The Silence of Suicide in the Church

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“My heart is severely pained within me,

And the terrors of death have fallen upon me.

Fearfulness and trembling have come upon me,

And horror has overwhelmed me.

So I said, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!

I would fly away and be at rest.

Indeed, I would wander far off,

And remain in the wilderness. Selah

I would hasten my escape

From the windy storm and tempest.” Psalms 55:4-8 (New King James Version)

 

Sometimes it’s not about wanting to die, it’s about not wanting to live with the pain.

As the lead pastor of Inland Hills Church in Chino, California, Andrew Stoecklein began suffering from full-blown panic and anxiety attacks three to four times a week, in the fall of 2017. His wife Kayla often found him pacing, crying, and curled up in a fetal position in their home. Over a seven-month period of time, he had a baseball size tumor removed from his chest, passed 60 kidney stones, and preached every Sunday while battling severe panic attacks.

After preaching seven consecutive Easter services, Andrew had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to the hospital in April of 2018. He was referred to a mental health professional. It stunned Kayla when the psychiatrist diagnosed him with clinical depression and anxiety. How could this be? The man she knew as driven, passionate, gifted, and whom she called “Superman,” was now labeled mentally ill. Although it shocked her, it gave Andrew a sense of relief that he finally had a diagnosis. Concerned, the church staff placed him on sabbatical and encouraged him to rest.

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Andrew set August as a deadline to get back to the pulpit, fearing that too much time away from work may make matters worse. During those four months, he and his wife met with a counselor two hours a week, a psychiatrist twice a week, and a mentor once a week. He listened to worship music to combat the spiritual warfare and mental illness he was enduring. Kayla told him that he didn’t have to be a pastor anymore. They could go anywhere else and start a new life together with their three young boys, but Andrew was committed to his calling. By early August, he returned to work and introduced a series of sermons called, “Hot Mess” just 12 days prior to his death. In one of the messages titled, “To the back of the Cave,” taken from I Kings 19, he described how the prophet Elijah wrestled with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. And then with vulnerable transparency Andrew addressed the taboo, his own mental illness and suicide ideation.

He shared what he called, “Rhythms of Rest,” God’s prescription for mental illness and suicidal thoughts. The bullet points of this prescription were, “Sleep, Get-Up, Sunlight, Exercise, Eat and Drink Healthy, and Rest. If you break the rhythm, it will break you,” he said. The awful irony is that on August 24, 2018, Andrew Stoecklein died by suicide; he was 30 years old.

 

“I am so sorry you were scared,

I am so sorry you felt so alone,

I am so sorry you felt misunderstood,

I am so sorry you felt betrayed and deeply hurt by the words and actions of others,

I am so sorry you were fighting a dark spiritual war virtually alone,

I am so sorry you were unable to fully get the help and support you needed.”

(Kayla Stoecklein, August 28, 2018 To My Andrew)

 

            Because Andrew was authentic with his mental illness, Kayla determined to be honest about his suicide. As a widow, she took over Andrew’s blog, “God’s Got This” with the hope that by sharing their truth and her grief, it would help others. In one post referring to her husband, Kayla said, “Andrew suffered immensely from both spiritual warfare and mental illness. They’re both real. There’s a real enemy who wants to steal, kill, and destroy. And Andrew was experiencing that in a very real way.” She explained that he used the spiritual tools of prayer and fasting, Bible meditation, and Christian community to persevere. She asserted, “I believe in miracles, but I think it would be ignorant to say we can pray someone’s mental illness away…Andrew did not ‘commit’ suicide, it was the mental illness that took his life.”

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The horrific loss of Pastor Andrew Stoecklein is not an isolated tragedy. Deaths caused by suicide have significantly risen to nearly 800,000; that is one person every 40 seconds. Among men under the age of 45, death by suicide is the number one cause of death. What’s even more shocking is the fact that so many ministry leaders are joining that number. In a recent article at Christianity Today.com, writer Ed Stetzer asked the question, “Are we under a curse of suicide that’s stalking our church leaders?” He wrote, “I sometimes get calls from pastors a thousand miles away who have nobody—it seems—to help them. I wonder how this has happened. I also wonder about those who are ministry leaders who don’t make the call, who suffer in silence, afraid to reach out.”

Pastoring is a dangerous job and is considered to be one of the most high-pressure occupations. Pastors don’t graduate seminary as mental health counselors, yet people often expect them to provide solutions for their mental health challenges. The question was raised by Steve Austin, a former pastor who attempted suicide, “No one wants their pastor performing open heart surgery, so why expect him to be your psychiatrist?”

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Being a pastor’s wife, I’ve seen firsthand how the stress of being a minister, husband, and father affected my husband Rob’s mental health. Marital issues, family crisis, exhaustion, healthy problems, low pay, fear of inadequacy, and impossible schedules threatened havoc that resulted in spurts of debilitating anxiety and depression. At the same time, I wrestled with ongoing emotional pain until I eventually committed spiritual suicide. (You can read my story here:Plastered on the Front Pew part 1 and Plastered on the Front Pew Part 2) Our marriage fell apart. I left him, and Rob was forced to take a six-month sabbatical from his work. Those were some dark days for all of us, but particularly him. Recently after our marriage was restored, I asked him if he’d ever had suicidal thoughts.

