Pastors, Depression and Suicide

This past weekend, a young head pastor from an influential church in Southern California took his own life. From all outward appearances, Pastor Andrew Stoecklein of Inland Hills Church in Chino had it all: a successful ministry, a photogenic family. And yet, he struggled with depression.

Please join me in praying for Andrew’s wife and three sons. My heart breaks for them.

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Pastor Andrew Stoecklein and family

Sometimes people have asked me questions like: “I see the statistics on pastors, about burnout and how many pastors leave the ministry every year. What is it about being a pastor that makes it more difficult than other work?”

My main answer to that question has usually been that what makes it hard is the personal aspect. Pastoring people is highly relational, and with that comes high highs and low lows.

It has been said that in order to be a pastor, one must have the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the hide of a rhinoceros.

Another pastor summed it up this way:

In this generation, pastors are expected to be business savey, Instagram quotable preaching celebrities, fully accessible, deeply spiritual, not too young, not too old, and if a pastor doesn’t quite measure up to someone’s expectation at any given moment, you are given a two out of five star rating on Google.

I certainly don’t want to come across as whining or complaining. Pastors get to do the greatest thing in the world: to love people, teach them and lead them towards Jesus. We get to be there in the most crucial moments of people’s lives, and minister the gospel to them. We get to lead people towards the building up of God’s Kingdom and the spreading of the message of ultimate life, hope and joy!

If ever we feel that we are used or taken for granted by people – isn’t that what we signed up for? Isn’t that what Jesus himself experienced, and part of what made him so great? Isn’t that what it means to get to “share in his sufferings”? (See Philippians 3:8-10)

But in light of this high profile suicide of a well-known pastor, I think it is worth talking about, and taking the opportunity to encourage you to pray for your pastor and look for ways to encourage them.

Here is a good article written on this subject from Thom Rainer: 5 reasons pastors get depressed (and why they don’t talk about it)

Finally, whoever you are, if you are struggling with depression, please reach out for help.
(Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255)

 

Anthony Bourdain, Suicide & the Bible

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We woke up to the news that Anthony Bourdain of CNN’s Parts Unknown committed suicide at age 61. He was wealthy, successful, famous and got to travel the world doing what he loved – the kinds of things that many people aspire to, but may never get to experience. And yet, he chose to end his own life.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, since 1999, suicide rates have increased in nearly every US state, with 25 states having increases of more than 30 percent.

The most at-risk group for suicide according to their study is middle-aged white men.

Factors contributing to the suicide epidemic are:

  • Access to firearms.
  • Isolation, which contributes to mental health problems.  Read: Toxic Loneliness and How to Break Out
  • A sense of hopelessness and despair, resulting from:
    • family instability
    • lack of job prospects
  • Poor physical health

If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be contacted at: 1-800-273-8255.

In the Bible we read about several heroes of the faith who struggled with what seem to have been depression and suicidal thoughts:

Many heroes of the faith, expressed that they reached such a point of despair that they wanted to die:

  • Moses had a death wish (see Numbers 11:13-15)
  • Job sought death as a comfort, a way to end his suffering
  • David had times when he wanted to die
  • Jonah sought his own death first to atone for his own sins and then because of frustration with his circumstances

Another notable example is the prophet Elijah. In 1 Kings 19:4, we read:

“[Elijah] sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.”

Here’s what’s surprising: right before this, Elijah had experienced unprecedented success in his ministry. Only a few hours before this:

  • Elijah prayed for rain, and it came, ending a 7-year drought.
  • Elijah had singlehandedly won a showdown against some 850 pagan priests, when God sent fire from heaven in response to Elijah’s prayers.
  • As a result of these things, many people in Israel had turned back to God – which was the goal of Elijah’s ministry.

And yet, like with so many people: in spite of experiencing great success, Elijah was depressed and wanted to die.

Isolation

“Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree” – 1 Kings 19:4

Despite having a huge crowd of supporters after the showdown on Mount Carmel, Elijah chose to isolate and cut himself off from the community.

Isolation is a common practice of people who are struggling with depression, but it is one of the worst things a person can do. Statistics show that isolation causes and exasperates mental health issues.

Physical Exhaustion

Even though it was a successful day, it was a long and exhausting day. I have found that the times when I am particularly worn out, I tend to be more susceptible to negative thoughts and feelings which are not from God.

Notice what happens next: Elijah gets some rest. He goes to sleep. While he’s asleep, God sends an angel to cook him a meal. The angel wakes Elijah up, feeds him, gives him something to drink – and then sends him back to bed to sleep some more! Then, the angel wakes him up again, feeds him another meal, and then sends him on his way to continue his ministry.

In other words: Elijah’s depression, while certainly a spiritual attack, was related to and exasperated by his physical exhaustion. Rather than giving him a lecture, God sent him a companion, some good meals and some well-needed rest.

Rather than giving him a lecture, God sent Elijah a companion, some good meals and some well-needed rest.

As noted above, the CDC mentions poor physical health as a contributing factor to the suicide epidemic. Taking care of your body is important for your mental health, and the Bible encourages us to see that.

