Listener Note: This episode contains topics of anxiety, depression, and suicide that may not be suitable for younger audiences.
Last week, we explored how to combat worry in our chaotic world. This week, I want to dive into how we can care for our church leadership, especially those who may be struggling with burnout, anxiety, stress, and performance expectations.
In 2019, I attended Catalyst West, a next-generation leadership conference supporting the pastoral ministry and the business community. Leaders like Andy Stanley, Clay Scroggins, and Jon Acuff shared insight to help leaders grow in their respective communities.
In one of the early afternoon sessions, a young woman was being interviewed. She appeared not to be older than about 30 or 32 years old. The interviewer opened the session by sharing about the tragic death of this woman’s husband. Her name was Kayla Stoecklein, and her now-deceased husband’s name was Andrew.
For the next 20 minutes or so, she shared the story of her husband’s battle with panic attacks, anxiety, performance expectations, burnout, and depression. He led a relatively large church in California and took over the leadership helm from his father around 30.
She was on stage to share her cautionary story that mental illness or mental ill fit can strike the pastorate just as easily as it could strike anyone. He left this world by suicide.
My heart was broken at hearing the words of Kayla, and the Lord began to stir in me a heart for those struggling with mental illness, both inside the church and in the business community.
Andrew’s story is not an isolated event.
Jarrid Wilson, a pastor of a California-based church, died by suicide at the age of 30. He and his wife started an organization titled Anthem of Hope for “those battling brokenness, depression, anxiety, self-harm, addiction, and suicide.”
The organization began because of his battle with anxiety and depression, and they wanted to help others through these events.
If you do a Google search for “pastors who committed suicide,” the results are lengthy.
Wilson shared on the Anthem of Hope website a few Christian Mental Health Statistics – this was in 2019:
- 23% of pastors acknowledge they struggle with mental illness
- 76% of churchgoers say suicide is a problem and it needs to be addressed in the Church community
- 35% of Americans say mental illness could be overcome with prayer and Bible study alone
One thing I have learned through my research is that suicide attacks anyone regardless of status. Rick Warren shared that his son Matthew died by suicide. Frank Page, the former Southern Baptist Convention president, lost his daughter to suicide.
The business world has always had high levels of stress and anxiety due to its performance-based environment. Unfortunately, the pandemic has elevated these stress levels as well.
Over the past eighteen months, teens and young professionals have been hit hardest by the isolation, and the rise of teen suicide is evident.
Focus on the Family found on average, 3,000 teens attempt suicide per day. That’s 1,095,000 teens attempting suicide annually. They also found that 9 out of 10 deaths by suicide had an underlying diagnosable and potentially treatable mental health issue.
What is happening to the world?
In 2014, LifeWay Research found:
- 65% of pastors seldom spoke about mental illness with their congregations
- 16% of pastors talked about the topic once per year
- 22% of pastors are reluctant to help those who suffer acute mental illness because it takes too much time.
- 12% of pastors have received a diagnosis of a mental health condition
The good news is pastors and churches want to help those who struggle with mental illness; however, those good intentions are not always backed by action.
Most pastors have a spouse and family that serve alongside them as well. Kayla and Andrew had three young children. Jarrid and his wife have two children.
This past summer, Chris Hilken, a pastor at North Coast Church in California, lost his wife (Paige) to suicide. He is 32, and she was 28. They have five children under the age of 7 years old.
Paige’s battle with anxiety and depression was shared on Instagram, and it was intentional. They lived a transparent life, including their struggles, and it opened doors for the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be shared.
Over time, her anxiety turned to insomnia, creating a form of PTSD that led to fear of everything.
Mental health issues are on the rise in the pastorate, but how is the Church responding to this new crisis?
A New Type of Pastoral Care
Pastors have a calling on their lives. My grandfather was a pastor, and it was a different time when he served in ministry. The performance-based culture of church growth, changing cultures, and battles on every front were not as front and center as they are today.
Pastors and their families have a tough job today. They are expected to be all things to all people, and when they don’t live up to our expectations – we often jump ship for the next best thing.
Often, we don’t stop to consider our role in driving pastors to unrealistic expectations. And, we probably don’t consider the toll it will exact on their spouses and children.
The pandemic has ushered in a new era of blasting pastors for being too soft, too hard, not changing, changing too fast, and the list continues. These blasting messages come from churchgoers. Friends and family have been torn apart by the divides created by politics, the pandemic, and the Church’s response.
Our pastors are being assaulted day in and day out. At some point, our pastors are going to break. Church attendance is down, which leads to giving being down, which leads to programs being shut down, leading to pastors burning out and leaving the ministry.
How do we, as congregants, better care for our pastors, so they don’t flame out?
