A psychiatrist’s thoughts on pastors and suicide

The most encouraging ministry development I’ve witnessed in 2019 is the way God is calling so many of his people to transform ministry with individuals and families struggling with mental illness. I’m probably aware of five times as many leaders serving in mental health ministry compared to this time last year. The interest is reflected in the volume of requests our ministry team receives for training, resources and support.

One organization I hadn’t been aware of until this past week is Anthem of Hope, a faith-based non-profit “dedicated to amplifying hope for those battling brokenness, depression, anxiety, self-harm, addiction and suicide.” I suspect many in the church discovered Anthem of Hope in the same way I did – through the media coverage of the suicide of Jarrid Wilson, a young, influential pastor from Southern California who co-founded the organization with his wife, Juli.

While the suicides of other pastors have received considerable media coverage in recent years (here, here and here), the reaction to Jarrid’s death throughout the church has been qualitatively different. Perhaps the church where he served and the influence he gathered through his speaking and writing gave him a higher profile than other pastors who have died from suicide. The tragedy of his death is magnified by he and his wife having created an organization to provide hope and encouragement to people who suffered as Jarrid did. Anthem of Hope operates a 24 hour help line, and lists the National Suicide Crisis Line – (800) 273-8255 – at the top of their home page. In describing the purposes of their ministry, Jarrid and Juli state the following on their website

Through unique content creation, hope journals, workbooks and online courses, Anthem of Hope will provide the tools needed for every individual to discover that life is worth living, and that everyone has a purpose in this world.

The suddenness of Jarrid’s death and the extent to which he was able to carry out his ministry without others appreciating the intensity of mental anguish and distress he experienced at the end of his life is very unsettling. It feels like it could happen at any time to anyone wrestling with hopelessness or suicidal thinking. On the day of his death, Jarrid was officiating at the funeral of another church member who had committed suicide. Below is a photo of Jarrid posted by Greg Laurie, the senior pastor of Harvest Fellowship (the church where Jarrid served on staff) from a baptism service he took part in one week ago Saturday.

Just about everything I’ve read on Jarrid’s death has been written from from the perspective of other pastors. Ed Stetzer and Russell Moore shared excellent blog posts this past week. I thought a psychiatrist’s perspective of the struggles that contribute to suicide risk among pastors might help the leaders the church and the people of the church to better understand the care for and support needs of those who are called to shepherd us. Here are a few of my observations…

Lots of pastors have no idea where to go for help if they find themselves struggling with suicidal thoughts. Less than 30% of Christians with a family member affected by major mental illness report their churches maintain a current list of mental health professionals to share with attendees in crisis, according to a study by LifeWay Research. If pastors turn to a trusted physician within their churches for advice, they’re significantly less likely to be referred to a psychiatrist than if they approached a non-Christian physician.

Pastors in need of mental health care are all too often unable to afford it. Congregations owe it to their pastors to provide them with health insurance necessary to access care without having to worry about how they might feed and clothe their families. Pastors are less likely to have insurance to offset the cost of their mental health care. Check out this survey from LifeWay reporting nearly half of Southern Baptist pastors of churches with weekly attendance of > 100 receive no health insurance. Pastors who obtain less expensive coverage through cost-sharing ministries typically receive no mental health benefits through such ministries. One such organization, Christian Healthcare Ministries (CHC) serves as a sponsor for the American Association of Christian Counselors, despite refusing to pay for services offered by any of their members. Here’s an article from CHC’s blog pertaining to mental illness written by an OB/GYN.

When facing challenges like fear, bitterness, poor self-image, lust, money troubles, grief, worry, marriage conflict or any other issue, delving into what the Bible has to say about a specific struggle will change you. Soak in God’s word. Spend time reading and contemplating it. Let the power of Scripture penetrate your soul, wash out the junk and fill you to overflowing with God’s truth and grace.

Not that I would disagree with any of that, but it appears they believe (as 48% of evangelical Christians reported in the Lifeway study) that serious mental illness may be overcome by Bible study and prayer alone.

A pastor may know where to go for help and have the resources to pay for help, but they’re sufficiently worried about the stigma of seeking help that they may go to great lengths to avoid being seen seeking help by someone from their church . In the early days of my practice, I’d occasionally see a few adults. I regularly saw one pastor on Saturday mornings at 7:00 AM because there was NOBODY in our office building at that time on Saturdays. I’ve had other ministry families come in at 7:00 PM on Sunday nights so their kids wouldn’t run into other kids from the church.

For many of the pastors I’ve come across in my professional life and ministry life, working in the church depletes their emotional resources. One explanation for research showing churchgoers experience better mental health is that they have larger social networks. That’s a good thing unless most of your social network is either demanding something from you or complaining about their experience at your workplace.

I’ve had a taste of this experience at church as a result of my day job. Because attending our home church involves a 37 mile, one way trip, our family regularly worshiped at a church down the road from my office while our girls were growing up. At one point I had about forty kids from that church as patients. I began to dread church because I’d struggle to get in and out without being bombarded by questions from families in our practice. I found having to be “on” professionally for maybe 5-10% of the families at church exhausting. Imagine having to be on for ALL of them! I wonder if pastors and their families might be healthier if they were to attend a different church than the one where they serve.

Like doctors, pastors often feel trapped in their careers. Lots of parallels exist between the medical profession (notable for the highest suicide rate of any profession) and the ministry. Both pastors and doctors are vulnerable to burnout, deal with constant criticism (patient satisfaction ratings for employed physicians, anonymous letters and e-mails for pastors), struggle to maintain excellence during a time of diminished resources and both lack the ability to leave their jobs when depleted or burdened without catastrophic consequences to their standard of living.

Joe Boyd is a former megachurch pastor who left the ministry to start his own business. He posted around this time last year on Facebook about his experience – and the experience of many of his colleagues – on being a pastor with depression and anxiety.

Some pastors (not all, but most) have no training or experience in anything other than ministry. They know that they are burnt out (or were never really a good fit) and they want to do something else, but they stay in for economic reasons. They have a family to support. When and if this fact is discovered they are shamed for it by their congregation. They also feel deep shame that they couldn’t just be faithful and make it work.

If denominations, seminaries or church boards were interested in what I had to say about pastors and suicide, here’s what I’d want them to think about…

  • Every time a prominent pastor or church leader publicly speaks about their own experience with mental illness or suicidal thoughts, it makes it easier for a struggling colleague to reach out for help.
  • Elders and church board members should ensure that pastors and their families have healthcare benefits that allow them to access counseling, medication and a continuum of mental health care without having to worry about putting food on the table.
  • Seminaries and denominations would develop services to help pastors who are unable to bear the burdens of full-time ministry to develop the skills necessary to find other means of employment.
  • In lieu of building another building, some very wealthy Christian might make a sizable gift to the establishment of a world-class mental health treatment facility for pastors and ministry families.
  • Finally…I’d want the people of the church to love, care for and support their pastors in the same way that we want them to demonstrate the love of Christ to us.

That would be a nice way to honor Jarrid’s memory.

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Are you a pastor or ministry leader searching for resources to better understand how to support children, adults or families affected by mental illness in your church or in your community? Check out Key Ministry’s Mental Health Resources page, containing links to video, articles and topical blog series designed to help you minister with persons with common mental health conditions. Also available through the website are a free, downloadable mental health ministry planning tool designed to accompany Mental Health and the Church, along with links to recommended books, like-minded mental health ministry organizations, relevant research, sermons addressing mental illness, social media resources and a compilation of stories from families affected by mental illness.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
This entry was posted in Advocacy, Hidden Disabilities, Key Ministry, Mental Health and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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