Another Pastor's Suicide Sparks Conversation

Recently there was an article in USA Today about a pastor in the Carolinas who committed suicide. Here’s the article. I would urge you to go and read the entire article, but here is an except:

Those who counsel pastors say Christian culture, especially Southern evangelicalism, creates the perfect environment for depression. Pastors suffer in silence, unwilling or unable to seek help or even talk about it. Sometimes they leave the ministry. Occasionally the result is the unthinkable.

Experts say clergy suicide is a rare outcome to a common problem.

But Baptists in the Carolinas are soul searching after a spate of suicides and suicide attempts by pastors. In addition to the September suicide of David Treadway, two others in North Carolina attempted suicide, and three in South Carolina succeeded, all in the last four years.

Being a pastor — a high-profile, high-stress job with nearly impossible expectations for success — can send one down the road to depression, according to pastoral counselors.

For the most part the article is really quite good in nailing the problem. One sentence in particular really grabbed me:

Society still places a stigma on mental illness, but Christians make it worse, he said, by “over-spiritualizing” depression and other disorders — dismissing them as a lack of faith or a sign of weakness.

Isn’t that the truth! Christians are horrible at addressing mental illness, because we equate the mind with the soul, and presume that if someone has a mental illness that it is at the root a spiritual problem. Now I will be the first to grant that mental illness always has a spiritual component, but arguing that clinical depression or other mental illnesses are simply spiritual is irresponsible, and borders on a denial of the First Article.

God created us, body and soul. Because of sin, we feel the effects of the Fall throughout our entire existence, body and soul. It is entirely right to say that sickness and disease are the results of sin, but it is also true that God has given us many tools to heal, body and soul. The chief of these is the healing Word of God. But there are also many other methods of healing that God has provided, including medication, doctors, therapy, etc. Can these be misused or abused? You bet! At the same time, I would suggest that the “spiritual card” can also be horribly abused. If I tell someone who is mentally ill that they need to pray more, or spend more time in the Word, or come to Church, and that this will simply heal them apart from these other tools, I am saying that God only works through the Word and not at all through any other means. I’m not sure what to call that. But it isn’t right.

We pray for the families and congregation of this pastor, and hope that God will use this as an opportunity to bring healing and help to so many who are in need.

Be at peace,

On Confessing Your Illness

I recently had a conversation with someone that centered around the question of what to confess if you suffer from depression or other mental illnesses. So many of the symptoms which we face that are bio-chemical in origin also find their origin in our fallen nature. In other words, I can look at certain manifestations of my illness(es) as being the disease “talking” but at the same time it can be my sinful nature “talking”. Here are a few examples:

  • Laziness, sloth, incapacity to work
  • Boredom, lack of interest in anything, indifference
  • Isolation from others, unfriendliness, dislike of crowds
  • Inability to handle children

Now these are just a few examples. I think that any of those three categories could be easily attributed to sin or clinical depression/anxiety.

So what do you confess?

The real mess of depression and mental illness is that they are so intertwined. My general approach is that if you are in doubt, confess it. But it is also a matter of real pastoral care, so that when I am confessing something that isn’t sin, my pastor tells me that.

Probably the dilemma comes from the fact that when you are in the throes of the darkness, you aren’t in a position to be making subtle theological distinctions. I just want relief. And at some level, I don’t really care where it comes from. IT it comes from my pastor forgiving my sins, great. If it comes from my doctor or counselor reminding me that this is biochemical and not a character flaw, great.

So how do you approach this question?

On the Ministry: Tasks Verses Relationships

One doesn’t have to serve as a pastor for very long to come to the realization that the Holy Ministry in America is in more than a little bit of crisis. Some of the competing models for the Pastoral Office include: shepherd, maintenance man, leader, enabler, facilitator, therapist, evangelist, social worker, community worker/activist, and the like. I’m sure there are another dozen or more titles or job descriptions which could be used. It is no wonder that pastors don’t know who they are or what they are given to do!

As I have tried to think through what it means to be a pastor, I always come down to the tension between tasks and relationships. Pastors are given certain tasks that they are to do day in, day out. Preach, teach, administer the sacraments, judge doctrine, perform acts of mercy on behalf of the body of Christ, etc. I can sit down in any given week and map out all of my time in terms of the tasks that I am to do as a pastor. Of course, I just listed the nice and easy and obvious list of tasks. There is also the other, unspoken list. Things like editing the bulletin, going through the mail, preparing for and going to meetings, newsletters, correspondence, etc., etc., etc.

At the same time, nearly every one of those primary tasks of the Office only have their purpose when they are given out to the flock. My work as a pastor is about people. It is about delivering Christ to them, in season and out of season. While this again may seem obvious, it is incredibly easy as a pastor to forget it. I can get so wrapped up in getting things done that I forget who I am doing them for in the first place! Yet if I spend all my energies simply and only working on relationships, I can just as quickly lose sight that I am here to deliver Christ and not myself.

Most pastors that I know fall off this wagon on one side or another. Me, I’m much more inclined to get wrapped up in the tasks that I lose sight of the relationships. I think this is the tendency of more academic type pastors. Obviously there are many others who focus more on the relationships. I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other, but it certainly makes it so we don’t understand each other very well.

So how does one maintain the healthy balance between what we are given to do and to whom we are given to do it? Here are some of my ideas, but I’d like to hear yours as well:

1. Be aware of the tension. Lots of good things happen as a result of tension. Being mindful of it can make it a blessing and not a source of stress.

2. Pray about it. Pray that God would make you productive in the sense of getting things off of your plate AND of bringing Christ into the lives of your people. They go together. Be deliberate in your prayers.

3. Think in very concrete terms about both tasks and people interaction. Schedule it. Put it on your “next action” list. However you need to do it to make it work. But don’t just allow the water to find its own level. If that is the case, you will simply gravitate toward your own interests.

So that’s my list. What’s yours?


Getting it outside your head

I have been thinking and working a lot with productivity lately. One of the aspects of this learning process for me has been the benefits of externalization.

What I mean is this: I by nature keep everything inside. I let things root around in my head, create a life of their own, and become monsters that are way larger and more scary than they really should be.

Any good counselor or psychologist will do this. If you can get something written down on paper so that you can look at it with some level of objectivity, you can see it for what it is and not let the voices in your head make it into a monster.

This happens in the Psalms all the time. In Psalm 88, for example, the Psalmist is hurt and angry with God because he is near death and it appears like God has cast him away (v. 14). His words are hard and bitter, and they free him (and us) to be straight up with God and not afraid of the consequences. God is a God of mercy, not wrath.

So when something is eating at you, write it down. Tell someone else. Get it out of your head so that you can look at it for real. Take it to God in prayer. This process will be helpful to you, whether you are talking about the big things of life or the nagging thought that you need to call and make a dentist appointment.

Be at peace, friends. Let it out!