The last year has been witness to a spate of pastors committing suicide.
At times, the pastor has left no note. For some, there is no apparent explanation for what Frank Page has called “a permanent solution to what is usually a temporary problem.”
When a pastor kills himself, there is always speculation about secret sins (addictions, affairs and the like), but I suspect—absent later revelations—the enormous pressure of the pastorate, coupled with depression, are the culprits.
Licensed professional counselor Bowden McElroy said this to me via FB message:
Not everyone who is depressed becomes suicidal, but all who attempt suicide are depressed.
The nature of depression centers around thoughts of hopeless[ness] and helplessness. Pastors struggle with all the issues everyone else does, plus the ones you listed above.
But, there is the added pressure of hopelessness: Ministers just aren’t supposed to be hopeless. Ever.
So … a pastor becomes depressed and then has a second, deeper level of depression because he’s depressed and hopeless. It’s tough to offer hope to others when one feels hopeless; so they paste on a smile and continue to preach hope, creating a greater sense of hopeless[ness] and helplessness.
The number one thing congregations can do is to create an environment where seeking help is not merely acceptable, but expected. An annual couple-checkup with a Christian counselor who is actually trained to do marital therapy (one course in grad school or seminary doesn’t count) would be helpful.
Taking advantage of insurance for mental health benefits should be explored.
Do churches have a responsibility to help? Yes, and here are a few ways to do so.
1. Pray for your pastor and his family as much as or more than anyone else on your prayer list.
This is crucially important. Throughout my own pastoral ministry, many, many people have prayed for us regularly. I cannot overstate how this carried us in good times and bad.
2. Deal quickly, firmly and biblically with unfounded criticism and the critics that promote it.
Pastor families can suffer through an incredible amount of negativity, typically inaccurate. Unfounded criticism is like mortar fire that destroys the pastor and family.
3. Give your pastor a minimum of three weeks paid vacation.
The amount and constancy of stress on the typical pastor is nearly unimaginable. Many times, days off do not feel like days off when a single phone call can change everything. Give him vacation time and pay him well enough to take the family on a trip.