Suicide, Depression, and Pastors: One Way Church Members Can Help


The suicide death of a young pastor is being felt throughout the world. Andrew Stoecklein, lead pastor of Inland Hills Church in California, left behind his wife, Kayla, and three young sons.

I am the father of three sons. I cannot look at a photo of the young family without getting tears in my eyes.

Please Hear Me Well

This post is not about suicide prevention. More able persons have written volumes on the topic. It is not about the Stoecklein family, though their story prompted this post.

I am writing this article because I want to have a frank conversation with congregational members around the world. I want you to hear me clearly. I want to offer one way you can help.

The Struggles of Pastors

Most pastors are not suicidal. But most pastors do struggle. They lead churches in a culture that is not friendly to their calling. Three-fourths of them lead churches that are struggling by almost any measure or metric. Many pastors are on the precipice of quitting, and most church members have no idea of their inner turmoil.

In the midst of these cultural and congregational challenges, these pastors see a decided shift among the members. Their commitment level is low, and their frequency of attendance is decreasing. Many of the members are in the congregation to get their personal preferences fulfilled. And if you mess with their preferred worship style, order of worship, time of worship, color of carpet, or any facet of the church facility, they will let you know. Their trinitarian priority is me, myself, and I.

These pastors have been stabbed in the front by church members and stabbed in the back by other staff. They love their church members; but they are deeply hurt when that love is returned with cynicism, criticism, and apathy.

One Way to Help

Yet, these pastors tell us, the greatest pain is not the criticism and cynicism by some of the members. The greatest pain is when the “good members” remain silent, when they do nothing to come to the aid and defense of their pastors. The good members don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to incur the wrath of the pastor attackers. They think they are maintaining unity. Instead they are tearing down their pastor with their malignant silence. Their efforts to maintain peace sow the greatest seeds of destruction.

The one thing you can do as a church member is to stand up for your pastor in the midst of the ongoing and vociferous criticism. Speak up; don’t shut up. Let the ill-intending critics and cynics know you support your pastor, you love your pastor, and you are there for your pastor.

I know. Pastors aren’t perfect. There is no need to comment to me about that obvious reality. But in the labor pool of church members, we have an overflow of critics and an acute shortage of courageous encouragers.

Your pastor can withstand the barbs and insults and tepid commitment of most church members. That is the world pastors have sadly come to expect. But your pastors can only withstand them if they know they have some vocal and visible advocates and encouragers.

Please stand up. Please speak up.

It may be the single greatest difference maker in your pastor’s ministry.

Posted on September 3, 2018

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • As a Church Administrator myself, I totally agree with your comments about the struggles Pastors face. Thank you for highlighting these struggles for us to stand up for our Shepherds. They deserve our unparalleled support. They are human after all and let us respect their Spiritual Calling.

    Thank you

  • Your comments about the struggles pastors face are very real, and far more common that most might imagine. Let me expand that circle. Now imagine those same struggles of associate pastors or ministerial staff, who are sometimes stabbed in the front by church members, stabbed in the back by other staff, AND stabbed in the heart by their lead pastor. It is indeed terrible when a lead pastor is mistreated and not given the love and support they deserve. But the situation is even worse for an associate when a lead pastor turns against them, and I believe it happens far more often.

    For instance, I know a church that over the years had fired a string of 14 consecutive associate pastors before the lay leadership finally figured out the issue was largely in their lead pastor. Once they did, they treated him very poorly – exactly the same way he had treated those 14 associates: out the door will little in the way of time to find another position, severance pay, help with health insurance or housing. Of course, they should have treated him, and those previous associate pastors, with the kind of love and support you are describing. Had they done so, at least 15 families would have been far better off, and perhaps some of these forced terminations might have been avoided. I share this, not to attack lead pastors, but to underline the fact that a church must treat EVERY leader (and member) with Godly love, not just the lead pastor.

    • Paid staff can be among the most divisive with their *own* agenda replete with spear-heading a parish council and member following that undermines the pastor, parish progress and any opportunity for accountability, transparency, strategic planning and change.

      Paid staff are typically the closest to the pastor~ positioned the closest to acquire the *ammunition* to destroy the pastor and the parish.

      I do not believe most of the church conflict is member initiated; I believe it starts among the staff and governance body who develop a culture where there are no avenues for members to *safely* oppose the posse.

      That’s my story, and I am sticking to it.

      Pastors beware of those with whom you work side-by-side on a daily basis.

