministry is not easy, but there is hope. Below are a few thoughts of how we can journey together.
You don't have to walk alone
What can I do if I am at risk right now? Pastors, please don’t walk alone. If you need immediate help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you don’t feel that you are quite at that point, know that there is no shame in seeking the services of a professional counselor. Further, you and your spouse not only need friends inside the church but outside as well. Find friends, such as other ministry couples, who understand the unique pressures of the pastorate that you can be real with.
What can a pastor do if he feels like he needs to get out of his current situation and focus on healing and restoration?
If you are in Converge, there are multiple resources available at the district level. I would encourage you to contact your district office. However, I would like to highlight one strategic partner many districts of Converge have utilized: Pastor-In-Residence. Built around developing safe and authentic relationships with pastors – whether they have exited the ministry, burned out or are presently in ministry and struggling with discouragement – Pastor In Residence aims to remind them that the gospel they preach is the gospel for them, too. God cares more about you as a person than what you do. Helping pastors to cultivate hope, good self-awareness, community and healthy rhythms is a large part of Pastor In Residence’s ministry, both on the preventative and restorative side of life.
If our church/pastor is not a part of a healthy life-giving network, where can we go? Converge president Scott Ridout, in recently addressing another type of pastoral crisis, talked about churches “operating in a vacuum.” “This is a glaring weakness of choosing to be an independent church instead of being part of a network of churches like Converge. While our churches are autonomous in governance, we choose to be interdependent in ministry and life. We like each other. We learn from each other. And we lean into each other in times of trouble. We are Better Together on so many levels.” In short, Converge wants to journey with you. Contact your district office to learn more.
What can I do as a board member of my church? In the same article referred to above, Ridout says, “Healthy churches also have healthy systems of communication, evaluation, accountability and intervention. Now would be a great time for your church leadership to take time to renew its personal commitment to walk with Christ, to keep each other accountable for personal walks and to develop proactive plans to handle unforeseen crisis…before it happens.” Contact your district leadership to learn more.
If I am a part of Converge, how can I as a pastor surround myself in healthy community? All of our districts create avenues for pastors to gather, learn, encourage, support and achieve together. While there are various formats, they are all designed for pastors to be better together. Again, if you are not a part of a Converge pastor group, we highly recommend that you call your district office and journey with your Converge colleagues.
If, as a pastor, my spouse and I need to pull away for a healthy self-perspective, where do we go?
Because of our desire for investing in the health and long-term growth of pastors, the Converge national office and your Converge district are partnering together in a brand-new concept called Compass. This is a three-day retreat that will provide the pastor and spouse an opportunity to evaluate fruitfulness by defining their current reality, dreaming about a preferred fruitful future and helping to connect them with a strategic pathway moving forward. Each couple will walk away with their own personalized, self-developed travel guide for their journey to come. This is brand new, so we are in the early stages of rollout. Your local district will have information about when it will be available to you.
We have a saying around Converge: “We believe that we are better together.” Stress, anxiety and depression are real. But you are not alone. Reach out, be vulnerable and ask for help. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Together God will do a great work in us so that he can also do a great work through us. May God give you the wisdom to know the right things to do and the courage to do it.
Dr. Bruce Hopler, Executive Director of Church Strengthening
Dr. Bruce Hopler has been coaching pastors and church planters for over 20 years. He now serves as the executive director of Church Strengthening at Converge. Bruce started a church in Maryland against all odds with no core group and no upfront funding, but it has grown for 18 years. He then moved to Las Vegas, where he was the Spiritual Formation pastor for the eighth-fastest growing church in America. During his time in Vegas Bruce completed his doctorate in spiritual formation and leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. After four years there, he moved to Orlando to join Converge. Bruce loves planters and pastors. He has been certified in StratOps, Church Unique and SOULeader coaching. He strives to help pastors discover what healthy means, within their unique calling and context.