Saint. Spiritual Leader. Gifted Preacher. Man of Holiness. These are some of the words that paint the image of an ideal pastor in evangelical circles, but what if I told you the Church has made a grave mistake – a mistake in overlooking the deep-rooted pain and untold secrets of their pastor. What if I told you the popular pastor you subscribe to for weekly sermon downloads and the one you follow on Instagram struggles with addiction, suicidal thoughts, or anxiety?
On August 25, 2018, the tragic death of Pastor Andrew Stoecklein rocked the global church community. The 30-year old lead pastor of Inland Hills Church took his life after waging a difficult fought-hard battle of depression and anxiety, leaving behind his 29-year old beloved wife and three sons. In the wake of this painful loss, his wife Kayla wrote a profound response: “Your story, your life and your death is opening the floor for conversations all around the world. Your story is helping people to share their hidden thoughts and secret struggles with their family and friends. Your story is paving the way for an even bigger conversation about how the church can better come alongside people with mental illness, including pastors.”
As a pastor’s wife, I had friends come up to me commenting: “I envy you. I wish I married a pastor. Pastors are so talented. What a dream job, it must be.” Yes, it’s true that being a pastor can be fulfilling (especially if it turns out to be his vocational sweetspot). Yes, it’s true that being a pastor can be daunting. Yes, it’s true that being a pastor is one of the 4 hardest jobs in America. But, what most people do not know is that being a pastor is essentially a dangerous calling: a calling that goes beyond 9-5. Even if you draw clear boundaries, you need to be everyone’s Good Samaritan, ready to be on call for your congregation at any given time. Otherwise, you’re not doing your duty, right?
Beneath the glorious calling of pastorate (don’t get me wrong, the calling of a pastor is God-ordained), there are a few hidden confessions your pastor would never reveal to you in person. Why is that? They are afraid: they’re afraid of being rejected, disapproved, or even kicked out and exiled from their congregation. (Yes, the Church is quick to cast the nets and bring in newcomers, but perhaps much quicker to catapult a fallen pastor out the door). As a Church, we need to seriously work on developing a solid restorative ministry for hurting and fallen ministers.
1. “I Am Lonely.”
Recent studies show that over 70% of pastors experience loneliness with no close friends they trust to share their personal struggles. Gossip and betrayal are common occurrences when pastors decide to confide with a church member or friend. The saddest thing is pastors who are dealing with depression and anxiety are pushed into further isolation because of the impending shame and fears of disclosure.
If church, as we know it, is truly about being a family and a community, then we must understand pastors are not exempt from this need.
Pastors, more than any person in the room, need a support network and pastoral group to hold them accountable – this could be a citywide pastoral fellowship or a pastoral prayer group inside the church.
Ministers need people to understand that as much as you and I need a place of belonging, so do they. Oftentimes, believers hold a mistaken view that pastors are deeply connected with their congregation. This is half-true. In reality, they are connected to their people but only to the extent that they’re willing to reveal their hidden pain with the congregation.
2. “I Am Depressed.”
Did you know that 45.5 percent of pastors have experienced depression or burnout resulting in a leave of absence from ministry? The pressure to meet expectations (written or unwritten) from church leadership to congregation, the young to the old, the unsaved to the saved becomes worse when OCD is involved. Obsessive Comparison Disorder is fatal. New York bestselling author Lisa Bevere warned the Church, particularly millennials, in her book Without Rival to resist the urge to constantly compare yourself with others. The heartbreaking news is that pastors often fall into the comparison trap, constantly being measured and assessed by their churches’ attendance sizes, growth stats, church reviews, and even other fellow pastors.
Lead Pastor Paul Valo of Christ Church of Orlando says it best: “In this generation, pastors are expected to be business savvy, Instagram quotable preaching celebrities, fully accessible, deeply spiritual, not too young, not too old, and if a pastor doesn’t quite measure up to someone’s expectation at any given moment, they are given a two out of five star rating on Google.” Has the Church become a hotspot for consumers? Have we reduced our pastors to celebrity actors on stage? I don’t know about you, but this bothers me deeply.
A pastor is not a celebrity and should not be treated this way.
They are called to shepherd God’s people and make disciples of all nations. They are not called to build followers or fans on Facebook or Instagram.
Unfortunately, many pastors have become distracted and engrossed with the perils of seeking popularity. As a Church, if we support this faulty unbiblical mindset, then it’s no surprise we have many churches filled with programs and eloquent speakers but void of God’s presence and transformation.
How should we respond to pastors dealing with depression? It begins with debunking the common myths around depression:
- Depression is simply a spiritual issue. The depressed person is spiritually weak. He is not praying and reading the Bible hard enough. (Actually, depression is classified as a mental disorder affecting the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex. It touches every aspect of an individual’s health: physical, emotional, and mental.
- Depression can be prayed/cast away. (Sure, God can heal a person instantaneously and supernaturally, but we also know that God can heal through different forms, whether through therapy, counseling, medication, or rehabilitation. Do not be quick to judge a person if they are not healed right away.)
3. “I Have An Addiction.”
In America, 4 out of 10 pastors view pornography daily. According to Barna’s latest nationwide study on pornography, most pastors (57%) and youth pastors (64%) confessed to struggling with porn, either currently or in the past. 55% of pastors who use porn say they live in constant fear of being discovered.
Obesity and food addiction is the #1 health problem with ministers.
Drug use and gambling addictions are escalating as outlets of pleasure and release for pastors. 90% of pastors are workaholics, working between 55-75 hrs weekly.
What is the Church’s attitude towards pastors struggling with an addiction such as porn? Although pornography is a pandemic crisis, most churches do not provide programs to support men or women struggling with it. 41% of adult Christians think that pastors should be fired or asked to resign if they are caught using porn. Younger Christians are more likely to take a grace-filled approach. I had a lady who once commented to me that the secular world is more compassionate and understanding than the church community when dealing with porn addiction. Is there any hope left for pastors?
Thankfully, pastors, you do not need to keep this hidden shame to yourself anymore. Reach out and seek help. There are a few outstanding organizations that provide support and treatment for fellow brothers and sisters, including pastors to complete their road to recovery. Some of them include X3 Church (the ministry provides Pastors Only Support Groups), Pure Desire Ministries (they partner with local churches in your area to host small groups), and Pure Heart Ministries.
As a Church, we need to come alongside our pastors and pray for them. God’s desire is to see every brother and sister restored to wholeness, and this includes our spiritual leaders. When was the last time you checked up on your pastor? When was the last time you approached and prayed for your pastor? When was the last time you cared enough to ask your pastor if he is dealing with any difficulties? If you don’t remember, initiate the conversation this coming Sunday. Just do it.
To my fellow pastors and pastors’ wives, do not be disheartened and discouraged. Although the journey to recovery may seem like a long and endless road, our Lord Jesus has already won the victory for you. He is with you every battle along the way. You were made to overcome.