How churches can help prevent pastor suicides

suicidal thoughts

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he last year has been witness to a spate of pastors committing suicide. At times the pastor has left no note. For some there is no apparent explanation for what Frank Page has called, “A permanent solution to what is usually a temporary problem.”

When a pastor kills himself there is always speculation about secret sins (addictions, affairs, and the like), but I suspect–absent later revelations–the enormous pressure of the pastorate, coupled with depression, are the culprits.

Licensed professional counselor, Bowden McElroy, said this to me via FB message,

Not everyone who is depressed becomes suicidal, but all who attempt suicide are depressed. The nature of depression centers around thoughts of hopeless and helplessness. Pastors struggle with all the issues everyone else does, plus the ones you listed above. But, there is the added pressure of hopelessness: ministers just aren’t supposed to be hopeless. Ever.

So…a pastor becomes depressed and then has a second, deeper level of depression because he’s depressed and hopeless. It’s tough to offer hope to others when one feels hopeless; so they paste on a smile and continue to preach hope, creating a greater sense of hopeless and helplessness.

The number one thing congregations can do is to create an environment where seeking help is not merely acceptable, but expected. An annual couple-checkup with an Christian counselor who is actually trained to do marital therapy (one course in grad school or seminary doesn’t count) would be helpful.

Taking advantage of insurance mental health benefits should be explored.

Do churches have a responsibility to help? Yes, and here are a few ways to do so.

Pray for your pastor and his family as much as or more than anyone else on your prayer list.
This is crucially important. Throughout my own pastoral ministry many, many people have prayed for us regularly. I cannot overstate how this carried us in good times and bad.

Deal quickly, firmly and biblically with unfounded criticism and the critics that promote it.
Pastor families can suffer through an incredible amount of negativity, typically inaccurate. Unfounded criticism is like mortar fire that destroys the pastor and family.

Give your pastor a minimum of three weeks paid vacation.
The amount and constancy stress on the typical pastor is nearly unimaginable. Many time days off do not feel like days off when a single phone call can change everything. Give him vacation time and pay him well enough to take the family on a trip.

Give your pastor a paid 4-week sabbatical every five years.
This should be in addition to vacation time. The sabbatical can be used for rest, travel, study, book writing, school, or whatever the pastor needs to be recharged. Frankly, I think any pastoral team member should get a sabbatical of some length every five years. The stakes are too high to burn out our leadership.

Provide counseling options for members other than the pastor.
I suggest two reasons for this. First, some pastors are terrible counselors. It is not a strength and it might do more harm that good. Second, some counseling is more routine and can be handled by someone other than a pastor. Pre-engagement and financial counseling would fall into this category.

Make church wedding costs official church policy.
Weddings are awesome events that can become a burden to the pastor and his family. It is true, your wedding is only a Friday night rehearsal and Saturday event. But, you are not the only wedding on the pastor’s docket and it can become an interference when 5-15 weekends a year are tied up with weddings. This is not even to mention some people think $50 is still a handsome reward for what amounts to more than five hours of time invested.

Create a church wedding policy applicable to everyone regardless of member or non-member. This policy should include facility rental, custodial clean-up, sound tech, and ministerial honorarium. If you are a multi-staff church, the policy should also clarify the minister can be any of the staff pastors. If pre-marriage counseling is required (and it should be) the honorarium should reflect the cumulative of counseling hours. The honorarium should be for three counseling sessions, rehearsal and ceremony should be at least $500. This policy should be set by the church.

Allow your pastor two ministry weeks a year minimum to be used for revivals, teaching opportunities, mission trips and the like.
These kinds of ministry opportunities allow for positive feedback from a different audience and can be like cold water to parched lips.

Stop acting as if your pastor and his family will never do any wrong, and stop judging them if they do.
I can only imagine the number of pastoral marriage arguments that take place trying to fulfill the expectations of church members. What he should wear, where she should sit, how the kids should behave (perfectly, of course), should his wife lead VBS or play the piano, and on and on.

Pastors are not perfect and their families can be just as troubled as any other family in the church. If you want a perfect pastor’s family, call Ken and Barbie. Replace the kids with some Betty Spaghetti characters. Then, mold the entire family as you see fit.

Build solid walls around his glass house to ensure a measure of privacy.
Some people think a pastor is on a pedestal. More often they feel like they live in a glass house where every decision, every choice of attire, every purchase is being evaluated by 50-5,000 people. The feelings are often valid. In my last pastorate I enjoyed as much freedom as one could possibly imagine, yet there was still a feeling of every move being watched and evaluated. It is the nature of the beast and churches should be motivated to protect their pastor’s privacy.

