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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  • This is so good. I grew up as a pastor’s daughter and i can honestly say that overall, it was a wonderful experience. That is because of two things, I believe. One is that my parents did a good job shielding my brother & I from the harshest criticism. Another is that our church had a solid group of people who did exactly as you are suggesting. They spoke up, they loved us, & they encouraged us. It truly made all the difference.

  • Thom,

    Thank you for bringing this discussion forward. It is an important issue to me for several reasons.

    The first reason is that in my ministry I deal with many pastors who experience significant emotional pain that flows directly from their ministries.

    The second reason is that – this is hard to say and will take some explanation, which I promise – the fault actually lies with the pastors themselves. Specifically, their reactions to the adverse experiences of ministry either enable them to learn, become stronger, and lead more effectively or they produce anger, sadness, and guilt.

    In our practice we have dealt with many pastors who endure severely adverse experience. Many of them come up a bit ruffled up but still vertical and taking nourishment. Many of them are crushed. The difference is not in the adversity but in how the pastor react.

    The emotional and intellectual processes undergirding their reactions are imprinted on them in their families of origin. Life experience is filtered through the cognitive shortcuts they develop as children, which filtering results in selective reinforcement of those shortcuts by virtue of the well known process of confirmation bias.

    So, those who grow up in families skilled at dealing with adversity in positive fashion are more resilient and less susceptible to many of the struggles your post mentions. Those who grow up in less skilled families are less resilient and more susceptible to the negative consequences of adverse circumstances. (The work of Bowen and Friedman illustrate this from the Family Systems perspective. The work of Seligman and others at the U Penn Positive Psychology program provide research that supports these assertions from the individual level.).

    Take the issue of “low commitment” which you mention. Passive aggressive behavior, which manifests in lowered commitment, is often the result of the way the pastor exercises leadership. “Consensus” leaders always push the group toward unanimity, with little tolerance for dissenting voices (who are often quite willing to cooperate with the majority view!). In time people learn that the quickest way to get to a decision or bring the meeting to a close is to offer ceremonial agreement. Agreements are made, with no intention of their actually being kept. Everyone’s in on the scheme but nobody will name it. The pastor accepts the bargain and, in spite of personal frustration, tolerates the lack of follow-thru and lackluster commitment. He thus avoids the hard work of confronting the dishonest behavior that has become an accepted practice within the system.

    Are church members nasty at times? Of course!

    Do church members occasionally inflict deliberate harm on pastors? Of course!

    Let me ask, though, which pastors will suffer greater damage as a result? The pastor who looks to affirmation and love from the church members, or the one who looks to Christ? This may seem like a trick question, but the fact is the vast majority of pastors, probably approaching the 75% you reference, are looking for love in all the wrong places. That is another reason why they suffer.

    The real solution to this problem is not in the hands of the church members. Looking for others to solve our problem leaves us in the same condition we were in when they injured us: the victim.

    The person who has the power to turn this around is the pastor and no one else. The pastor cannot control how other people behave. But the pastor can learn to understand his emotional reaction to adverse consequences and master the skill of responding to adversity from a position of strength and principle, regardless of what others do or say.

    It is, thankfully, a learned set of skills. They are easy to understand, hard to master, but ultimately very powerful.

    When I first started coaching and mentoring pastors some 18 years ago, I often sympathized with and pitied them. Not any longer. Empathy, of course. Feeling their pain, of course.

    My response today is that it is time for them to step up, change the underlying cognitive processes that produce those painful emotions (remember, the adversity does not produce the emotion, otherwise all pastors would respond the the same way to adversity), and learn to lead.

    It is a tough row for many. But once they see the paradigm and learn the skills, it is a transformative experience

  • Hi Thom,

    This article and the comments are all heart breaking. I’m not a pastor and have never been on church staff but I’ve seen the hidden politics and problems of the many churches. I have a heart for people that have been broken and feel alone (as I hope we all do). I know the expectations put on pastors, their wife and kids are too much and crushing. This article and the comments are the fruit and we have to trace it back to the roots to make changes. The problem is, I’m afraid the leadership in the institution won’t walk the road it will take to make the changes and may be the last to come around. The foundation the institution sits on is flawed at it’s core and has been for hundreds of years, if not from almost the very beginning. I’ve spoken with many pastors and most will acknowledge the problems and just resolve to do their best within the broken system not knowing how to change it. After all they’ve been trying to change it for years and it’s the same. There are those of us on the outside that see another way but we’re pushed out by the nature of the system itself. I know what I’m saying isn’t going to be popular but I love the body of Jesus so I can’t sit by and not say anything.

    Here’s something to think about…. When you’re in a storm, you often can’t see the way ahead because you’re in the middle of it. But someone outside of it can easily see what’s going on and the direction to move forward. I think the institutional leaders must go to people who are on the outside for help. Many of us can see much more clearly because we’re not in the mix.

    Much love.

  • Carla Vornheder says on

    I appreciate this article. I just want to add one thing. I got to know my pastor because I counseled with him off and on for so many years. We discussed once his inability to develop good men friends there in the church. He was a strong presence, and I guess everybody . . . we all wanted the best for him, but people who would have made good friends experienced him as more of an authority than a friend. Ever since this, I try to remember that my pastor would have good friends.

