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.
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!
April 11, 2013
I am daily amazed and inspired at how Rick Warren is being real and yet still faith-full amidst his grief over the suicide of his 27 year old son, Matthew Warren. He could run and hide, but that’s not Rick. He could shut the world off and remain private. Nobody would blame him.
Instead, he’s chosen to remain vulnerable and honest about the back story of Matthew’s lifelong struggle with mental illness. I can appreciate his recent tweet and Facebook post that said:
It was Matthew’s story to tell. For me, as my own son has battled mental illness, I’ve been public about it. Many have questioned and criticized. I’ve never published anything without my son’s permission. I would never criticize anyone who has taken the direction the Warren’s took with Matthew’s story.
I’ve gone public because I believe that of all places that should be safe for us to talk about anything, it should be the Church. The unfortunate truth is that we are NOT a safe place to talk about anything, mental illness being one of them.
For some reason, we shun them. We call them crazy, wacko, nuts, weak, off their rocker, _____________, …..
Because we don’t know what to do with them. We don’t take the time to understand. We’ve been taught to believe that it’s all a spiritual issue, not a physical one. Maybe all of the above.
There are a few things any Pastor or church leader can do to help the cause:
1. Be open to learn.
If you’re unfamiliar with the reality of mental illness, admit it. Then educate yourself. More and more, there are some excellent ways to easily learn some basic issues that surround those who struggle with mental illness.
One of the best that I’ve found is a 12 hour class that certifies people who take it in Mental Health First Aid. You can peruse the website for more information and find out about classes in your area.
2. Be open to share.
Many of us actually struggle with mental illness ourselves, but the vast majority of us haven’t told anyone. We’re afraid of the very stigma that we contribute too. We don’t want to be seen as weak or vulnerable or less than.
What would happen if we as leaders began to actually be real about our struggle? You don’t have to broadcast it to the world. Maybe you can start slow. Find a safe place outside the church, maybe with some others pastors you trust, or a counselor you have confidence in. Maybe there’s a support group nearby you.
If you feel that it’s possible for you to do so, share your struggle with your leaders, maybe even your congregation. I know from experience that it’s a huge step. Over time, I’ve found more understanding and appreciation for sharing my struggle. To be clear, there has been some condemnation, rejection and loss of some relationships, but the healing I’ve found, been able to lead in and lead others to, has far outweighed the negative that I’ve waded through.
3. Be open to stand.
Join the conversation. Too many have been critical of the Warren’s for too many reasons. One person and one reason are one too many. People in the Warren’s shoes don’t need pointy fingers. They need loving arms, support, people who will stand with them.
Those who are suffering with mental illness themselves or in their families need people to stand WITH them instead of against them. One way you can stand up is to speak out. I addressed a piece of that in the above Point 2. However, another way you can stand with them is to be a proponent of those who struggle.
The Washington Post published an article highlighting how Matthew’s suicide is raising awareness of the need of the mentally ill in the Church. The Newtown shootings and other mass shootings have raised awareness, but not in the Church. Matthew’s story will bring further redemption to this cause in the Church. But how many people have to die in order for issues like these to get the attention they need?
Ultimately, the Church is the hope of the world. But this can only be true as we minister in wholeness, integrity, honesty, compassion and mission. May we be found embracing the Warren’s and all who represent them in greater ways than we ever have.
April 6, 2013
His wording from an email sent to their congregation at about 10:00 am Pacific time says:
To my dear Saddleback Family,
Over the past 33 years we’ve been together through every kind of crisis. Kay and I’ve been privileged to hold your hands as you faced a crisis or loss, stand with you at gravesides, and prayed for you when ill. Today, we need your prayer for us.
No words can express the anguished grief we feel right now. Our youngest son, Matthew, age 27, and a lifelong member of Saddleback, died today.
