Pastoral Ministry and Suicide

By Phil Steiger
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A young man has his face in his hands
Pastors are not immune from suicidal thoughts, and neither are those under their care. How should a pastor shepherd individuals in the church who struggle with the debilitating effects of suicidal ideation?

A long-term member of our church approached me just before service recently with a serious look on his face. Every pastor knows that moment. Service is about to begin, what is this about? He had never done this before, so I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

He asked me if I knew a man who pastored a good church in a neighboring city. There was a connection between some mutual friends, but I didn’t know him. He then told me that years ago the pastor had been in an accident, and ever since had battled depression. I got a sinking feeling about what he was going to tell me.

Sure enough, the pastor committed suicide just the week before. It was the second incident like this I had heard of in 3 weeks.

What came next was one of those moments that pastors have too few of. He told me, “It seems to me that most pastors go along doing a really good job, but only hear the criticism and negative things.” I told him that this is often the case. He continued, “I just want to tell you that I think you are doing a great job.”

First of all, people should know how special a moment like that can be for a pastor. I have a very kind and supportive congregation and I am on great terms with this church member, but his simple affirmation, prompted by a shock, was remarkable.

Many pastors don’t have regular affirmation or the support of friends in their churches, and the pressures of contemporary ministry can be overwhelming. Criticism, especially criticism over time, can play into a pastor’s natural fears and insecurities and can lead to devastating consequences. Suicide among pastors is a real thing – maybe a bigger deal than you know.

According to a recent CDC report, suicide has reached a 50-year high in America.[i] It has increased so much, it has affected the general mortality rate. The church and the pastorate have not been immune to the same trend. While numbers on pastors are hard to find, the stories continue to come. Pastors who seemingly have good families, a wonderful church and a bright future, continue to take their lives.

In a study co-sponsored by Lifeway and Focus on the Family, pastors reported mental illness rates similar to the general population. According to the study, “about a quarter of pastors (23 percent), say they’ve experienced some kind of mental illness, while 12 percent say they received a diagnosis for a mental health condition.”[ii]

The church cannot afford to ignore this issue. We need to be responsive to families when tragedy strikes, but we also need to be proactive and aware of how the stage is set in a pastor’s life before they make the decision to take their lives.

To Pastors

There are no trite answers to depression, deep anxiety, or suicidality. I know that the church world often expects pastors to respond well to trite answers, but they simply may not understand the kinds of things we juggle on a week-to-week basis. Do not let the pressure of wrong expectations steer you away from finding the kind of help or support you need. Be sure you are doing the kind of soul work necessary to be aware of what is going on inside of you, and be vulnerable enough to seek the right kind of help.

Make sure you are connecting with good, mature Christian friends. Be proactive about finding places to ground your self-worth outside of the walls of the church or the performance of last Sunday morning. Good friendships help us find firm-footing outside of work. I can’t recall how many times coffee, or dinner, or just laughter with friends lifted my anxious soul.

Please make sure your home life has your attention and your prayer. The places where our relationships are the most intense are the places our emotions are on full display. If we are not deliberate about the atmosphere in our marriages and homes, our depression or anger may only get magnified by the people we love the most. With prayerful attention our homes can be sanctuaries instead of colosseums.

Fellow pastors, please be bold enough to seek the help of professionals as often as is right and wise for you to do so. There is a stigma in much of the church about seeking professional help for these kinds of issues. We need to get over that and spend time with professionals who can help us untangle what our work tangles in us.

Focus on the Family provides a Pastoral Care phone number we would even encourage you to call: 1-844-4PASTOR.

To Congregations

The job of being a pastor is not what it once was. Few individuals who graduate seminary or Bible College to be pastors are still pastors even 10 years later. Some data show that over 1000 pastors leave the ministry permanently every month, and only 1 in ten of those who begin as pastors will retire as ministers. [iii]

If you can imagine the expectations of CEO leadership, Super Bowl coaching, professional therapist, and mystic monk wrapped into one, that’s a bit what a pastor feels is expected of them on a regular basis. If you attend church expecting to fulfill your role as part of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16; Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31), your pastor(s) may be energized, instead of drained, over time.

We are all in this together. We cannot expect some of us to be immune from the stresses of life, but we can be prayerfully attentive and wisely engaged with each other, helping to provide the strength and encouragement we all need.


[i] https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db330_tables-508.pdf#page=1

[ii] https://lifewayresearch.com/2014/09/22/mental-illness-remains-taboo-topic-for-many-pastors/

[iii] Witt, Lance. Replenish: Leading from a Healthy Soul. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011. Ppg. 17-18

 

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© 2019 Phil Steiger.

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