Suicide Risk Among Pastors and Clergy Members

Protecting those who serve as “lighthouses” to many

Posted Aug 29, 2018

A few months ago, I screened the film Indivisible, which was based on the true story of Army Chaplain Darren Turner. The portrayal of Chaplain Turner’s story of struggle and healing following his combat zone deployment is both refreshing and valuable. The movie highlights the often-hidden struggles of those who serve in ministry roles. For example, as in Chaplain Turner’s case, any one of us can have a crisis of faith, even our faith leaders. In addition, witnessing the struggles of those perceived by some to be exempt from needing to ask for help breaks down stigma.

In light of the suicide death of Inland Hills Pastor Andrew Stoecklein this past Saturday, I am again reminded that those who stand as a beacon of hope may have some under-appreciated vulnerabilities. Those who serve within the clergy are often driven by a deep and abiding mission, a calling that sometimes has its roots in childhood intuition. Many within the clergy derive a great sense of purpose — sometimes even life-saving purpose — from inspiring hope and pointing us to a life of faith and reliance on God.

However, when clergy become public examples of strength, there is an additional pressure placed on their shoulders, as they hold the hope of those within their sphere of ministry. Becoming a caregiver to one individual in need, or the metaphorical "shepherd of an entire flock," can be lonely, and isolating, and can increase the challenge of reaching out and getting support from both professionals and peers.

The leaders among us may become our lighthouses, helping keep us safe, holding strong against the storm of life’s challenges. But what happens when the lighthouse itself becomes enveloped by lashing waves and raging seas? How does it signal distress? Who looks out for the lighthouse and how can we make sure that all of us can turn towards the tribe of those we love and trust to lend us the strength to stay in the fight?  

Professional therapy can be life-saving in some cases. There are also emerging movements within some organizations to proactively support the well-being of those in ministry. If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out for support. No matter what your role, your pain is valid, and there are safe places to renew your strength and hope.

Resources

  1. National Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255
  2. The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s Faith, Hope, Life Campaign recognizes the broad range of faiths interested in praying for individuals who may be struggling with suicide or whose lives have been touched by suicide. Click here to download free resources to help your community participate in this event.
  3. The National Benevolent Association organizes peer groups for leaders that provide an opportunity to cultivate support and encouragement, mutual dialogue, spiritual renewal, and peer-to-peer learning. The NBA also offers a "Mental Health Initiative and Affinity Group," which supports the prioritization of mental health and wellness in the life of the church, establishing the necessary awareness and understanding required to counter stigma, and change the landscape of conversation regarding mental illness and disorders within the church.
  4. The Center for Courage and Renewal provides programs that give those in ministry roles the opportunity to reflect and reconnect with their calling within an honest and non-judging community.
  5. The Soul Care Institute "is a two-year journey of a group of peers. Over the course of two years, students will 'come away from the front lines' of their ministries, work, and family life in order to engage in retreats that are designed to re-fill their souls."
  6. Gateway to Hope "is a comprehensive, interactive training for empowering, educating and equipping clergy and peers with the tools to respond to those in distress and help build a community-based response to the mental health crisis our country faces."
  7. Celebrate Recovery has specific groups for members of the clergy.
  8. Here is a link to a really insightful article written by Kay Warren of Saddleback Church.