Recently news broke that Andrew Stoecklein, pastor of Inland Hills Church in Chino California took his own life. It is heartbreaking news, and shocking, but I have to say not overwhelmingly surprising. I’ve heard and read some express sentiments along the lines of “how could a pastor do that?” Sadly, some have gone on to posit that no “truly called” man could possibly be depressed much less suicidal. While I don’t know anything about this man or the church he served, over the last several years, both through my own experiences and through relationships with other pastors, I have learned a thing or two about pastoral ministry. And the most important thing that I learned is that pastors are just regular, ordinary Christians. And this is the key to understanding how a pastor could “do this.” A pastor could commit suicide because any Christian is capable of sin.
When I say that pastors are ordinary Christians I’m not saying that they haven’t been gifted in a way that equips them to serve the church in a particular way. And I’m not saying that they weren’t given to the church by God for the benefit of the church (Eph 4:11-12). And I’m certainly not saying that the biblical qualifications for elders (1 Tim 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9) don’t apply to pastors. Or that these factors don’t lead to a certain kind of man being in pastoral ministry. What I mean is that pastors are not super men or even super Christians, but sinners redeemed by a sinless savior and gifted by the Holy Spirit for the benefit of the church, just like every other believer.
And just like every other believer, they experience the pains of life. Pastors have physical aches and pains, their dogs die, their loved ones get sick, they feel financial pressure, they have children who at times disobey or even bring them grief, and sometimes they feel down.
And add to that pastors experience something that other Christians don’t, anxiety over the church. Even Paul felt this unique pressure.
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. – 2 Corinthians 11:24-28
This unique stress was significant enough that Paul numbers it with beatings, shipwrecks, personal betrayal and hunger. It is a real thing, and it is hard to explain to those who have never experienced it, yet every pastor I have every talked with about it expressed the experience of it as I have experienced it.
To put it in perspective (without going into the details of the situation) about this time two years ago there was serious trouble in the church; the authority of Scripture and the principle of sola scriptura was under attack and the situation was coming to a head. Pastors and Elders from other churches and our regional church fellowship were becoming involved.
After the situation was resolved (in January) one of the most observant members of our church family said they sensed that something serious had been going on and had been bothering me. It had, I went over a year without sleeping through the night and more than once vomited blood after praying about or talking about the crisis with a ministry mentor. I was and am glad that the church didn’t feel the anxiety and concern that I had for her and I did everything I could to shield the church from the turmoil. Yet it took a toll. I see why Paul mentioned his anxiety for the churches in the same breath as beatings and shipwrecks.
And some pastors like some other Christians are prone to melancholy (what the world would call depression). It is more than just feeling down, it is something entirely different. It is a dark mood that comes on inexplicably and just as often lifts for no apparent reason. C.H. Spurgeon experienced this mood and called it “the black dog.” He said (I’m paraphrasing) that sometime he would find himself weeping and not know why.
I would count myself as one of the many pastors who are prone to melancholy. And it manifests itself differently in different people. Whereas Spurgeon would weep, I can sometime find my self on the verge of tears craving solitude (which by the way is the last thing that I actually need at those times), I feel like the best thing for everyone would be if I moved to the remote mountains and just stopped bothering everyone. I would describe it as a feeling of overwhelmingly sad burdensomeness.
There is even a biblical example of someone set apart by the Lord for profound ministry who seems to have had a tendency toward depression. How did Elijah celebrate the great victory over the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel? By running away and hiding from Jezebel and wishing for death.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. – 1 Kings 19:4-5
Even someone as powerfully and clearly set apart for ministry as Elijah was not immune to the black dog. It is utter folly to think that no one truly called to the pastorate would ever struggle with melancholy or depression, in fact it is common. I’ve seen estimates as high as 70% of pastors experience seasons of “depression.”
Of course no believer should ever lose hope, in fact I would argue that while being prone to melancholy is no more sinful than having allergies, losing hope in the midst of melancholy or depression is, because it is disbelieving what God has said. We have a sure hope in Christ.
So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. – Hebrews 6:17-20
Any Christian, pastor or not, when the black dog is upon them and they are tempted to hopelessness must preach to their own soul as the psalmist did in Psalm 42 &43.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God. – Psalm 42:5,11/Psalm 43:5
But remember, a pastor is a part of the body of Christ, and he needs the body just as the body needs him. He needs the body’s love, support and most importantly prayer. A pastor’s calling is hard, and often lonely work. Pray for your pastor and love him enough to care for him and his particular weaknesses as tenderly as you would anyone else in the body.
(In God’s providence my last post answered the question does a believer who commits suicide forfeit their salvation. You can read it here. Also I wrote two guests posts at michelleleslie.com on things you may not know about your pastor, including how to pray for him. You can read them here & here.)