Reducing the Rate of Pastoral Suicides

December 17, 2013

Suicide is not a new issue by any means. When a family member of a pastor commits suicide, we’re certainly sad and feel for the pastor and other family members. When a pastor commits suicide, now THAT we don’t expect. It’s a bit more deeply disturbing to most I’ve talked with about it.

We were all shocked and saddened when Rick & Kay Warren’s son, Matthew, committed suicide last April. I’ve been encouraged by the way the Warren’s held on to their faith AND how they’ve admitted to struggling honestly and even publicly. Even though they took a good amount of time out of the spotlight, they revealed themselves from time to time through social media as they processed their pain and loss.

However, the last few months have seen an increase of pastors themselves committing suicide. The most recent to hit the news is last Tuesday’s suicide of Isaac Hunter in Florida. He’s the son of Pastor Joel Hunter of Northland, A Church Distributed. Isaac resigned a year ago as Pastor of Summit Church, a church that had grown to over 5,000 people since he founded it in 2002. The year has been tumultuous and public. His resignation revolved around revelation of an affair and as the ensuing months unfolded, so did more news of domestic violence charges and assertions of his suicidal struggles.

There have been others in the last several weeks: Pastor Teddy Parker Jr. and Pastor Ed Montgomery

Every story has its own nuances and details. It seems likely that there were some significant mental health issues Isaac ( and Teddy & Ed) was struggling with. I’m not claiming that I know the history or circumstances for any of these dear men, nor am I diagnosing them. I don’t think any of us would question that something was happening for anyone’s mental health when despair reaches the point of suicidal thoughts or attempts.

There are lots of reasons anyone gets to this place. Not the least of which has to do with the ongoing and unmanaged issue of prolonged stress. You can read more about this regarding pastors here.

Ultimately, we have to ask: what can we do reduce the rate of pastoral suicides?

This is NOT a simple question, but I want to offer a couple of ideas:

1. Allow ourselves to be people first, before we are “pastor”.

I’ve heard it said in many places that “Pastors don’t get into trouble because they forget that they’re pastors. They get into trouble because they forget that they’re people.”

Remove the invisible Superman cape from your personas. Jesus already died for the Church. Why are you giving your life for it all over again? Let Him be the Shepherd and serve as His assistant. He can take care of things when you’re resting. He really can! Sabbath is good for your soul

Allow others to preach and lessen the expectation of yourself to be “the man (or woman)” every weekend. Slowly scale back your preaching schedule and ask the Lord to give you the right people to develop into this role.

Use your vacation time as it is intended, as down time. Too many of us “invest” our vacations preaching for our friends because “it energizes me.” That’s drawing on false energy for one’s soul. Your family wants you and needs you.

Identify the unrealistic, unspoken expectations that all pastors tend to labor underneath unnecessarily. Accept yourself as a person who struggles with the same issues that your congregants do. You need the same, if not more, support to overcome those struggles. Seek it and submit to it.

2. Address mental and emotional health as a discipleship issue

This is an area of life that the “C”hurch originally was seen as the primary caretaker of. Before we had “asylums” and “mental institutions”, the Church was the caretaker of what were seen as disturbed souls. Now we’re learning so much more about neuroscience, the brain and mental health.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, the Church is behind the curve, taking the easy road of brushing off mental illness as a “spiritual issue”. Instead, let’s get up to speed with the times, and the gifts of brilliant minds that God has created to help us get here and be able to resource the people we meet who struggle.

As a Pastor, I highly encourage you to read The Emotionally Healthy Church and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Pete Scazzero. The thesis is “you cannot be spiritually mature and emotionally immature; you cannot separate your spiritual maturity from your emotional maturity”. This speaks directly to much of what we are seeing happen with Christians as well as pastors.

At the church I pastor, we now teach Emotionally Healthy Spirituality in our discipleship process. We consider it a core piece of how we help people grow spiritually.

An organization called Mental Health First Aid USA has launched a certification program in many cities that is often offered for free. The class is called “Mental Health First Aid”. You can see their website to check for classes near you. In my city, our local Park District hosts the class every month. Recently, I church engaged them and we are now hosting the class for our city once every 3-4 months. We provide the room, they provide the instructors.

