Do you recognize the name Pastor Andrew Stoecklein? That name is a painful memory if you’re a member of Inland Hills Church in Chino, California. Andrew was their Lead Pastor, and on Sunday, August 26th the congregation gathered for worship and was shocked to hear their pastor had committed suicide the day before. This young pastor leaves behind a grieving church family and a young wife with three small boys.
I’ve noticed, as I’ve browsed Facebook over the last week, this death has deeply impacted ministers, especially young pastors who are confronted with their own mortality and the vocational risks that come with leading a congregation in the 21st century. Andrew had been struggling with depression and even spoke about it in a sermon recently. I feel his pain and his struggle. Depression is a demon I face every day but thankfully with God’s help and compassionate doctors I have lived to tell about it. Unfortunately, Andrew didn’t live to tell about it. I’ve never battled with suicidal tendencies, but I can see how someone could “give in” to the dark abyss that depression brings. Suicide has become part of the new norm as our culture battles opiate addictions and mental health issues, which impact the brain chemistry and compel broken people to do the unthinkable.
This isn’t a “let’s feel sorry for pastors” blog. Pastors are called by God, but they do have the free will to choose another vocational path. So, I won’t shock you with the alarming statistics which reveal the mass exodus of pastors leaving the ministry every month. But I can speak from 27 years of experience serving as a pastor of a church family, and only another pastor can fully understand the weight of carrying that mantle. Without question the good times far outweigh the challenges that come with the responsibility of shepherding God’s flock. Nevertheless, pastors can many times feel alone, like a single ship adrift on the sea with no one else around. It can be a very difficult, painful place to be.
So, what does Pastor Andrew’s death say to us? One, pastors are human and suffer, too. Two, pain has a way of blurring rational thinking. Three, the need to pray for our spiritual leaders has never been greater. Four, spiritual leaders are one of Satan’s primary targets. The Old Testament prophet said it right, “Smite the Shepherd and the sheep will scatter.” The collective impact of a pastor who is “knocked out” of the ministry cannot be fully measured. Five, depression is not a spiritual issue, often it is tied to exhaustion, genetics, brain chemistry, and poor self-care. Don’t judge a book by its cover, so don’t assume the “SUNDAY SMILE” reflects what is happening inside. Six, we should follow the example of my dearly beloved Pastor/Brother, the late Dennis Butts Sr., and not just ask, “How are you doing?” rather, “How are you doing, REALLY?” Seven, recognize depression to be a warning light on the dashboard of your mind. Eight, get professional help if depression lasts more than a week and is moving toward despair and hopelessness. Nine, learn all you can about depression and the outstanding medical breakthroughs for treating it. Ten, there are times that depression is tied to spiritual issues, so we can allow depression or mood swings to be an invitation to take a good look at our “walk with Christ” and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal anything that may be contributing to our emotional pain.
This weeks’ Ford’s Focus is an invitation for pastors who are battling with the “spirit of heaviness” or emotional darkness to please give me a call. My contact information is on the Love Akron Website or you can call our office at 330-384-8124, and our staff will connect you to me. Your pain is safe with me. One of the core reasons for starting The Love Akron Network almost 25 years ago was to take my “thorn in the flesh” and use it to encourage pastors who are battling depression. Before I go let me remind you of these truths:
The joy of the Lord is your strength. You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength. Christ’s strength is made perfect in your weakness. No weapon formed against you will prosper. The Lord gives songs in the night.
Most of all remember Jesus is FOR YOU, and you are NOT ALONE!