You who watched Matthew grow up knew he was an incredibly kind, gentle, and compassionate man. He had a brilliant intellect and a gift for sensing who was most in pain or most uncomfortable in a room. He’d then make a beeline to that person to engage and encourage them.
But only those closest knew that he struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts. In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided. Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.
Kay and I often marveled at his courage to keep moving in spite of relentless pain. I’ll never forget how, many years ago, after another approach had failed to give relief, Matthew said, “Dad, I know I’m going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?” but he kept going for another decade.
Thank you for your love and prayers. We love you back.
My heart, as I’m sure yours as well, just aches for the Warren’s. Our prayers for comfort and peace as they navigate these difficult days are without end.
Rick & Kay are not the first pastor’s family that has endured the stress of a family member with mental illness. They are high profile, and have done a stellar job raising their family under pressure most of us will never endure. They have walked this journey with grace, fortitude and deep commitment to the health of their family.
Someone once said….(I think it was Rick Warren!)….that “God never wastes a hurt.” Experience tells me that part of what will happen in the next days, weeks, months and more will be the heightened awareness of the issue of mental illness.
As a pastor myself who struggles with mental illness (I wrote about that a few weeks ago on my personal blog and will likely do so more on this blog) and who is raising a young man who struggles with mental illness (wrote about that too on my personal blog), I have become a firm believer that the Church can do more and Pastors can do more to help the people we lead who wrestle too silently. They struggle in shame, believing that their illness somehow correlates to their weak faith or some sin in their life.
For that reason, I’m a believer in the “Stand Up For Mental Health” Campaign. I hope more Pastors will join this cause and allow the Lord to use their experience to bring greater health and wholeness to so many who suffer in the shadows.
February 19, 2010
You’ve probably heard enough about Tiger Woods’ sordid lifestyle. I have too. And I have no interest in exploiting any of it.
However, I have a lot of interest, for myself and any other Pastor, in learning from it. I have no interest in analyzing Tiger’s actions or apology to the nth degree.
Regardless of what any of us think about Tiger’s words or motives, there remain a number of analogous issues between the persona of a famous person and the persona of a Pastor. As Pastors, we are tempted to live two lives, one in public and another in private.
It’s interesting that Tiger mentioned in his statement that he felt “entitled” to “enjoy the temptations around” him because he had worked so hard all his life.
Often, Pastors struggle with that same temptation. We work so hard and for so long that we can be tempted to feel that we are entitled to stretch the boundaries of our behavior, be it in the area of sexuality, financial indiscretions, or anything else.
What did you hear Tiger say that could be helpful for Pastors as well?
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?
June 30, 2009
It has been stated throughout the unfolding of the circumstance for South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford that he often would retreat after legislative sessions because they would wear him out. Retreating and refreshing is good, but at some point, Mark made some dangerous decisions about his integrity. Most likely, those decisions came in weariness and fatigue. They almost always do.
Pastor Gary Lamb recently said that in the couple of weeks after his resignation as a result of his affair, he had received over 30 anonymous emails from Pastors who admitted in those emails they were currently in the middle of an adulterous affair.
As stated in this post, there are a number of politicians who have admitted their moral failings recently. Is it just me, or does it seem like this is happening left and right?
We could list (and it would be LONG) Pastors who have shipwrecked their families and ministries because of sexual indiscretions as well. In the last post on this issue, I stated that we too often make our public figures more than human.
I don’t mean for this post to communicate that we should do that, but I also can’t help but wonder if God is not cleaning house among us. I’m talking about Pastors, not Politicians. It’s very interesting to me that this is happening with Politicians as well, but my primary focus here is Pastors.
The focus of this particular post comes back to self-care. It sounds like Mark Sanford had somewhat of a good sense and rhythm of self-care, though not knowing him it’s hard to really say. But it’s notable that he knew himself enough that when he was tired, he would get away to refresh.
Obviously, his trip to Argentina wasn’t about refreshing himself. But Argentina didn’t happen overnight, and affairs never do. They start slowly and grow in a process of decisions that lack integrity and honesty with important people.