Hope

Finally, this messenger from God tells Elijah to rise up and go on his way – and Elijah does. Rather than stay down, alone, sleeping under this tree in the wilderness – God reminds Elijah that He has a purpose and calling upon his life, and Elijah responds by getting up and moving forward into that calling.

The gospel gives us more hope, affirmation and purpose than anything else ever can. It give us hope because of the promise of redemption. It gives you a community; not only community with God, but to become a Christian is to be brought into the “People of God.”

The gospel gives us affirmation and purpose; Jesus gave his life for you, which means that even though God knowns everything about you, He still wants you. He still loves you and He still has a purpose for your life.

God’s purpose for your life goes beyond living for yourself; it is to use you in His mission: for His glory and for the good of people in the world. It is in giving your life for that mission that you will find true life. For more on this, check out: Mission and Mental Health

Let’s do what we can to recognize the signs and help people who are struggling before it’s too late.

Mission & Mental Health

I recently finished reading Sebastian Junger’s book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

It was recommended to me by someone at White Fields, who had read the book and found a surprising correlation between something I had taught at church and the main thesis of the book.

The sermon was one I had taught in our Church Matters series on the topic of “Mission.” (Audio of that message here: “So That They May Have Joy”). My text was John 17:13-19, where Jesus prays over his disciples at the end of the last supper. In that prayer, he says that he was given a mission by the father, and now – in order that his disciples might have his joy in fullness – Jesus is giving them his mission.

The point is: there is a correlation between mission and joy. Mission is a prerequisite for joy. If you want to experience joy, you need to have a mission. Without a mission, you can’t have joy.

This truth can be seen in the fact that children, when they think about what they want to be when they grow up, they think of their future vocation in terms of mission: they dream not of being office workers, they dream of being teachers, police officers, firefighters, missionaries, astronauts, doctors, veterinarians, etc. In other words: jobs full of adventure and serving other people. Why? Because they find joy in that.

And yet, our society encourages us to look out for ourselves, be practical, don’t bother trying to “save the world” – just worry about yourself. And here’s the irony of that: the more that you focus on yourself, the less significant your life is in the big picture, and the less joy you will have.

This same point is made by Sebastian Junger in Tribe. His big idea, which he backs up with evidence throughout the book, is that hardship, rather than being bad for us, is actually good for us – in fact, it’s one of the best things that can possibly happen to a person or a society.

And yet, the whole focus of our society has been to make life more and more comfortable and free of hardship; the result of which has been an incredible rise in mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and even violent crime. Times of crisis, such as terror attacks and natural disasters, indirectly have a positive affect on mental health in a society. The reason for this is that crisis causes people to band together and gives people a mission and a purpose to work towards and fight for, even sacrifice for. Without such a mission, people become unhealthy.

In other words: Junger is stating what the Bible has said for millennia: you need a mission. It’s a basic human requirement.

Here are some quotes from the book:

Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. (xvii)

According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as 8 times the rate they do in poor countries, and people in countries with large income disparities– like the United States– run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders. (p. 20)

[Poorer people experience lower rates of depression.] The reason for this seems to be that poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live in closer communities. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. (p. 20 – 21)

Modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values (money, possessions, status) over intrinsic ones (sense of purpose, competence, moral/ethical/spiritual conviction), and as a result, mental health issues rise along with growing wealth. (p. 22)

Speaking of the extremely close bonds created by hardship in danger, “We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” (p. 94)

The last time United States experienced a significant period of unity was briefly after the terrorist attacks of September 11. There were no rampage shootings for the next two years. The effect was particularly pronounced in New York City, where rates of violent crime, suicide, and psychiatric disturbances dropped immediately in many countries, antisocial behavior is known to decline during wartime. New York suicide rate dropped by about 20% in the six months following the attacks, the murder rate dropped by 40%, and pharmacist saw no increase in the number of first-time patients filling prescriptions for anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication. (p. 115-116)

I agree with Junger’s thesis and much (not all) of his analysis, but – unsurprisingly – he does not give a solution. The only part of Junger’s analysis which I disagree with is that he chalks everything up to human evolution, whereas I, as a Christian, believe that the need for mission is part of God’s design in creating us. That aside, the main idea of the book is absolutely correct – and the Bible has been teaching these things for millennia, AND giving the solution!

In fact, there are so many verses in the Bible which relate to this subject, that I only have space here for a few:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. (1 Timothy 6:9-12)

we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

Furthermore, in Christ, we have been given a mission – THE mission – which really matters and is worth living for and dying for and sacrificing for, and all of us are called to play a role in it – no matter what our vocation. It is the only mission which ultimately matters; it is the only mission which will ultimately save the world, and we have full confidence that it will succeed, because we’ve already been told how the story ends…

In order to have joy, you need a mission. Embrace Jesus and get engaged in his mission.

And a final thought: How did Jesus design his mission to be accomplished? Through the church. That’s one of the reasons why church matters… to God, to you, and to the world.