How can we recognize the warning signs of anxiety, stress, burnout, and depression in our pastors?
As congregants, I think we can do three things:
- Pray for our Pastors – they need our prayers. They need encouragement. They are human-like, each of us. They struggle with raising their families, paying their bills, and leading a church. When we lift them to God, we are asking Him to put a “hedge of protection” around them from the evil one. This doesn’t mean that they are exempt from COVID, financial struggles, family issues, or other things. Pastors are the shepherds of the flock God has entrusted to them, and if they are struggling, the congregation might be struggling as well.
- Drop Them An Encouraging Word – send your pastor a card or care package “just because” they are your pastors. Don’t for pastor appreciation month, do it now. If the Lord lays on your heart to write a card of encouragement, don’t wait – do it now. We don’t know why God has tapped us for that particular mission, but we act on it. It could be a postal card, a text, a phone call, a video message – God is creative, and I can speak from first-hand knowledge that God tells what type of medium to use.
- Be Generous With A Pastor’s Gift – the pastors are usually honored with a financial gift each year. If you have the means, I encourage you to give generously to support them and their families. Some might say, well, they already get a salary, why do they need more? It’s about blessing them. Being generous is a matter of the heart. You can give because it’s a tax donation, or you can give because God has called you to give – whatever amount that might be.
The bottom line is pastors (and their families) need encouragement. They hear and address things that none of us want to address. The lead pastor typically has to mitigate staff issues, develop talent, identify the teaching schedule and what will be taught, and now, they have to act as health agents.
Some of these things they were trained for, and others they were not.
As leadership boards (elders, deacons, lay boards), in addition to the above, I encourage you to support your pastors by:
- Encouraging Them To Take Time Off – be generous with time off if it is not abused. Please give them the gift of a retreat or a vacation for reconnecting with their spouse or family. Pastors need to be renewed, which can only come through time off and disconnecting from their responsibilities.
- Pursue Counseling – pastors have a challenging role; they hear other people’s problems. If they don’t have an outlet for sharing their tough situations, they can bottle their anxiety and stress, leading to depression, marital issues, or worse. Counseling is encouraged to help them decompress. Counselors are encouraged to have their counselors for this very reason.
- Pursue Accountability – accountability is essential. It is vital to have a close group of guys for male pastors to say things, and it will not be leaked. These groups can be inside or outside the church, virtual or in real life. The critical part is trust – it is vital for their success.
- Request a Sabbatical – more extended periods of disconnection are essential. Professors typically take a year-long respite from teaching after seven years. More and more companies are offering sabbaticals to employees as a way of recharging one’s batteries. They can use it anyway they see fit, and this is beyond their usual vacation allotment. Pastors who have participated in sabbaticals usually return refreshed and vibrant with a new sense of purpose for their ministry.
- Share Any Mental Health Concerns – as a leadership board; you should have a good relationship with your pastors. Once the trust is present, ask your pastors how they are mentally, physically, emotionally, financially, spiritually, and relationally. I would suggest this be more one-on-one or two-on-one versus an inquisition style in a board meeting. The whole board needs to know how the pastors are doing, but that could be done in a closed session without the pastors.
Where Do We Go From Here
As congregants, we don’t always know the struggles of our pastors. We don’t know what gets them down or how we could lighten their load. We should be praying for our leaders and encouraging them along their journey. If you see some warning signs, ask them confidentially how things are going.
Our pastors need encouragement now more than ever, and I, for one, do not want to see any more pastors or their families (of any age) ending their lives.
As we have seen from the statistics, suicide in the pastorate is a real thing. Some think that if you commit suicide, you're going straight to Hell. Others align around the once saved, always saved theology.
Whether you are going to Heaven or Hell is based on whether you gave your life to Christ and asked Him to forgive your sins, come into your life, and make you a new creation.
Larry Osborne, the pastor of North Coast Church (and Chris Hilken’s pastor), states, “There’s teaching that’s been around for many years that anyone who takes their life has committed an unforgivable sin. The Bible in no way teaches it.”
Let’s lovingly come alongside our pastors through prayer and encouragement and ask God to give them wisdom, rest, comfort, healing, peace, and perseverance.
Lord, thank you for your love and grace. Thank you for our pastors around the globe who serve the flocks you have entrusted to them. I ask You to give them strength during these chaotic times and meet their needs as only you can. If someone is struggling with mental health issues, I ask you to heal them and help them seek help. We lift these families who have been affected by suicide and ask You to comfort them in their time of need. We give you all the praise and glory. Amen!
- Fear Gone Wild – Kayla Stoecklein (book)
- Research Findings – American Views on Suicide
- Research Findings – Study of Acute Mental Illness and Christian Faith
- Prevent Suicide In Your Community
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