      • I have no doubt that can be true, Candice. I’ve seen it. But I’ve seen the lead pastor be the aggressor far more often. Sometimes it was over worship wars. Sometimes petty jealousy. Sometimes it was a misguided attempt to put “beautiful people” (by the world’s standards) on the platform to attract the “right” people. Sometimes it was to compensate for the fact that the lead pastor was getting old, so he thought that if he fired his old staff and hired young ones no one would notice. Sometimes it was sheer economics – staff ministers who had been there for a long time had gotten periodic raises, where a youngster just starting out would work cheap. I’ve seen each of these abuses, too.

  • Amen, Dr. Rainer! The same support ought to be extended the pastors family as well. They are often targets also.

    By the way, happy retirement! Thank you for your investment into the Kingdom!

  • When you try to be open and honest with parishioners, some will look at you as though you are not being Christlike when you no longer want to suffer abuse and others assume you have some form of mental instability. It seems you can’t win no matter what you do.

    • Several years ago I bought a book called “Leading Your Church Through Conflict and Resolution”. It contained a chapter called “Wars You Can’t Win”. The upshot of it is twofold: (1) Some church battles simply cannot be won, and (2) if you find yourself in the midst of such a battle, it’s no disgrace for you to get out.

  • Dr. Rainer nails it once again! Thank you for being the pastors champion.

  • Thanks for sharing. We need more exposure of this reality. Having dealt with this ourselves in the local church and helping others who have experienced it, as counselors and pastors we launched Perissos this year, a ministry caring for those in ministry. With the respect that you and your post deserve, I don’t want to use your post as a marketing tool but I would like to let you know that we are out there at if we can be of assistance. We’re trying to connect pastors with those that understand to minimize the loneliness rate of those in ministry. Ironic but true that pastors are some of the loneliest people we know. It was just days ago that we lost Andrew Stoecklein a young California pastor and of course there have been others before him. Thanks for all you do and prayers for those in the struggle.

  • I was a pastor’s wife. My husband died 3 years ago not from suicide but I believe depression and a brokenheart had a part in his death. One person through falsehoods (lies), because the individual couldn’t have their way, turned some in the church against him(us) and persuaded them to leave the church. Some where church leaders and a lifelong friend. My husband tried to reconcile, although he did nothing to this individual, but was rejected. He said it didn’t bother him but it hurt him deeply. I know how much he loved the church (the people) and how much he sacrificed for the church.The Word is true by one man sin entered into world and death by sin. Oh the power of one. I know the pain and struggle of this kind of loss. My heart goes out to his family and those in the church who did loved him. I pray that the Lord will comfort and give them His peace and be a very present help and their refuge and strength.

  • Wow! I’m just coming off a sabbatical. One I needed so bad. I was burned out and tired. And very disappointed in myself for not being stroger. I have put it off a sabbatical for several years. Infact, I have over 6 months of sabbaticals built up. There never was a good time to be gone and take for years. To those close to me, I shared with them, “I’m done.” I started talking about retirement, but financially it is not possible. And during this sabbatical I spent over a week with my wife as her mother was dying.
    Now back in the saddle. I hope I’m ready to return to the many demands. One of my greatest struggles was that so many leaders did not understand. I felt judged and guilty for feeling this way. There is more to my story, but this is long enough. Thanks for posting this, it made me feel better and not so alone. I know that I still have some healing to do.

