Depression often goes unshared in isolating vocation
My mother, a fine Christian woman, committed suicide just before the Fourth of July in 1991. When that anniversary came around this year, less than a year after my wife died from cancer, it hit me pretty hard. It was almost like going through the events of those days and weeks for the first time—where I was when I got the phone call, what I found when I got home, planning her funeral, consoling her friends, trying to go back to work and back to life afterward. I’m thinking about that now because of the recent suicide death of a popular young Southern Baptist pastor in California.
Everyone who knew him will be asking why. How could a Christian and especially a pastor kill himself? They will be wondering for years why they didn’t see the signs, if there were any, and why they didn’t know how to intervene. For years.
I wrote about this topic four years ago when an acquaintance who was a well-liked seminary professor found his life unravelling and chose to end it. His struggle with depression was known but not very public. I could have addressed it when Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren’s son took his life in 2013, causing his parents to ask the same questions all survivors do. Why? Why didn’t I see it? How could it get this bad?
The former CEO of the Southern Baptist Executive Committee, Frank Page, was brave enough to go public with his daughter’s suicide as part of an effort to encourage the church to address mental health. He formed a task force to study how the church handles mental health issues, especially for people such as his daughter, the Warren’s son, and my mother who suffered long with mental illness. Generally speaking, it was apparent going into the study that the local church isn’t really a safe place for people with mental or emotional instability to be public with their troubles. People don’t know how to handle it, and pastors aren’t trained in it unless they take extra effort to expand their counseling courses. LifeWay found only 27% of churches have a plan to assist families affected by mental illness and only 13% have someone trained in the field.
But the death of the young pastor puts a finer point on the issue. How could a pastor take his own life? And would a pastor ever tell his own church he was wrestling with such a dark temptation? Would they ever respect him again? Or might his admission of brokenness mean disqualification?
This young man in California had officiated at the funeral of someone who committed suicide on the same day he took his life. That was his trigger. He had spoken about mental health issues during his ministry. He sought to create an environment that welcomed admissions of need from the depressed and the struggling. Even so, no one saw the depth of their pastor’s pain. So, a young man with a lovely family and a promising future chose to leave earth early. His wife characterized it as choosing instead to go to Jesus. But he couldn’t have known the agony in his wake.
How could a pastor do such a thing? That really isn’t the question. The pastorate is often a lonely and isolated vocation. The pastor has few, if any peers in his church, and rarely a safe relationship in which to unload his burden. Pastors have a higher rate of job-related depression than other professions, except dentists. A 2013 LifeWay survey shows 35% of pastors admit they have been depressed, and 58% say they have no close friends—so there’s no one to tell. On top of that, 48% of evangelical Christians say prayer and Bible study alone should fix mental illness, with the implication that pastors, of all people, should be able to fix themselves. But overall in American society, the suicide rate continues to rise, especially among teenage girls and men ages 45-64.
The pastor is in a pickle.
A friend of mine admitted that he had considered an early death, as he put it. Sitting by a hotel pool one night, he wondered what it would be like to slip under the water and wake up in heaven, free from all things in ministry weighing so heavily on him. He was glad to confess it. And he promised to call me if the thought crossed his mind again.
I was glad he told me. I just wish that we all—and pastors especially—had more and better relationships where such confessions were allowed. Even welcomed.
Eric Reed is editor of Illinois Baptist media.