Question 1: In light of recent high-profile pastor suicides, what safeguards should be put in place by church leadership to prevent this from happening in the future? What should supervisory boards do to support pastors? What can teams do to support each other?
These questions assume that people in positions of power within church leadership (e.g., executive pastor, senior pastor, or elder board) take seriously the potential for pastoral suicide and believe that they can take steps to make some kind of a difference.
People within church leadership may not always believe that pastors die by suicide. However, if church leadership is going to help decrease this risk, it must first be taken seriously. Unfortunately, nobody is immune from the difficulties of life, and when life stressors overwhelm a person’s ability to manage his or her life, he or she will likely break down and may grow sad and anxious.
Some pastors, if they do not receive adequate support in the midst of difficulties, may ultimately attempt to end their lives. It is very important for church leadership to recognize that feelings of deep sadness and anxiety are not uncommon and that pastors may have a higher likelihood toward these feelings given the difficult nature of their work.
The sources of these difficulties can come from many places: relational and family difficulties, long work hours, an immense sense of responsibility for their work, and tumultuous work relationships can all be emotionally draining to anybody, including pastors.
Therefore, the first step church leadership can take toward preventing pastoral suicide and supporting pastors is simply taking the threat and possibility of pastoral suicide seriously. Pastors can, and regrettably do, attempt and die by suicide under particular circumstances.
Beyond taking that reality seriously, church leadership can help prevent pastoral suicides and increase support to pastors by taking increased responsibility for the wellbeing of their pastors.
Well-being, broadly defined, is the overall health and wellness of a pastor in various areas of his or her life—physically, emotionally, sexually, and spiritually, to name a few. From a top-down leadership perspective, an organization is typically as healthy as the leadership that guides it.
In this way, a church may only be as healthy as its guiding pastor (or pastors). Simply stated, if a pastor’s overall well-being is threatened, then both the people in the church and the pastor are at risk of suffering. Therefore, church leadership can ensure that churchgoers receive good pastoral leadership and ensure the health and wellness of their pastor by closely monitoring a pastor’s well-being and intervening when necessary.
Some practical ways that church leadership can prevent further suicides and better support pastors is simply by regularly checking in. Although this could be done as a group, it is often more effective in a one-on-one environment. This could be particularly beneficial if a pastor has a trusted companion (e.g., someone not in a position of authority or power over them) that is tasked with this check-in role.
Providing a check-in or accountability relationship for the pastor in which the person agrees to have regular conversations about his or her health and well-being with a trusted peer can ensure that there is some form of regular assessment and reflection on pastoral well-being.
In these ways, a pastor can avoid staying in isolation and has the potential to gain social support. The psychological literature, again and again, emphasizes the importance of relationships and social support in decreasing the risk of suicide. Church leadership can also encourage pastors to join with other pastors in groups to support each other in their health and well-being journeys. These can provide organic opportunities for authentic conversations, opportunities to problem-solve difficulties, and enhance pastoral social support.
Church leadership can also take a great step toward preventing pastoral suicide and better supporting pastors by practicing a balanced approach of speaking the truth in love. Having the ability to speak truth to someone, and yet with a spirit of love, is incredibly helpful for the person receiving feedback.
For church leadership to clearly state the expectation that pastors are not going to be perfect at their jobs—and that they will actually make many mistakes—could be incredibly freeing to a pastor at any stage in a career. The effect of this could be disarming the shameful feelings a pastor may otherwise experience about not living up to church leadership expectations.
Romans 8:1 reminds us that there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” and neither should pastors condemn themselves and live in shame. Although blatant disregard for the well-being of churchgoers and any intentional harm-doing should never be tolerated, expecting perfection from a pastor is not realistic.
Question 2: How can we as a church recognize and address both the individual and systemic concerns of mental health issues?
This is a much larger question than either the space or the scope of this article allows for. However, in short, the church must grapple with the reality of mental illness if it is to continue to survive and be relevant to a world that desperately needs the holistically healing gospel of Jesus Christ.
If the church fails to take seriously the pervasiveness, destruction, and reality of mental illness, then we are essentially scorning Jesus’ command to love others as ourselves. Matthew 25:40 says that, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Those struggling with mental illness, including pastors, are included among the least of these. And when we recognize their pain and enter into their suffering with them, we are loving Jesus Christ.
Recognition of the individual and systemic nature of mental health issues can occur in many ways—two of these are self-education and increased empathy. Self-education can involve seeking more information about the prevalence and research support for mental illness. Simply searching on the internet for “mental health church” yields many resources for individuals looking for a church-informed approach to understanding mental health.
Growing in empathy through personal interaction is another way to grow in recognition of individual and systemic mental health. Talking to individuals, as they are comfortable, about their own experience with mental health could lead to a rich conversation of better understanding one who struggles with mental health illness.
Consider asking a question like this: “I am really trying to better understand mental illness and I know you’ve shared about struggling with [for example, anxiety] in the past. If you are willing, would you share some thoughts from your own experiences with me?”
In this way, a person can grow in recognition of individual and systemic mental illness through both self-education and growing in empathy for others. However, in an effort to not further burden the already burdened people struggling with mental illness, it is also important that our churches recognize the need to educate ourselves on the matter of mental illness by seeking answers to questions we could also get elsewhere. This is not to discourage individual conversations, but it is an encouragement that there is already a lot of information out there on mental illness if a person is willing to look. As Jesus says in Matthew 11:15, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
The question of how to address individual and systemic concerns about mental illness is much broader reaching. The church has a role to play in caring for the well-being of people physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and a wide-reaching approach to addressing both individual and systemic mental illness will take a multi-pronged, coordinated effort beyond solely the church.
But ultimately, the church can work as a champion and proponent for the legitimacy and validity of mental health in the world, and in that way be a hospital for the hurt, sick, and broken. We believe that this is what Jesus truly envisioned his church on earth to be, and by doing so be the hands and feet of Christ himself to the world.
More in Part 5 of this series.
Carson A.M. Tabiolo, M.A., is a doctoral candidate from Wheaton College's Clinical Psychology program. She will complete her doctoral internship at the University of Alabama Birmingham - Veterans Affairs Medical Center Clinical Psychology Internship Consortium in Birmingham, Alabama.
Amy J. Smith, M.A., is a doctoral candidate from Wheaton College's Clinical Psychology program. She will complete her doctoral internship at Pine Rest Christian Psychological Services in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Dan Barnhart, M.A., is a doctoral candidate from Wheaton College's Clinical Psychology program. He will complete his doctoral internship at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii and is entering the U.S. Army as an active-duty clinical psychologist.