Provide for your pastor’s emotional health.
Ken Miller, counselor and national consultant at the North American Mission Board, wrote to me:

I think that pastor suicide prevention starts with churches that are willing to have a grace culture that recognizes and makes it okay for someone to say that they’re emotionally sick. Let’s face it. Emotional sickness is a part of being human. But churches, by and large, don’t know how to handle emotional sickness. Most churches can’t comprehend that their pastor would be capable of emotional sickness, much less they would have suicidal ideation or be planning suicide. Pastors are susceptible to emotional sickness like anybody else. A church that recognizes that and provides for their pastor’s emotional health with personal retreats, sabbaticals, and paying for therapy will go a long way to decreasing suicidal ideation, planning, or completion.

However, emotional health ultimately lies with the pastor. Too many pastors lack self-awareness and the willingness engage in self-care. Chaplains have been doing self-awareness and self-care pretty well for a long time. Pastors, not so much. I don’t think the the evangelical church or my denomination, Southern Baptists, do an adequate job of encouraging self-awareness and self-care. Since we don’t value or promote self-care, pastors emotional lives crash and the church declares them damaged goods no longer fit for leadership.

When a pastor is given the opportunity to engage in self-care, the likelihood of emotional crashes decreases significantly. If denominations and local churches provided more education and opportunities for self-care, the suicide rate of pastors would decrease significantly. That’s because the factors that feed suicide like anger, anxiety, depression, identity issues, and addictions would be addressed before hopelessness sets in. There are some people that struggle with depression throughout their life. Instead of being self-righteous and condescending toward them, how about we recognize that emotional sickness is part of the fall and address it holistically and redemptively instead of being so judgmental? We prescribe spiritual disciplines for spiritual health, why not prescribe retreats, sabbaticals, and therapy sessions for our pastor’s emotional health? It seems to me that 1 Thessalonians 5:23 is a great verse to begin dialogue around wholeness that the Gospel was intended to provide. I think it’s a much better approach to provide an environment and culture of prevention rather than damage control.

I personally went through an emotional crash a few years ago. I would have gone through far less pain had I been more self-aware. Me being part of a church that condemned emotional sickness rather than offering opportunities for emotional health didn’t help either. Instead, I crashed and the church I pastored and my family suffered, too. It doesn’t have to be that way. We have everything we need to do a better job of providing emotional healing and health to the body of Christ.

Suicide among pastors is troubling to the nth degree. Churches, let us do all we can do in ministering to those who minister faithfully to us.

More on depression:
From me: Depression: When the black dog howls.

From Randy Alcorn: Walking through Depression: God is with you.

Follow-up post by Ken Miller: 6 easy ways to contribute to your pastor’s emotional health

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

2 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • Doug

    From what I’ve read, it appears that the latest studies say that the average pastoral tenure is down to less than 4 years. I love the idea of providing some time for a sabbatical, and the 5 year mark sounds like a great idea, but since pastoral tenure is so brief, how would you approach the sabbatical idea. Would 3 years now become the new “normal”? Is that still too soon? If so, what would you suggest? Thanks.

    • martyduren

      That’s a really good question. The trend is one I overlooked.

      I would suggest churches with good long-pastor track records set the example in providing sabbaticals at 5 years. Smaller churches or churches without a history of long-tenured pastors may be the last ones to adopt the mindset, though such pastors can be the most in need of a sabbatical. Maybe pastoral candidates simply have to introduce the concept during the interview process. As Ken noted, pastors are ultimately responsible for their own mental health.

  • ansonheath

    Just wondering – how much of this might be affected by lack of delegating? Delegating must be part of discipling – and discipling must be a process of maturing for every member of the church. This is not an easy task, especially for the ‘nanny’ mindset of most churches today. Yes, we need to support one another in all situations, but we cannot do that without the maturation of every member. Making disciples is not preaching the gospel. Hebrews 5:11-14 has something to say about this.
    Our culture is a reflection of our families (what’s left of them) and our churches – both in commission and omission. I’m afraid that what we are witnessing in the the demise of pastors is symptomatic of our entire church culture. It will take more than therapy to right our course. It will require a return to seriously make disciples as originally instructed by our Savior Himself.

  • This is an excellent post about a tremendous problem, Marty. Thanks for tackling it head on.

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