Jesus, Therapy, & Prozac: Pastors Need Help Too

I had never heard his name until just a few days ago, but I now I can’t get his name or his heartbreaking story out of my head. I am overwhelmed by grief at the loss of this man’s life and at the unbearable pain that I imagine his wife, his 3 boys, and his church family now find themselves swallowed within. At the tender age of 30, Andrew Stoecklein, lead pastor at Inland Hills Church in Chino, California, died by suicide. Multiple news outlets report that he had struggled with depression and anxiety for the past several months and had spoken very openly with his congregation and church leadership about his illness.  He took a four-month long sabbatical in his attempt to rest and recover. In the end, he succumbed to the ravages of depression and anxiety. In a statement made via Facebook, the Inland Hills Church community stated, “Inland Hills Church grieves with heavy hearts as our Lead Pastor Andrew Stoecklein was welcomed into Heaven on Saturday night after battling depression and anxiety. It’s not the outcome we hoped and prayed for, and today we grieve as a church family.”

We tend to assume certain types of people are immune to depression – celebrities, the wealthy, children, and Christians, especially pastors.  But no one is immune to mental illness. 18% of the US adult population has anxiety. That’s a staggering 40 million people. 16 million US adults have Major Depressive Disorder which is 6.7% of the adult population. Both depression and anxiety are grossly undertreated which can lead to devastating outcomes. Clearly, men and women in ministry contribute to these numbers. According to 2016 survey conducted by ExPastors, an organization formed to support and encourage pastors who are in the process of separating from a church or who have left ministry altogether,  85% considered leaving ministry, 39% struggle with depression, 65% deal with anxiety, 62% feel lonely, 17% take prescription medication for mental illness, 71% report experiencing burnout, 51% have obtained professional help,  35% see a therapist regularly, and 29% reported that they have considered suicide. Soul Shepherding, Inc. summarized similar findings gathered from multiple surveys on their website. They found that 70% of pastors report fighting depression, 50% said they would leave ministry if they were able, and 80% believe that pastoral ministry has negatively impacted their families.

So why do pastors and others in ministry forego mental health treatment? The answer is complicated and multifactorial, but I believe there are four key reasons:

1)      Demands of ministry

Pastors perform several roles in ministry from officiating weddings and funerals, to premarital counseling, to praying for the sick and shut in, to preparing for the Sunday sermon. The congregation has high expectations for those in the pulpit; however, fulfilling these obligations leaves little time for family and recreational pursuits.

2)      Loneliness and Stigma

Pastors may find it difficult to confide in others when they are feeling overwhelmed, anxious , or depressed. They believe they have no one to turn to and try to manage life’s difficulties on their own. They keep secrets from their loved ones. Neither the administrative team  nor their personal physician are aware of their pain. Stigma underlies the hesitation. Stigma, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “a mark of shame or discredit” or “an identifying mark or characteristic; a specific diagnostic sign of a disease.” Stigma can be both self-perceived and socially mediated. For those with mental illness, self-perceived stigma is the internal sense of shame because one carries a psychiatric diagnosis. Social stigma refers to the negative attitudes and unjust behaviors that individuals with mental illness endure. Both types of stigma can lead to poor health outcomes because individuals will avoid much needed mental health treatment.

3)      Compassion fatigue and Burnout

Pastoral counseling can come at a great cost, especially if pastors do not take intentional steps to refresh themselves and build healthy coping skills. Many parishioners look to the church as the bastion of hope and healing and understandably so. They bring their painful childhood memories, horrific stories of trauma and abuse, failed marriages, grief and loss, illness, and financial ruin to the pastor. Giving of oneself day in and day out can lead to compassion fatigue for the giver. Compassion fatigue is also known as vicarious traumatization or secondary traumatization. Dr. Charles Figley from the Tulane Traumatology Institute at Tulane University defines compassion fatigue as “an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”

In their 2009 article in Lancet, Farrah J. Mateen and Chencho Dorji define burnout as “an experience of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion, caused by long-term involvement in situations that are emotionally demanding.” Burnout is conceptualized as having 3 separate components: a) physical and emotional exhaustion, b) depersonalization which is the state of detaching oneself emotionally from others, and c) lack of personal achievement. Pastors most certainly experience both compassion fatigue and burnout though they may be unaware that this is happening.

4)      Erroneous beliefs

I suspect that some pastors believe that acknowledging emotional struggles reflects a lack of faith, too little prayer, a moral failing, or a strained relationship with Jesus Christ. The truth of the matter is that depression and anxiety are medical illnesses exacerbated by the perils and pitfalls of everyday life. Depression has nothing to do with one’s level of faith or how long you have been saved.

Some pastors also worry that seeking mental health treatment means they doubt God’s ability as Jehovah Rapha, the LORD your healer, or that they must be “crazy” to get help. Trust me when I say you can believe in Jesus and see a therapist at the same time. As a pastor, you would not tell a church member to trust God to cure their diabetes through prayer and not expect them to change their diet and comply with the physician’s recommendations. The Bible contains several scriptures that demonstrate that God requires us to activate our faith and partner with wise counsel to receive healing and breakthrough.

  • James 2:17 (NIV) – In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
  • Proverbs 19:20 (NLT) – Get all the advice and instruction you can, so you will be wise the rest of your life.
  • Proverbs 15:22 (NIV) – Plans fail for the lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.
  • Proverbs 11:4 (NIV) – For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisors.
  • Proverbs 12:15 (NIV) – The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.
  • Proverbs 13:10 (NIV) – Where there is strife, there is pride, but wisdom is found in those who take advice.

A consistent theme exists among these scriptures. God expects us not only to believe but to do if we expect our faith to bear fruit. Obtaining the counsel from mental health providers leads to victory for those pastors who seek wisdom. As a practicing board certified psychiatrist, I know that God has given me the gift of healing through psychiatric medicine, and I serve as an instrument for his Glory.  God created the field of mental health to help those in need; He equipped researchers with the knowledge to develop medications and other treatments; and He provides physicians with the ability to treat diseases through compassion and cutting age medical care.

JESUS + Faith + Mental Health Care = Healing & Breakthrough

Pastors, please do not suffer in silence. Take action. Seek the wise counsel of a physician and/or therapist. Share your struggles with other pastors and your congregation as so many are going through the same thing. Your testimony could truly bless others and encourage them to get help. If you are contemplating suicide, get help immediately.  Call 911, a friend, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 – 800 – 273 – 8255!

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