How are you doing in this area? Are you taking care of you? Have you gotten away lately to be restored in energy, passion and vision? Are you taking your Sabbath and spending honest time with your family and friends?
June 25, 2009
What’s the difference between a Pastor and a Politician? Both are highly public figures. Both represent something larger than themselves. There are similarities that are eerie and sometimes dangerous, and we could go on and on about them. But there are some important distinctions to make too.
When a Pastor fails morally, he or she most often loses everything, their job, their church, often their support system, kids often lose their friends from church or their school if a move is necessary; sometimes they even lose their marriage and family.
When a Politician fails morally, he or she may take a hit in their approval ratings, but rarely do they lose everything around them. Sometimes they do, but not often.
With this week’s news about the bizarre story of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford being on a secret trip to Argentina having been about an adulterous affair he was having with a woman who lives there, he joins the ranks of a few politicians who have failed morally.
- Just last week, Nevada Senator John Ensign admitted to an affair with a campaign staffer.
- This generation’s most visible political figure to fail morally is President Bill Clinton, who denied having an affair with a White House staffer for seven months before he finally admitted it, all while he was President
- Presidential hopeful John Edwards admitted to an affair a few months ago and it’s still making news.
- New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was tough on prostitution in his state, and then lost his job when it was discovered he had been hiring them personally.
There are more examples, but that’s enough for now. Please note that this is NOT a post about whether or not Pastors or even Politicians should resign or lose their jobs as a result of adultery. I am not saying here that they should or shouldn’t.
We don’t yet know what will happen with the situation for Mark Sanford. His wife’s statement clearly says she is ready for reconciliation should Mark want it. That’s a good thing, and I hope it happens for the sake of their entire family.
But back to the question … what’s the difference between a Pastor and a Politician? We can mark several differences:
- Pastors “work” for God; Politicians “work” for the constituents who voted for them.
- Pastors represent something sacred; most seem to believe Politicians represent something pretty secular.
- For the sake of “political correctness”, Pastors stand for the Church, while Politicians stand for the State, two institutions in America that have a weird relationship.
Let me boil this down. The point of this post has been primarily about the differences between Pastors and Politicians. But the real answer to the question, “What’s the difference between a Pastor and a Politician?” is, bottom line, NOTHING.
Part of our problem is that we make them out to be MORE THAN HUMAN. Certainly, there is a greater standard for spiritual leaders biblically, but we still make them out to be something more than flawed humans.
The more we can see that we are ALL flawed, imperfect human beings, the greater our ability to actually HELP each other when we fall, and help each other to stand again.
June 9, 2009
The news has sadly been circulating the internet over the last couple days regarding the confession of Pastor Gary Lamb at his blog of an affair with his assistant. There’s already enough opinion flying around about who is for who, who hasn’t said what and what ought to have been said, and more. I don’t have anything to add to that. Don’t really want to even be a part of all that.
I will only mention that probably the healthiest two places I have read response to Gary’s situation have been from Geoff Surratt and Ron Edmonson. They are certainly not the only two who are speaking painfully well of the circumstance, but they’re at the top.
Since the launch of Pastor For Life last Summer, I have endeavored to keep any commentary or review of stories like Gary’s to a minimum, just trying to bring about anything factual and pointing out what we can learn to keep such stories from becoming mine or yours. Frankly, sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t.
I’ll never forget being at Mountain Learning Center in June Lake, CA in May of 2001. I was 3-1/2 years into a Senior Pastorate at a church I had served for 12 years before being appointed as the Sernior Pastor. In those first 12 years, I had worked with the three previous Senior Pastors. All three pastoral transitions were painful for the previous Pastor’s family and the congregation. The last two had pains of immorality and both Pastor’s marriages ended in divorce.
When I became the Senior Pastor, I was sure of two things:
- I was nothing like my predecessors (watch out for that pride, folks!)