Any pastor has learned and knows that we can lead the proverbial horse to water, but we can’t make them drink. Well, just so happens, the same is true for us! Again, we are people before we are pastors.

What else can be done to reduce the rate of pastoral suicides? I’d love to hear your ideas!

What Bill Hybels Wants Every Pastor To Know

June 24, 2012

…. how he got into counseling. Yes, you read that right! Bill Hybels really wants you to know that he’s in counseling, and he believes you should be too. I happen to agree with Bill.

Did you know they actually require counselors to be in therapy in order to become a counselor, because you can’t give away what you don’t have? Seems to make sense.

How much more important for pastors! We’re dealing with people’s eternity! And often the way we get there is helping them deal emotionally in healthy ways. Yet, most of us don’t know how either, and need just as much help as our people do.

I encourage you to watch, listen, pray, discern. Enjoy!

What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There, Part 4

February 16, 2012

In an occasional series, we’ve been addressing the issue of insecurity in leadership. Perry Noble came out today with a great list of ways you can determine whether or not you are a leader who struggles with insecurity.

Quick disclaimers: We ALL struggle with insecurity when it comes right down to it. There is only ONE perfect person. His name was Jesus. “I know Jesus. And you are not Jesus.” Don’t mean to put you off with that, just speaking to myself and anyone else who wants to be honest. Check your Superman cape at the door please!

Perry’s GREAT list is here.

What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There, Part 3

July 11, 2011

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on this issue of insecurity in pastor and leaders. Recently, I read something that Mark Batterson (pastor of National Community Church in Washington DC) wrote about the topic:

He wrote:

I think influence and insecurity are opposites.  Insecure leaders don’t hire high competence people thereby limiting their influence.  Their insecurity manifests itself by surrounding themselves with people that will prop up their ego instead of taking things to the next level. It’s the Saul complex. David was his greatest asset, but Saul perceived him as his greatest threat.  If you’re insecure, assets are perceived as threats.

I think this is so true, or at least it’s been my experience. Sometimes the largest barriers to moving to further levels in your leadership have to do with how much you’re willing to release others to THEIR fullest potential, even if it outmeasures YOURS.

Thoughts?

What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There, Part 2

May 31, 2011

In my last post (too long ago), I mentioned I would be writing more on the issue of insecurity, especially within pastors and leaders. Today, I introduce you to Scott Couchenour. You can get to know him here. I encourage you to get to know him better by following him at his blog, Twitter, and wherever else you can. He’s got some really good ministry leadership stuff going!

I’ve asked Scott to give us some of his thoughts on insecurity….enjoy! Then again, maybe that’s the wrong word? Or is that my insecurity talking? Whatever. Here you go!


Insecure. That’s me. I bet it’s you too. I bet all God’s children are insecure. I trip on the sidewalk and look back to see what to blame it on. I look around to see if anyone saw me stumble. Why do I do this? Why do I care? We were born for community and yet that very community makes me… well, insecure.

I believe the human condition of insecurity is a blessing. Insecurity. Any dictionary will tell you it’s synonymous with fear, doubt, lack of confidence, lack of assurance. “How can this be a blessing?”, you ask. Here’s what I’m thinking. If I wake up confident, assured, full of “bring-it-on” mentality, I run the eventual risk of becoming just like Adam as he bit into the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I run the risk of becoming my own god. No fear. No doubt. Confident in my abilities. Assured of my planned outcomes. Living under the influence of the intoxication of success. I develop my plan and, to “sanctify” it, ask God to bless my efforts.

I believe insecurity grows out of failure. We can all point to a failure in our past. We remember it. For some, this failure haunts like an illusive thorn in the flesh. But here’s the good news. Failure-to-insecurity. Insecurity-to-rock-bottom. Rock-bottom-to-ready. Ready for what? Ready for being used by God to bring about Kingdom business. King Jehoshaphat knew what it was like to be insecure in his army’s ability when he said, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.” (2 Chronicles 20.12, bold mine). “But”. Now that’s a big but!

