Pastoral Depression and Suicide

Last week, a post was shared around Facebook about a pastor in California who had committed suicide. Many lamented at how young and successful he seemed. My first reaction when I saw it, however, was not, “Oh no I can’t believe it.” Instead, it was “There goes another one…”

As a pastor in ministry for the last 9 years, I’ve heard of far too many fellow pastors resign from ministries due to burn-out, fall out of ministry due to moral failure (often accompanied by depression), and yes, even commit suicide. I’ve sometimes wondered if this is due to the unnecessary burden we put on ourselves – and that is put on us – as leaders, called to be perfect, to be the church’s functional savior. I’ve wondered if maybe we’ve gotten our whole paradigm of church wrong, so much so that men who once loved God and entered into pastoral ministry to love Him and serve others, are now driven out of it by disappointment, depression, and suicide. But that is another topic for another day…

One thing I have found to be true, though: pastors are not immune to the attacks of depression. We are not encased in a bulletproof bubble of joy; we are fragile houses of glass that shatter just the same as anyone else when the bullets of criticism, frustration, disappointment, and condemnation are shot our way. I’ve learned this both through observing other pastors go through it, as well as personal experience. A few months ago, our church went through a series in the Psalms. I chose the topic of depression and preached on Psalm 88 – Heman’s cry of despair that ends without resolution or restoration. That was the first time I publicly shared about my depression.

My Personal Darkness

I remember the first time I started experiencing my depression. It was the summer of 2015, and I was preparing to lead two back to back mission trips with my church. After the overwhelming amount of work, some internal conflict due to the complications of planning as well as my own mistakes, and being over-exhausted from traveling 22,926 miles in the span of 26 days (yes, I actually counted and calculated it out), I came home burnt out and frustrated, and crashed into a state of depression.

In the weeks following my return, it took everything in me just to get out of bed and face the day ahead. I dreaded going into the office because I knew I had to put on the “pastor face,” pretending everything was ok, that I was spiritually healthy, and that I loved people. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing was ok; I was spiritually a wreck; and I hated even the thought of interacting with people. I remember taking my dog out on long walks in the nice Fall sun (our summer in San Francisco) and thinking, “Why can’t I enjoy this? This is the season I look forward to all year round, but all I want to do is shut myself in my room, crawl into a ball and die.”

My first thought was I needed to ramp up my spiritual disciplines, because that’s what everyone tells you when you’re not “doing well with God.” The problem was, as a pastor, I had already been regularly in the Word and prayer, and it wasn’t doing anything for me. I remember going on long, 2 hour prayer walks wondering where God was, crying out with the psalmist, “How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?!” (Psa. 89:46). I gave myself to deeper study of Scripture and reading of books, only to come away even more bitter that I could not see the goodness of God in his Word.

When spiritual disciplines didn’t work, I tried doing anything I could to just feel again – to feel a tinge of happiness, a glimpse of hope. I tried spending more time with friends, but that only made it worse, as everyone around me seemed fine and happy while I was dying inside. When people failed, I isolated myself with video games and fiction novels. I read more fiction and played more video games that fall than I ever have in my life. Though these brought moments of happiness, as soon as I would put down the controller or book, I would be transported back to the prevailing darkness. Novels stopped being a light-hearted enjoyment and became a necessary escape from my oppressive reality. Each day felt like a grueling hike up a mountain without a view; it took everything in me to get through the day physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, and months turned into a cold bitterness that I thought I would never shake.

Putting on the “Pastor Face”

Many who experience depression talk it in this same way. The difference with being a pastor is most people don’t expect you to talk about feeling that way. I often wondered if things would be different if I weren’t a pastor. I could openly get help, share my feelings with people, and go to counseling. As a pastor, though, I felt no liberty to be honest. My hiding led me to question how I could even do my job. How could I stand up in front of our Youth and preach of the goodness of God when I felt like he wasn’t there? How was I supposed to “put on the face” on Sunday mornings, smile and greet people, and pretend everything was fine? If I didn’t fake it, people would know something was wrong, and there was no way I could be blatantly honest and tell people what I was going through.

I could hardly even admit to myself that I was depressed. I denied my depression for the better part of 4 months, telling myself that I just had to keep trying, keep praying, keep being faithful, and eventually I would come out of it. I remember approaching a pastor who spoke at a conference I was helping run that Fall, thinking I had to tell him what was going on. He had just spoken to us about vulnerability and our need for one another as people in ministry. I felt the need; but I couldn’t come to terms with what would happen if I actually confessed my mental-emotional state. My depression continued without a soul knowing but myself. My wife suspected something was up, but I couldn’t clearly articulate it to her either.

Things finally came to a head that December, six months after I had started feeling the effects of my depression. My wife and I were celebrating the holidays in San Diego on vacation, visiting family, eating well, and (trying to) enjoy the sites. I remember one morning while driving back to our hotel after a event filled day, I turned to my wife and said, “I can’t feel anything… I feel dead inside.” I had tried so hard to feel something, anything, other than despair, that I had lost my ability to feel all together. Eventually, after nearly 8 months of seemingly endless darkness, my depression lifted; but unfortunately, that wasn’t entirely the end of my story…

From Bad to Worse

Nearly a year after I had come out of my depression, I began sensing the same feelings of discouragement, despair, and hopelessness. Again, through a combination of my own ministry frustrations, conflict, and feeling “stuck,” I felt myself wavering between sanity and despondency. I had just battled depression and “won” (through nothing of my own doing, though) a year prior; how could it be rearing it’s ugly head so soon after? I remember some days waking up and feeling full of life and hope, and the next feeling like I was slipping back into the abyss, as if Satan’s hand was pulling at my feet like quicksand. After two months of back and forth, I found myself standing on the edge of the cliff from which I took the picture above…

