September is World Suicide Prevention Month. It is an opportunity to have open and honest conversations about a difficult topic that touches many lives.
Suicide is without prejudice and affects people from every race, ethnicity, economic status and gender. Doctors, lawyers, policemen, emergency services personnel, celebrities, singers, movie stars, tradesmen and farmers have all fallen victim. No one is immune, including those who provide leadership and pastoral care to church communities.
On August 26, Andrew Stoecklein, the lead pastor of Inland Hills Church in Chino, California, took his own life following a lengthy battle with depression and anxiety. He was only thirty years old.
Stoecklein was married to Kayla. They were parents to three young sons.
Stoeklein didn’t attempt to hide his struggles from his congregation and had preached on the subject of depression. But in the end, the transparency and openness weren’t enough.
Days after his passing, Kayla Stoeklein wrote ‘a letter to her husband.’ She writes,
“You were right all along; I didn’t understand the depths of your depression and anxiety. I didn’t understand how real and how relentless the spiritual attacks were. The pain, the fear, and the turmoil you must have been dealing with every single day are unimaginable.”
Although we may think we understand the negative influences at work in someone’s life, any conjecture about why they chose to end their life is like looking through a keyhole—we just can’t see everything.
Despite being forced to wrestle with the pain that comes with the tragic loss of her husband, Kayla said she is being inspired by how his death is forcing churches to take a serious look at how they handle the issue of mental health.
“Your story, your life and your death is opening the floor for conversations all around the world. Your story is helping people to share their hidden thoughts and secret struggles with their family and friends. Your story is paving the way for an even bigger conversation about how the church can better come alongside people with mental illness, including pastors.”
Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, encourages churches to gain a better understanding of mental illness. He worries some Christians see mental illness as a character flaw rather than a medical condition. As Stetzer put it,
“Christians are forgetting that the key part of mental illness is the word ‘illness.’”
Christians will go to the doctor if they break their leg, he said. But some may try to pray away serious mental illness.
Chuck Hannaford, a clinical psychologist who consults with many Christian leaders believes the rate of pastor suicides has increased during his 30 years of practice. And he expects the number will continue to rise.
Jon Quitt serves as lead pastor for Vineyard Community Church in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He identifies three aspects of Christian ministry that bring their own unique pressures.
1. Social media:
With the advent of social media, pastors are feeling the pressure of creating a pastoral persona. Pastors are now required to build a brand and put on a smile. Often what is posted isn’t always a reflection of personal reality.
2. Personal and Public Expectations:
Pastors are judged primarily on a 30-minute sermon. But it is the unseen hours, the accumulative burden of pastoral work that weighs them down. They feel inadequate, undereducated, unprepared for the weight of people’s broken lives.
3. Mental Health:
Most church leaders recognise the importance of their member’s mental health. But few are equipped to deal with the new mental health challenges they encounter. Yet at the same time, the church should be—must be—the place of greatest healing and radical grace to those who feel hopeless.
Dr Joseph Mattera is an internationally known author and leads several organizations, including The United Coalition of Apostolic Leaders. In a recent article, he identified twelve hazards to a pastor’s mental health. Here are three he wrote about.
1. Loneliness in leadership
Sometimes it is difficult to know who you can trust. A person in leadership may fear a loss of respect if they open up about their internal emotional struggles.
2. Avoiding conflict
Leaders who don’t deal with conflict are inviting trouble. Conflict rarely resolves itself. In fact, conflict normally escalates if not dealt with proactively and properly.
Having to confront people we know and love is one of the biggest causes of mental stress for church leaders.
3. Work overload
The responsibilities of a senior pastor or church leader can vary greatly. They may include teaching and preaching, overseeing team ministries, counselling, administrative tasks, caring for the needs of members, building connections with the community, partnering with other groups or agencies etc. Unrealistic workloads can be toxic.
As Mattera says,
“It is no wonder so many pastors live with depression, have emotional meltdowns, and physical health challenges.”
Jay Lowder, international evangelist and founder of Jay Lowder Harvest Ministries, understands the desire to end it all. At the age of 21, he was an alcoholic, unable to cope with the difficulties life had thrown at him. Feeling helpless, he held a loaded pistol to his temple prepared to pull the trigger. Thankfully, Lowder was saved by an unexpected, yet timely visit from his roommate.
Lowder uses his experience to help others and provides resources for recognising warning signs via his website for parents, churches and leaders to combat rising suicide rates. He says,
“Recognising the warning signs of a person who is in potential danger is the first step to helping before it is too late.”
Three of the warning signs Lowder identifies were present in Andrew Stoecklein’s life.
Depression is often fought in silence and is one of the leading causes of feelings of hopelessness and despair.
It is unclear how long Andrew Stocklein had been battling anxiety and depression. He was diagnosed with depression in April and in August he was gone. At the memorial service his mother, Carol, described his death as ‘so sudden, so excruciating, so permanent.’
People who suddenly disconnect from family and friends are showing a propensity to unplug from the reality of life. Separation can also include finding yourself removed from a role that offers purpose and fulfilment.
For Andrew Stocklein the separation was sudden. He was encouraged to take a sabbatical and step down from his pastoral responsibilities due to health complications which led to a mental breakdown. He underwent two surgeries to remove a mass from his chest. He was away from the church on an involuntary-four-months-long break during which time he discussed with his wife his future role.
On his return, he told the church he had not been ‘a fun person to live with.’
The death or loss of an important relationship can be overwhelming.
Andrew Stoeklein’s father David founded Inland Hills Church in Chino, California. He died in October 2015 at the age of 55 having battled leukaemia.
After his father’s death Andrew Stoeklein took on the leadership of the megachurch. On the first anniversary of his father’s death, he revealed that life had become much harder without the man who was his hero. He said,
“Life without you is harder than I imagined it would be. I miss you every day, more and more.”
Members of any church, large or small, need to be aware of the indicators that foreshadow suicide. Your knowledge and sensitivity may help save a life.