God leads me best when I stop leading myself. When I reach the bottom where I have no more confidence in me and my abilities, I become a well-tilled plot of rich soil for God to work His plan. I have no agenda. I have no conditions. I have no proviso’s. Just me. Ready for God to use as He sees appropriate. And God says, “Yes! NOW, here we go…”

Are you insecure?

How are you turning your insecurity into your greatest asset for God?


Scott Couchenour

Life Coach at ServingStrong.com

VP Operations at Cogun.com

Resources and coaching for the ministry leader to avoid burnout.

What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There

March 22, 2011

A few recent conversations with a pastor friend of mine have raised an issue that I’ve found true for my life. Maybe you can relate to it as well.

My friend has been in full-time ministry as a Senior Pastor for over 30 years. He’s served in his current assignment for about 25 of those years. He faithfully served this congregation and city for the first 13 years whittling away with a few handfuls of people that quickly became dozens of families.

Over the past 12 years, he’s been privileged to see numerical breakthrough happen, so that now the Church he serves is averaging almost 1,000 people every weekend.

Not that numbers are everything. They aren’t. Matter of fact, this friend of mine will gladly tell you that numbers come with their own burdens.

Anyway, he’s been conversing with a few other pastors of similar size churches and larger. These guys are coming to a painful, but truthful, conclusion. They’ve been honest enough with each other to admit that much of their pursuit to this point of their lives has been rooted in validating their own insecurities.

Imagine that! Pastors being honest with each other! Go figure!

It’s NOT that everything they’ve done has been selfish or egocentric or for their own personal gain. It hasn’t. I know these men. They follow hard after God and want the best for people and for God’s Kingdom.

It IS that as they are growing personally and maturing as men, they are learning that everyone is insecure! Did you hear that? We are ALL insecure.

We are all humans who battle with our insecurities on a daily basis, whether we recognize it or not. The only difference between these guys and others is that they are starting to recognize it while others aren’t.

Those unaware busily go about their lives spinning their wheels for one supposed reason, when all the while, the truth is that the wheels spin to make them feel better about themselves and what they are doing (whatever it is they are doing, ministry or not). And the numbers validate their worth and busy-ness.

What is also true for my friend and the group he is talking with is that they are fatigued and spent. They’re not burned out, just uncertain that what they’ve “achieved” to this point has been worth the cost and energy. They know that they must change the way they do life and ministry in order to get where God wants them to go from here. So, their learnings don’t stop here.

They are boiling down their lesson to this: what got us here won’t get us there!

Here is this current place of recognized achievement and supposed success shown in an ever-increased followership. There is the future place that they know God is calling them to go that is beyond the current place they now find themselves in.

They know without a doubt that what got us here (insecurity) won’t get us there (God’s intended future). So, what are they doing about it? That’s for another post.

For now, your thoughts on what they’re learning?

Is There Such A Thing As Christian Pornography?

February 21, 2011

I admit the title of this post is extreme. Let’s get that out of the way right now.

I think there is such a thing as Christian pornography.

I could probably have thought of a better term for what I am thinking, but I suspect that many pastors will relate to what I’m saying. I would appreciate your feedback, but let’s make it honest, not just “you could’ve thought of a better term”. I’ve already admitted that.

In my opinion (not saying it’s yours, or that it has to be yours), and in my personal and pastoral experience, many conferences, especially our obsession for them, border on being “Christian pornography”. For years, I went to conferences to learn what others were doing that I could do better. To see how other churches were reaching their communities in ways that ours wasn’t and “should be”.

Somewhere in the journey, something gradually changed. I started going to conferences to see what others were producing that I wasn’t, or we weren’t. I noticed things that were done to their facilities that weren’t done at mine. I allowed a subtle envy to creep into my heart about what others had that I didn’t.

And somewhere, it became Christian pornography.

An obscene thing was happening in my heart for the “things of others” over the “things of God”.

A fellow pastor would call and report to me what he saw and experienced at a conference he just came home from. As he spoke about the venue and the materials and the programs (uh ….. I mean, ministries) and on and on, I could feel my heart rate increase, and I noticed I was starting to mildly hyperventilate.

