By Kevin Smith
Recently, I’ve been saddened to learn of the suicide of two pastors, within a week of one another. Of course, the news was shocking to their families, the churches they served, other Christians, and viewers of local newscasts.
Suicide is the tragic end of someone that finds themself in a hopeless situation. It is never easy to deal with and always leads to many questions among those that remain. This is especially true when the deceased is a pastor—one who is called to lead others in their growth as followers of Jesus Christ, and one who teaches about the joy and peace “of the Lord.”
How does a pastor take his own life? How can things get that hopeless?
I think this is worth considering because too many pastors (that I talk to personally) exist somewhere between discouragement and despair. They don’t commit suicide, but their lives are characterized by discouragement, bitterness, complaining, discontentment, and sometimes sinful involvement with alcohol, drugs, or extramarital sexual activity.
If you find yourself in a season of hurting as a pastor, let me encourage you to do three things:
- Deal with the loneliness that can be a part of ministry. Many pastors do not have friends. Some don’t have “a” friend. This is a recipe for disaster in the challenging world of pastoral ministry. If Jesus sent His disciples out “two by two” and if Peter considered himself “one of the elders,” why would you seek to do ministry, and more importantly, life alone? Get a friend that you can be honest and authentic with about more than just the functional/professional things of life. Get a buddy that you can talk to about feelings, fears, doubts, and dreams. Thom Rainer’s posts on burnout can be especially helpful.
- Desire to be healthy—physically, emotionally, and mentally. Men, pastors included, cannot ignore the cries of their body (Go to the doctor!), their soul (Seek counsel!), or their mind (Go to the doctor!). I hope recent tragedies in our country will remove the secrecy or denial that has been associated with the issue of mental illness. If humanity and God’s creation are fallen (Genesis 3), that certainly includes our minds. Please don’t let pride or concern-for-appearance keep you from seeking valuable resources and counsel.
- Distinguish between biblical pressure and peer pressure. In various ministry roles, I enjoy the company of many preachers that vary in age, church size, and ethnicity. Often these brothers feel the weight of walking worthy of their godly calling (Ephesians 4:1). This is good. They should feel that weight. Sadly, however, too many of these brothers also feel the weight of peer pressure which, unfortunately, can manifest itself in an ungodly competitive spirit among ministers (Exodus 20:16-17). If pastors are stewards of the mystery of the gospel and stewards of God’s sheep, then the main criteria of evaluation according to the Bible is faithfulness (1 Corinthians 4:2). Regretfully, many of these same men also examine their ministries by cultural criterion of significance or success. When I’m feeling cynical I say, “They worried about being celebrities and church size.” Obviously, this is not God’s standard of ministry service, and more importantly, this type of thinking is wrought with temptation. Allow the sanctifying pressure of godly expectations and qualifications (1 Timothy 3/Titus) to shape your ministry. At the same time, reject the unbiblical influences of too many preachers’ competitive nature and the environment that can foster in associations, state conventions, and beyond.
Again, most pastors will not commit suicide, but, nevertheless, they will at some point in their tenure exist somewhere between discouragement and despair. Please consider the above challenges. God has been so gracious to call men like us into gospel ministry. Don’t lose the joy and awe of ministry because of loneliness, unhealthiness, or peer pressure.