It’s strange how we talk about fears and phobias, and how we never want to face our greatest fears. Take away all hope and purpose, though, and the fears seem to be nonexistent. What do you have to fear if you have no hope? What is there to fear when you’ve lost all sense of purpose? That’s how I felt that evening, looking down from the edge, wondering what it would be like to drop 100 feet onto the rocks below. I had been to that cliff many times before, but never dared to go near the edge; that day, though, the edge didn’t feel close enough. I had never had a single thought of suicide in my entire life – not even through the social dread of high school, or the constant loneliness that dictated my four years in college. Yet, here I was, a pastor in ministry, feeling driven to suicidal thoughts because of ministry.

I eventually talked myself down from that edge, texting my wife and telling her I felt like ending it, like I couldn’t handle the constant back and forth, the discouragement and pressure, hiding who I really was while pretending I was someone I was not. By nothing other than the sovereign grace of God, it has been over a year since I’ve felt any lingering feelings of depression. I give thanks to God nearly everyday that I wake up without depression or suicidal thoughts. The “normal” mental and emotional state is no longer something I take for granted as a given in life. But since walking away from that cliff, I’ve come to realize a few things.

Pastors Are Searching for Answers

Pastors are Christians who are supposed to have all the answers. People come to us with Bible questions, life questions, and personal needs. We’re called to lead, shepherd, and help our members through them all. But what happens when a pastor doesn’t have the answers – not just for his flock, but for himself? What happens when a pastor doesn’t have a theological answer, or a specific Bible verse to address the needs of his own heart? Would we be ok with that? Or would we uncomfortably think he’s not learned, formed, or mature enough?

I didn’t have an answer for my depression in the midst of it, and I still don’t fully have one now. I don’t fully know why I went through it, what caused it, or what brought me out of it. I don’t even fully know why I felt compelled to share my story, other than hearing another sad – might I even say, unnecessary? – story of another pastor losing the battle to depression. I’m sure some will discount my pastoral calling as a result of sharing my own internal wrestling. Some may question my fitness or qualification for ministry. But can we find room in our theology to not have all the answers?

Heman was a choirmaster – a worship leader over Israel – and he had no answer for his despair. His one-hit-wonder (Psalm 88 is his only recorded song) begins with despair (88:1-3) and ends on outright blame towards God (88:18). If Heman had no answers at the end of his song, then pastor do not always need to have the answers to their own pain in the midst of their suffering.

Pastors Are People

Christians – and pastors as well – need to remember that we are merely people. We are not a “cut above the rest”; we are called to lead the rest, but only as one amongst the rest. Just because we are in ministry does not make us automatically more holy, more enlightened, more sanctified or joyful than the average Christian seeking to live faithfully in this broken world.

Christian, don’t lead yourself to think that pastors are above sin, suffering, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Pastors, don’t fool yourself into thinking you are above it just because of your title or position. We are men – not angels – made in the image of God, sharing in the sin of Adam, and wrestling along in our journey towards Christlikeness. We have not arrived; we are not perfected; we are not bulletproof.

If this is the case, then brothers, we need to be honest with ourselves – before God and before others. We need to come out of hiding, even if we feel our jobs are on the line. Our health and lives are more important than our statuses or careers – even if that status and career rests within the church. We need to stop thinking we have to put on a persona of constant happiness, joyfulness, resilience. We lead out of our own brokenness, and not above it – as if we can only talk about it after we’ve gone through it.

One of the most difficult things in ministry that almost every pastor will attest to is the loneliness we feel. We can be surrounded by hundreds of people who love us, respect us, and appreciate us, and yet we can still feel lonely. The thought that I can never fully be open and honest with people around me, that I can never fully bear my heart to anyone because I am a pastor, is one of the most alienating thoughts I’ve ever felt. “If they really knew the thoughts in my head, the turmoil in my heart, would they still want me and accept me as their pastor?” There has to be a better way…

I wish someone had told me during that season that it was ok to be honest with the state of my heart. I wish I had the courage to confess to someone how I was not ok, so they could lovingly tell me it’s ok to not be ok. I didn’t have the courage back then, but to any readers struggling through depression, I hope I can be that voice to encourage you to come out of hiding and shed light on the darkness.

Christ is the Savior, Not Pastors

It amazes me that Heman could be so honest before Israel, write a song about his own depression and suicidal thoughts that would be sung throughout Israel, and still be counted among one of the inspired authors of Scripture. Psalm 88 has become a life-psalm of some sorts for me, because through Psalm 88, I’m reminded that no matter the position, title, or maturity, there will come times in my life when I don’t have the answers. I’m reminded of my own sinful humanity, and that I can’t be the functional Savior of my people. Whatever the pressure, expectations, or burden I feel as a pastor, Christ has taken on more.

We can look to Jesus – pastor and congregant alike – to continue to carry our burdens and lead us through it. We can honestly bear our hearts before God, and (with wisdom) before others, because we know our status in heaven is secure in Christ. We have a blessed eternal assurance because of Christ our Savior, so we can let go of our earthly false assurance that we will be spared from sorrow. Yes, we desire to “be Jesus” to people; but let’s remember that only Jesus can fully “be Jesus” for them, and for us. I’m still in the midst of figuring it out; but if Jesus is my perfect Savior, I can follow Him and lead others without being a perfect pastor.

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