In crept the thoughts: where is my “success”? What do I have to show off? When do I get a chance to show everyone what we can do and how we do it?

Christian pornography.

Obscene thoughts about what is and isn’t “success” in ministry. Crude mind pictures about “what would Jesus build” and what colors and shapes it would be. Thinking about how to make that happen instead of praying about what God wants to see happen. Trying to word things just right so that it’s worded more sharply than the last church status update someone read (or that I read) on Facebook.

Please understand. I still go to conferences. I want to be a better leader and shepherd. My heart longs to increase our effectiveness in reaching our community. So I am not saying ministry conferences are bad or wrong.

I am not trying to discourage any pastor or leader from participating in conference life. I’m just saying a number of ministry conferences I’ve attended brought out the truth in me ….. that I am an insecure person that too often carried my insecurities into my leadership.

More and more, I am finding that as I deal with my own insecurities as a person, my effectiveness as a person, pastor and leader increases. I’m going to write more about the issue of insecurity in the near future, so watch for those upcoming posts.

In the mean time, your thoughts?

By the way, if you look hard enough, it won’t take much to find comprehensive lists of “must attend” church conferences out there. But, here are two that are NOT on those lists, but really should be:

Emotionally Healthy Leadership Conference

Epic Fail Pastor’s Conference

Check them out, and if you can make either one, or even both, they’ll be really worth it!

The Dark Side of Ministry

November 11, 2009

Milfred Minitrea of the Missional Church Center, wrote a powerful post on his blog that I think deals with the dark side of ministry and how Pastors are constantly dealing with the issue of congregational change management and ministry effectiveness.

In His post called, “Depression: Pastors In Pain”, he writes:

David Treadway, pastor of Sandy Ridge Baptist Church in Hickory, North Carolina committed suicide in September. His tragic death is the fourth pastor suicide in the Carolinas during the past four years. Pastor Treadway was undergoing treatment for depression. In a USA Today article published October 29, 2009, Greg Warner addressed depression among pastors. He wrote, “Most depression does not lead to suicide, but almost all suicides begin with depression.”

The article identified impossible role expectations often placed upon pastors, together with their innate resistance to seek help when they become depressed. They fear, too often appropriately, that congregational leaders would understand their depression to be a failure of faith rather than an illness to be treated. So, pastors suffer alone while trying to care for others.

Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Waco, Texas said “The likelihood is that one out of every four pastors is depressed.” Further, “Anxiety and depression in the pulpit are “markedly higher” in the last five years…The current economic crisis has caused many of our pastors to go into depression.”

The author clearly cited the economic environment as a primary cause. Then he added, “Besides the recession’s strain on church budgets, depressed pastors increasingly report frustration over their congregations’ resistance to cultural change. When I read those words, a passing comment on a secondary cause of depression in the article, my heart leaped. For that is precisely what I repeatedly hear from pastors across North America.

“My congregation wants to return to the way things used to be. They are unwilling to accept the reality of cultural changes in our world. Further, they perceive culture, “the way we do things” as sacred. Even when those things are no longer working, they say we should just try to do them better. And when those old methods are not successful, the failure is perceived as being the fault of the pastoral staff. They are unwilling to allow our congregational culture to change so that we can be more relevant among a changing population.” This resistance to change is sometimes public. At other times it skims just beneath the surface like a private torpedo locked on target, ready to do massive destruction.

As pastors understand the marginalization of Christianity in contemporary culture, consequently perceiving the requisite adaptation of the church toward an incarnational missionary posture, their passion to lead toward such culture shifts is often met with resistance. Leading a conventional congregation to perceive the need for change is a massive undertaking, a challenge that will often result in things getting worse before they get better. Those who cannot accept the need for internal congregational change will voice opposition. Those who support internal change will then find themselves defending the need for change. Repeatedly I have seen the dialogue move from the issue of “changing the way we do things” to challenges of personal loyalty within the congregation. Instead of conflict about process, the conflict becomes personal.