  • Thank you, Dr. Rainer. Please keep telling “the story.” Hurting silently, without friends, is one of the hardest parts of being a minister and a minister’s spouse. Watching your spouse suffer and not being able to “fix it” is so very difficult. Being a prayer warrior for my church staff, my church, my husband, and my family is imperative. When ministers are “stabbed in the front by church members and stabbed in the back by other church staff,” they aren’t the only ones who hurt. Their families suffer as well. Because a minister’s family goes to church with him, when he is “asked” to leave, the whole family has just been “asked” to leave. And when he did nothing unethical and is not even given a reason for “resigning,” even his children, especially teenagers and young adults, are affected. Their desire to be a part of a church can be greatly diminished, which in turn affects their own families, too. Is that the legacy a church wants to perpetuate in the culture in which we live? After watching it happen to us, what you said is so true. It has been several years ago now, and my husband still says what you said: “The greatest pain is when the ‘good members’ remain silent.” ONE friend stood up in the business meeting for us. Because everything was “handled under the table” so well while we were without a senior pastor, most people in the church never knew. After two decades in that church, many members “congratulated us” and asked where our new church was; or they congratulated us on our retirement, and we weren’t even old enough to retire. They were totally unaware of what their lay leadership was doing. However: I want to offer HOPE to those in “our shoes.” Ephesians 3:20-21 still applies, and our Almighty God can do anything! He has taken that pain and used it to draw us closer to Him. He has given us a new church in which to serve Christ. No, it’s not a perfect church. It wouldn’t have been perfect after we joined, if that had been the case. But for the first time in over thirty years, we are finally in a church where we feel loved and accepted and cared for by the members. God has used those events and that pain to call me to reach other to other ministers’ families with the news that “yes,” He can and He will walk with you through these storms. It’s time for those of us in ministry to love and care for each other, too. Thank you for the opportunity to share a little of our story. PLEASE: keep sharing the story so others will know they aren’t alone. God bless you, Dr. Rainer, as you work to serve the needs of ministry families. And congratulations on your retirement! Thank you!

    P.S. I asked my minister husband to read this before I posted it, and he said to me, “I understand. I have stood on ‘the edge.’ As a matter of fact, I have stood closer to ‘the edge’ than you or anyone else knows, and it is only by the grace of God that I am here today.” Pastors and ministers preach hope, but they often find themselves in places and situations where they feel absolutely hopeless. Thank you for being a voice of understanding, encouragement, solace and hope. Keep being that voice. The soldiers in the trenches need your voice.

    • Such a powerful and insightful comment. Thank you for sharing.

    • The PKs; the preachers’ kids. My heart out to all the children of clergy. They did not ask to be in such a conundrum, and a family life that can be a trip from hell.

      I have two protestant friends~ each of whom have a Lutheran pastor as a father. Now adults, they yet struggle from the persistent criticism they lived among the congregants.

      And, ironically, both are recovering alcoholics. An alcohol habit that began as teens.

      Pray for Preachers’ Kids.

  • Bill Abernathy says on

    Thanks, Thom. Very insightful. God has blessed me to serve long ministries in 2 great churches, but even there this exists. There have been mornings I’ve opened my email after enduring a long and difficult meeting the night before. I’ve longed for just a note from someone there saying, “Thanks for standing for the truth. I’m praying for you.” Most of the time it’s not there, but when it is it makes SO much difference. God is always there, and we KNOW that, but sometimes we long for someone to speak with Him! I wish there was an avenue to get your posts out to the wider church audience when pastors hesitate to post things which seem self-serving. This post is one every church member should read.

    • Bill –

      I was just in conversation with my team. This post is traveling pretty fast on Facebook right now. All indicators point to a widespread readership by church members there.

  • It does get discouraging when church people are apathetic. And yet we can be encouraged, for God says to us, “Go and I will be with you, and will tell you what to say. Be strong and of good courage; haven’t I sent you? I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

  • I have a question. I have never been a pastor. I have been in church for nearly 30 years, all Baptist churches. As far as I know, every church I have attended has treated the pastor well. We give him and his family gifts, we talk, we love on them, we pray for them. Everyone seems to speak highly of him. Not just the current one, but past ones as well. I have never witnessed at all the backstabbing and attacks you all are speaking of.

    So, am I simply blessed, as well as the pastors I knew, or is there some suffering in silence. In other words, if people I do not know call the pastor and tell him “leave” and I never hear about it… how can I defend him, because I would. I am simply trying to understand the level of agreement about the attacks on pastors. That is all anathema to me.

    Second, people are regularly told that the most important thing in church is unity, peace, and love. If people start criticizing the pastor, I suspect the reason many do not stand up is to “keep the peace.” That is completely wrong, but that is the reason. We need to teach people to judge righteously, in addition to having peace and unity.

    • Some churches are very good to their pastors, so it’s entirely possible that you’ve been blessed. I’ve been a pastor for 23 years. I’ve had long tenures at two different churches, and both have treated me well. However, I realize some of my friends and colleagues haven’t been so fortunate.

    • Troy Weigert says on

      It is possible that the general culture of your church is a good one so you don’t usually hear about the stuff “behind the scenes”. I have been in a great church for 11 years with some very loving people, but there have been plenty of nasty hurtful people through our doors. They seem to come and go as just part of life. I don’t know that you need to go looking for problem-causers, just look for ways to speak an encouraging word, that can make a huge difference.