Stress, church leadership and suicide

In early September, the pastor of a California megachurch shocked his congregation and the wider community by ending his life. Shortly before his death by suicide, Pastor Jarrid Wilson of the Harvest Christian Fellowship Church in Riverside tweeted that “Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure suicidal thoughts.” Wilson, who had publicly discussed his struggles with depression, was an advocate for people with similar challenges.

It’s always difficult to understand what leads someone to choose suicide, and when that person is a church leader, it can be even more troubling. We look to our pastors, elders, and other spiritual leaders to help us cope with our challenges and guide us to a Godly life. We see them as role models, and if they fall short of our expectations, it can challenge our very faith.

I didn’t know Pastor Wilson and can’t speak to what troubled him, but I’ve counseled enough pastors and other church leaders to know that nearly all of them struggle with the relentless stress of the job. Church members who only see their pastors in the pulpit on Sunday morning have no idea how difficult their jobs can be. I’ve seen surveys suggesting that 90 percent of pastors find their work overwhelmingly stressful and that many have 70-plus-hour workweeks. Even the most devoted pastor is still a human being, and humans suffer negative effects from stress.

Every job involves some stress, but a leadership role in a church has many unique aspects. For one, pastors and other church leaders are often expected to put their own families in secondary positions while they tend to the needs of their members. Often, they’re expected to serve as counselors for their members’ personal challenges — and to be available on a moment’s notice. That doesn’t include the immediate responses to deaths, illnesses, and other emergencies.

Pastors are responsible for two sets of finances — those of the church and their family’s. Few are well-compensated for their work, forcing their families to maintain a frugal lifestyle as they watch members enjoy lavish vacations and buy expensive homes and vehicles. And when giving falls below the church’s needs, all eyes on the finance committee turn to the pastor for a solution.

Finally, church leaders are expected to be role models with no personal flaws. But they’re human, and humans do make mistakes. Sadly, congregations often find it difficult or impossible to forgive those leaders for being human. Admitting sins or a struggle with something like depression can lead to a lost job, so far too many leaders keep it all inside.

Pastors and other church leaders frequently find it difficult to communicate these challenges to their congregations, so they assume even more work and greater stress. That’s why it can be beneficial for them to seek the assistance of a professional counselor who will listen to their challenges and help them find ways to cope and reduce the impact of stress. Care to Change sees supporting local pastors and church leaders as a key part of our ministry. If you, a family member, or a close friend might benefit from our expertise, why not contact us to set an initial conversation?

If you are struggling with anxiety, depression, or panic, please watch Louie Giglio’s message from yesterday.