“It was a battle to get up every morning,” he said, “push through my pain, and be the dad my kids needed me to be. I felt emotionally empty, but thank God, I never felt hopeless. God spared me from having any suicidal thoughts.”

Unfortunately, it also affected our children, specifically my son Christian. He had bouts of depression as young as seven years old. He experienced night terrors and grew afraid at bedtime, and I noticed his behavior was marked by deep sadness. During counseling, he admitted to having suicidal thoughts, especially at night. It broke my heart that he dealt with terror at such a young age. Thankfully, we were able to get him help, but he had to battle through the fears that continued to threaten him. He still wrestles with depressive episodes.

When I shared that my son struggled with depression and thoughts of suicide in a women’s gathering at church, it was as if I’d stated that he had murdered someone.

Awkward silence.

The topic of suicide is considered taboo by the church.

I can’t ever recall having heard a message on it, even though I’ve personally known several who’ve been devasted by it. It’s tragic but most have no idea that church leaders are not only struggling with severe depression, anxiety, and mental illness…but also dying by suicide.

Enough is enough!

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Recently, after being made aware of being made aware of yet another tragedy, Pastor Jarrid Wilson’s suicide in September of 2019, I vowed to do something about it, to bring awareness. I want to speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves. Pastors often feel they have no safe place to go for help, they remain silent.

Before his untimely death by suicide, when addressing the topic of mental health, Jarrid made this bold statement, “If the local church wants to be the hope of the world, then the local church needs to step into the areas in which the world finds itself hopeless.” (And I’d humbly add to his statement)—and in which ministers and church leaders find themselves feeling hopeless.

Taking pain public that most keep private is one way to exposee this darkness to light. The darkness is best described by Heman, the Ezahite, who penned the Biblical song of Psalm chapter 88, a desperate prayer from deep affliction. I encourage you to read the entire chapter, as it reflects the darkness which those in mental anguish are tormented and the depth from which they cry out to God in prayer. We must remember that Pastors are people too. The internal pain they experience is valid. But suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary pain. It may be disguised as the only way out, but it isn’t the answer; in fact, it creates excruciating pain for those left behind. We the church must fight for solutions and raise awareness that this is a prevalent problem and relevant reality. It’s time to pave the way for dialogue about how the church can promote community and healing for those struggling with mental illness, including pastors. We must address the systematic devouring of hope and distortion of reality that is suicide. End the silence. Kevin Hines, a survivor of attempted suicide said, “if we do not talk openly about suicide, about what suicide is, who it affects, and how it affects them…If we do not use the word safely, with education and awareness, we run the risk of missing all those people who have it on their minds.”

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National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK

 

The following are some ways we can encourage our pastors and ministry leaders who may be struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts:

  1. Encourage your pastor often through verbal cues, letters, invitations to eat, and by giving gifts of appreciation. Let them know they are doing a great job and thank them. October is Pastor Appreciation Month, but don’t wait until October.
  2. Offer help as a volunteer to alleviate stress on the pastor at church.
  3. Pray for your pastor daily. Pray for his wife and family too.
  4. Make sure your church set allowances for the pastor to take sabbatical periods of rest. If it doesn’t be an advocate for change. Pastors need sabbatical time off weekly, monthly, and throughout the year.
  5. Suggest that the church address topics of mental health and provide ministry for those struggling with it.

 

If you have any other recommendations we’d love to hear them. Join the conversation by commenting below.
Resources:

Kayla Stoecklein Instagram kaylasteck

www.Godsgotthis.com blog “To My Andrew” August 28, 2018.

“A Conversation on Mental Illness and Suicide with Dawn Chere Wilkerson and Kayla Stoecklein” Vous Church You Tube video, July 12, 2019. https://youtu.be/SFmoLTVxdgA

“Hot Mess: To the Back of the Cave” Andrew Stoecklein Inland Hills Church YouTube Video, August 13, 2018. https://youtu.be/cVBe4z2QSRM

Juli Wilson Instagram itsjuliwilson and www.anthemofhope.org

“De-Stigmatizing Mental Illness in the Church” Jarrid Wilson, Churchleaders.com

Youtube video, January 17, 2019 https://youtu.be/J4-kP1k6Y7M

Kevin Hines-Power 106 Los Angeles interview Youtube:  https://youtu.be/kQ4XCNZdKfl

Pictures by Pexels at Pixaby.com. Thank you!

 

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This article was written by one of Hallelujah House’s contributing writers Elizabeth Hammond.

A former English teacher, Elizabeth loves the written word. She’s been a pastor’s wife for 20 years, and for 24 years, remains happily married to her husband Rob. They have a daughter Faith and a son Christian, albeit preparing to become empty nesters. They reside in Jacksonville, Florida.

In her free time she loves to bake, read, and lounge on the beach which is in her opinion is the closest thing to heaven. Elizabeth’s passion is ministering to others out of her own God-story where He’s rescued her life and continues to restore her family. She desires to fulfill God’s purpose in her life in encouraging women by sharing her own story, through Bible study, and intimate friendships.

Elizabeth can be contacted at elizabethhammond8@gmail.com.