I want to introduce my readers to Dr. Leonard N. Smith’s excellent article, “Brace Yourself For the Next Clergy Suicide.” Dr. Smith is the senior pastor of the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Arlington, Virginia and Chancellor of the Richmond Virginia Seminary. In light of recent news events, I wanted to share his words.
by Dr. Leonard N. Smith
While many of us in the “Church World” were still processing the recent headlines regarding a pastor’s suicide in Georgia, two days after his funeral, we were once again taken back by the news of another pastors’ suicide.
Both clergy and non-clergy were shocked to hear of theses occurrences, but the news of these suicides isn’t what’s shocking. What is shocking is that we are only just now beginning this conversation. The unfortunate truth is that we have been down this road before; and sadly, we are destined to travel this road again. While this may sound a bit cynical, it is not. Suicide among clergy is very real, and it is not new!
In 2009, journalist Greg Warner wrote an article in USA Today entitled, “Suicide: When pastors’ silent suffering turns tragic.” In it, he wrote, “Pastors suffer in silence, unwilling or unable to seek help or even talk about it. Sometimes they leave the ministry. Occasionally the result is the unthinkable. Experts say clergy suicide is a rare outcome to a common problem.”
While statistics may suggest that clergy suicide is uncommon, when it happens, it is an extraordinary event. It gains the attention of the masses and makes media headlines, but all too soon, our momentary infatuation with the suicide event fades as the next days’ headlines take center stage—until the next time.
In the New Living Translation of the Bible, Ecclesiastes 1:9 says:
“History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.”
If Solomon’s words are true, and I believe they are, brace yourself for the next clergy suicide … and the next and the next, and the next … So just what is the cause of this painful reality? Depression!
Warner puts it this way, “Being a pastor — a high-profile, high-stress job with nearly impossible expectations for success — can send one down the road to depression, according to pastoral counselors.”
I don’t know anything about Mr. Warner, or the pastoral counselors he alluded to in the article. However, I know more than I care to admit about depression!
Depression for those who serve in fulltime ministry is often preceded by feelings of hopelessness, hurt and burnout. Many tend to believe that clergy are immune to depression or that they are living in sin if they are depressed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Depression is an overpowering clinical condition that can lead to many things including physical illness, anger, sadness, addiction, and in some cases suicide.
Most congregants can’t recognize depression in a pastor because they are too consumed by the glory of ministry. After all, that is what people want to see, and pastors show it well. Who wants a depressed looking and sounding pastor laying over the pulpit on Sunday morning whining about how bad their life is? No one does. People go to church because they want to be uplifted; they want to be encouraged. The pastor feels an obligation to fulfill that need. It’s the pastor’s role to ensure that the congregants return the next Sunday – and if they leave downtrodden, they’re unlikely to come back the following week.
Therefore, pastors force themselves to get up every morning and dress up in their invisible Super-Spiritual-Man/Super-Spiritual-Woman suit. Once properly attired, they attempt the impossible feat of living up to the many unrealistic expectations bestowed upon them by people who could never personally reach those standards themselves. Even worse, some pastors literally exhaust themselves trying to achieve similar self-imposed unrealistic goals. Too often, pastors begin to see their role as their parishioners see it.
Behind the persona of holiness and humility that the public sees, are pastors who secretly wage an almost daily struggle with the dark side of ministry. A great part of that dark side is isolation and loneliness.
In the article by Warner, he quotes Steve Scoggin, president of CareNet: “It’s a job that breeds isolation and loneliness — the pastorate’s greatest occupational hazards.”
Scoggin says what those of us who serve in pastoral ministry know all too well. The silent struggle is real!
Here are three things worth remembering:
- Depression is typically seasonal. Seasons come and go, but while you’re in the season of depression you need therapeutic intervention to navigate through the season.
- It takes a person that’s been there to truly understand it, but not everyone who has been there can help you. Being able to relate to your plight is one thing, but professionally helping you to get through it is another.
Allow someone you can trust to walk with you through the season of depression, in addition to the professional help you receive. Choose someone who loves you and can be trusted with the intimate details of your life and season. Be sure that they are emotionally healthy, otherwise they can unknowingly cause you further isolation and pain.