- The one thing that would never happen to me was “burnout”.
Yet there I was, deep in burnout, wondering how in the world I got there. My wife was with me, there had been no immorality or “sinful” mess that had been made of my marriage or ministry. But my foundation of inner life was in shambles and I was depressed and spent.
What I will never forget is my counselor at MLC, Dr. Russ Veenker, having no idea of my two certainties above, hearing my story and saying to me:
“Paul, you are just like your predecessors. I can guarantee you that before they messed up their marriage and ministry, they were in burnout. The only difference between you and them is that you sought help before doing something stupid.”
The advice to Pastors that I’ve scanned today on all the blogs in response to Gary’s situation has been good stuff for the most part.
- “Don’t counsel alone with the opposite sex.”
- “Have an accountability structure in place.”
- “Don’t spend time at the church office with staff of the opposite sex.”
All of it is good advice. It’s good stuff to have in place. Bottom line, however, is that most people close to me were able to see my slow descent into burnout way before I ever saw it coming. And they were saying things. And I was giving blank stares. And before I knew it, when the pressure became too much, my inner life crumbled.
Thing is, at some point, we ALL crumble. Um, yes, ALL of us. I’ve seen it happen time after time, and so have you. If you can’t say that, you haven’t been around ministry long enough. Just wait.
So, what does it take to last? My belief …. do whatever it takes to monitor your heart regularly and keep it at Jesus’ feet. This requires that you adjust your pace to your current life and ministry circumstance, and “ruthlessly eliminate hurry” (from John Ortberg’s “The Life You’ve Always Wanted”).
Most of us Pastors, I find, are unwilling to do that. I was. That’s how I ended up where I was. I am convinced I was headed for a major life adjustment no matter what, even because of age. But it could have been experienced much differently had I been less “Superman” and more hu-man.
I realize, too, that for many Pastors, you serve in a system (church body) that doesn’t allow for much adjustment in these areas for you. That’s a whole other story of change and transformation that must take place for real health to occur, both for you and your congregation.
How about you? Your thoughts?
February 4, 2009
One of my practices while I am on a Study & Planning Break is to read at least one book that doesn’t have anything to do with ministry or leadership. I will read a few books while I am on this kind of retreat that are “work” oriented, but reading something “non-work” just stretches and renews me. I just finished this one today and wanted to post a review:
It’s not often a book grabs me by the collar and doesn’t let go until the very end. Nor does one often go past the collar to grab my heart, but Holding Fast by Karen James did just that!
In this true account of three very experienced mountain climbers who lost their lives on Mt. Hood in December of 2006, Karen starts by holding your hand through the beginning of her courtship with Kelly James, her husband, and one of those on that fateful trip.
From the time Karen and Kelly meet until the day she gets the call that Kelly is in trouble on the mountain, I felt like I had become friends with the James’. When that call came in, and when she recounts the last six minute call between she and Kelly (a miraculous connection in that Kelly is stuck injured in a snow cave over two miles in the sky on Mt. Hood), I felt like I was in the story!
What I loved about this book is that Karen is quite vulnerable about her grief over the loss of the love of her life. She takes you into her grief, but doesn’t just leave you there. She also recounts the many ways God met her and their family as they have processed this tragedy.
I highly recommend this book for anyone of any age!
January 25, 2009
Having been through some pretty rough pastoral transitions over the years, I am saddened by this week’s news of further allegations of sexual misconduct in the situation surrounding Ted Haggard and New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
I commend Pastor Brady Boyd for his forthright and pastoral handling of the situation. His is NO easy task. He deserves our support and prayers as he and the New Life leaders navigate what is sure to be a difficult week.
Along with the news of further misconduct, HBO is airing a documentary on Ted’s fall and the consequences. It airs Thursday night.
May God grace Pastor Boyd and New Life Church with His overwhelming presence this week as they continue to endure a glaring spotlight!