  • Thom, may we publish this with attribution to you and your website in the (South Carolina) Baptist Courier?

  • So, so sad–Body of Christ, please act like you really are! I am sad that early in our Christian walk, we did not stand against false accusations of a pastor brought on by members we respected, not recognizing the heart of it at the time. If your motivation in life is not to LOVE others, you’re not “doing” life correctly. Time to do a soul-search & see if pride, jealousy, or some other ungodly thing is behind whatever accusation you have against your pastor or staff(and remember that future-king David REFUSED to do wrong to King Saul, knowing that God Himself would take care of any injustice!). Thank you for this article–a great reminder to BLESS others!

  • As much as this message needs to be ‘out there’, many pastors also will have their facebook pages and other social media platforms trolled by the very bullies in their churches you speak of. To repost this would be spun to say the pastor is either too thin skinned and weak for the job or as an attack on their church.
    My husband and I are co-pastors and what you say is so very, very true. In the midst of the worst of it someone said to me, “Pastors come and go, who cares about them. We’re the church and we’re what matters.” Its amazing that it only takes 5-10 determined people to drive out a pastor and pastor’s family no matter the size of the congregation. The dear people who did speak on our behalf were quickly ostracized and kicked out as well.
    We are at a new calling, things seem good here, but the wounds are so raw even after years. It doesn’t matter if a person is “standing up” for their pastor or just offering some basic kindness, appreciation, and encouragement. It makes a huge difference.

  • I think the bigger problem here is that our church system sets pastors up to fail. It’s not a matter of if they will crack, but when…unless they pastor an financially thriving church or simply welcome suffering. This is not the model God intended for his church. These are the same kind of things that business owners deal with each and everyday…and the word pastor should not be synonymous with business owner or CEO…but it sort of has become that. The best thing we could do to save these men and women is to relieve them of their power and get back to basics. If they are spiritually gifted to pastor by God, then not receiving a paycheck won’t stop them from the mandated purpose. Jesus Christ is the only one who can be the cornerstone of the new temple of God or the head of the church body. The rest of us our simply living stones and body parts. Throughout the old testament, God raised up various judges as his people sinned against him. For far too long the church of God has built countless idols and have sinned against God by focusing on all the wrong things. At best, we ran back to legalistic religion and at worst, we have watered Jesus down to be a product we market and profit from. Today the local church is more like the local synagogue during the time of Christ. Good things can happen there and Jesus and the his followers did in fact go there, but God designed and instructed them to something so much more. Until we surrender our church kingdoms, security, personal dreams and goals (not calling), we will not be able to see or enter the kingdom of God. I feel for pastors (the position). I wish they could let go and unleash God’s purpose and people on the world.


  • This is timely as my husband lost his job last week and we don’t know why. Our lay leaders that we trusted, respected, and always felt encouraged by have not stood up but seem to be supporting his decision. We didn’t see this coming and after almost a decade of service, our severance is only a couple of weeks pay. My husband’s spirit is crushed. Shaking my head…

  • Thank you for writing this article, I run a small prayer group, “MEN SHOULD ALWAYS PRAY”. I too am a leader (Minister) and i have been talked about, betrayed, stabbed by those that claim to have my back. I believe it has a lot to do with fear. You don’t have to commit suicide in the physical you can commit suicide in the spirit, by focusing on the people (the prophet Jeremiah did but he realize what was in him was like fire). No it was not easy, knowing people were trying to sabotage the ministry and others knew and said nothing, but
    A CHARGE TO KEEP I HAVE…I’m going to do my Master’s will. Be encouraged, pat your own self on the back! Press towards the mark.

  • Thank you, Thom,
    I have been in the ministry for several years and presently experiencing the cruel biting from the sheep, while others sit idle and do nothing. Over the years my wife and I have endured these similar attacks from “God’s people”. My wife is at a breaking point and I am ready to give-up, but God will not let me quit. We are in a place that is extremely challenging. They do not want any more salvation messages, altar calls, or any more growth in the church. They have informed me that I must find a new church, as soon as I can. We have been looking but currently, we have not had much success.
    We are Simply tired and wore out from being under constant attack! The “church” or the ruling party in the church has quit talking to my wife and I, and do not involve us in anything. They make all the decisions now and refuse to listen to anything that I say. We are starting to fear that most of our churches are like this…We are discouraged and looking for some hope! We would appreciate your prayers.

  • Trudie Beth Guffin says on

    Thank you for your article. Having been a minister’s wife the past 29 years, it has been a rewarding, fulfilling, challenging, honor to serve. During those many years of service we have been loved on, included in family gatherings and dinners, encouraged and uplifted as well as being prayed over. We have made life-long friends who mean the world to us. For those times I am forever grateful and will always hold dear to my heart.
    In those 29 years as a minister’s wife, I have seen my husband hurt with those who hurt, be their confidant, their encourager, counselor, teacher, pastor and friend. He has prayed for and held the hands of those who would step into the presence of Jesus at any moment, as well as prayed for a new mother and her precious newborn. He served out of obedience and sacrifice but mostly out of love for Christ and His people.
    No one can fully understand the weight, pressure and expectancy that is placed upon a pastor than perhaps a fellow minister or a pastor’s wife. It is imperative that God’s people pray for their pastor, support him, encourage him, realizing that even though he is called by God, he is human.