In those moments, pastors are caught in the untenable position of loving, serving, and leading a flock that has become divided. I can recall the deep pain of having a man whom I loved dearly, but who did not agree with new directions in ministry, unleash a barrage of vindictive verbal assaults. He was mad. Plain and simple. And his words were not filled with grace in that instance. His words were fiery darts. I felt the darts tear through my heart, a heart that had given eight years of pastoral care to our flock. In my own immaturity I tried to reason with him while he was still angry. I so wanted to please. To make it all right. And when I could not, I walked away wounded. When I was alone, I wept bitterly. Over the next weeks, I was too bruised and weak to continue to lead toward the kind of changes that needed to be made in order for effective ministry to continue. And I walked into a dark night that lasted for months.

Ultimately I found solace through the counsel of Ken Sharp, the tallest Christian counselor I have ever known, who became a dear friend in ministry. Further, I warmed to my own condition as I read Don Baker and Emery Nester’s, Depression: Finding Hope and Meaning in Life’s Darkest Shadow, a wonderful treatment published by Multnomah Press. Not nearly every pastor is blessed with an understanding friend and counselor. Many do not find voices to accompany them through their pain.

As North American churches struggle in a changed and changing culture, the role of pastoral leadership is challenging. We constantly encounter brothers and sisters in ministry who are walking a tightrope as they lead. It is highly improbable that they will be able to walk the tightrope, lead toward a new way of being church in a changing culture, and keep everybody happy in the process. I pray that we can be fellow pilgrims on their journey offering support and encouragement where we can. And sometimes, our greatest help may be simply to walk with them through the darkness.

One thing I know. We must not let those who are suffering walk the path alone.

Having been diagnosed myself with clinical depression myself, and continuing to struggle through its seasonal ups and downs, I know some of what Milfred speaks. I particularly appreciate his perspective on how Pastors are impacted by leading a congregation toward effective ministry in cultural seas change.

Change is an interesting animal, and when a Pastor sees it occurring and senses God-given vision to lead the church to be more effective in it, the opposition that sometimes comes from the most well-meaning people can be overwhelming. Thus, our need to be in continual fellowship and receiving encouragement from fellow Pastors walking through change as well.

Thoughts? Whether about depression, leading through change, or both?

Even The Contemplative Struggle With Burnout

July 30, 2009

You may or may not have heard of Father Peter Norden, founder of a large social justice agency in Australia called Jesuit Social Services and a well-known Prison Chaplain down under. He recently announced his resignation from the ministry after 40 years, citing burnout.

Interesting juxtaposition, in that Jesuits are known to be practicing contemplative spirituality  in every way. You can click here to not only read some of his story, but listen to a radio interview done with him where he is very frank about recognizing the lack of self-care throughout his ministry career.

Also interesting is his take on what he calls the “institutional” church, and how he is carrying on his faith in God, but not necessarily a faith in the institutional church.

Many here know that I work alongside Pastor Pete Scazzero, author of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. The thesis of the material is that you cannot seperate your spiritual maturity from your emotional health. Going further, Scazzero contends that living a life of contemplative spirituality is a primary way to bring the emotional life and health into line with your spiritual life.

Scazzero often says “the two, emotionall healthy spirituality and contemplative spirituality, go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other.” Father Norden’s story seems to be additional confirmation to this assertion.

Read, listen, and share your thoughts below.

(Special thanks to Bernie Federmann, Pastor of Lompoc Foursquare Church in Lompoc, CA, for alerting us to this story)

Summer Days Got You In A Daze?

June 23, 2009

Summer brings with it all of its splendor and, hopefully, the anticipation of some down time with family and friends. How are you facing it this year? Are you excited about, ready for some time to refresh relationships, maybe see some friends or family you haven’t seen in a while? Or are you feeling like closing the door on your bedroom, ready for somebody to wake you up when it’s time to go back to work?

There are lots of great assessment tools available to help you gauge your burnout potential and current status. I want to suggest one here that can give you an idea of where you stand as you dive into Summer. This is a perfect time in ministry life to wind down, ease back, relax a little more and let the rest rejuvenate and restore. Sometimes it can be helpful to know where you’re at in your own body, mind and soul, and what your level of need is to be refreshed.

Maybe it will help you plan what kind of vacation you really need this year. Go ahead, try it out.

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