Why we need to talk about pastoral burnout, depression, and even suicide.
Last week a disturbing piece of news popped up on my news feed. “California Church Shocked After Pastor Commits Suicide,” blasted the CBN News headline—and, for a moment, my heart beat faster.
Andrew Stoecklein, the lead pastor of the evangelical Inland Hills Church in Chino, California, passed away on Saturday, after having attempted suicide on Friday. If you look at the church’s website, you will see a dynamic young pastor with a wonderful wife and three young boys.
What pressures, pain, and hurt must have driven this young man of God to step into the irreversible void of suicide?
We don’t like talking about burnout, depression, or even suicide when we talk about Adventist pastors. And yet, all of these emotions and conditions are a present reality in Adventist clergy as well. Spiritual leaders, dynamic pastors, passionate preachers, consummate evangelists—they all constantly face the real challenges of ministry in a media-driven world of constant tweets and Facebook postings, where personal space becomes less and less available.
Pastoring is hard and can be very lonely at times. Pastors live in the “On” mode most of the time. They have to. They need to be shepherds caring constantly for a diverse and often hurting flock.
We expect them to be an administrative genius, leading people from different walks of life with differing needs and experiences who don’t always see eye to eye. They should be looking beyond the walls of their church buildings to reach the unreached and lost. They should be keeping an eye on the church building’s structure and maintenance, while at the same time expanding their media presence in a world that expects full media coverage.
I am an ordained pastor — and I often feel overwhelmed by the needs I see around me in my local congregation and the larger church community. (I am not currently leading a congregation full time.) So, what can we as members of local congregations do that goes beyond diagnosis? Here are four practical suggestions:
First, tell the pastors in your life again and again how much they are appreciated. I know that the large majority of members love and appreciate their pastor — but are we speaking up? Most of the time, a pastor hears from members when they are unhappy or when there is conflict. Positive feedback will go a long way in affirming a pastor who experiences constant pressures.
This doesn’t mean that we may not sometimes disagree with the pastor. But we disagree in a Christ-like manner while, at the same time, affirming our loving relationship.
Second, open your heart and, if possible, your home to your pastor. When last did you invite the pastoral family for a meal without an agenda?
Third, commit to pray for your pastoral family on a daily basis. Wonderful things happen to us when we pray for people. God is able to take away overly critical attitudes. As we pray intercessory prayers, we are transformed too.
Fourth, hold up your pastor’s arms when there is need for loving, yet decisive, support. Don’t forget that pastors are no superheroes. Like all of us, they are human, frail, and make mistakes. Sometimes, holding up your pastor’s arms means that you volunteer to look after three young children so that the pastoral couple has a free evening (or weekend) for themselves and their needs as a couple. Sometimes, holding up your pastor’s arms means speaking up in a board meeting when the tone is not right or the subject gets too personal.
I am calling out the silent majority in Adventist congregations in support of their hard-working, at times hurting, pastors. Go, get busy, and do it right away before we read another painful headline.