Why do pastors die by suicide?

A look at the high-pressure pastoral life

October 8, 2019

Two weeks ago, 30-year-old pastor and mental health advocate Jarrid Wilson took his own life, prompting many to consider why a vivacious young man with a thriving ministry and two small children would do think the world better without him. 

He’s not alone. Last year, pastor Andrew Stoecklein of Inland Hills Church in California died by suicide. He was also a young father of three, who had preached a sermon on depression just 12 days prior to his death. 

Faith has proved to be a solace to many church attenders, contributing to lower rates of suicide and higher rates of happiness, so it’s difficult to reconcile how a visible and engaged church leader isn’t among the saved. No easy answers exist, but there are a few telltale signs to examine in order to effectively grapple with how Wilson and other faith leaders came to such a point of desperation. 

Hard aspects of the pastoral life 

Mental illness, like depression that Wilson openly suffered from, is unquestionably the main component, but other aspects of the pastoral life contribute to why these leaders ultimately succumb to suicide. 

Pastoring is one of the most high-pressure jobs in the nation. According to the Soul Shepherding Institute, an organization that exists to care for the mental well-being of pastoral leadership, 90% of pastors work 55-75 hours a week and 75% report feeling “highly stressed” on any given week. Most are managing family life with the demands of pastoral care, which usually comes with an unending stream of requests and responsibilities. 

Most see a pastor at work on Sunday morning, but preaching is merely a fraction of their full scope of work. Pastors are also working with youth ministries, speaking at community events, meeting with individual congregants, leading a staff, crafting a church vision, officiating weddings, preaching at funerals, and helping specific ministries inside the church stay afloat. The time for personal devotion, reflection, or self-care is minimal, if even present.  

The day of his death, Wilson preached at the funeral of a woman who had died by suicide. He was also at the helm of Anthem of Hope, an organization he founded to provide guidance and fight mental health stigma within the Christian community. He was 18 months into a new pastoral job at Harvest church, had written several books, and had a thriving online presence. 

The pressure to succeed and appear like he was handling his mental illness was presumably higher than ever. Because people followed his honest tweets and encouraging online messages, it was easy to assume Wilson had the mental and spiritual support he needed. In reality, most pastors aren’t adequately cared for in this way.

“As a lead pastor, I can count on my hand how many times people have asked me [how I was doing with anxiety and depression],” said Shelter Cove Community Church Pastor Jeremy Oldenburger said in an online video posted days after he learned of Wilson’s death. 

According to LifeWay Research, only 41% of pastors nationwide have received training to assist someone dealing with suicidal thoughts. I didn’t find any numbers on how many have been trained to deal with their own suicidal ideations—and that is extremely concerning. It might seem that one who spends his life helping others would know how to help himself, but a life in faith leadership demands a shiny external facade.

Rick and Kay Warren of Saddleback Church lost their son to suicide in 2013. Kay wrote this in the Washington Post after learning of a pastor’s suicide in 2017: “Who would pastor the pastor? The same spiritual leader who had been there for thousands of church members over the decades now wrestled in secret, feeling despondent, hopeless and utterly defeated.”

Pastors don’t get into their profession for the income. They often refer to their positions—not as jobs—but, supernatural “callings.” They are in the business of soul saving. Any perceived personal weakness could potentially damage that noble, ultimate goal. This is antithetical to the gospel message that we are all imperfect sinners in need of saving—and certainly not responsible for “saving” anyone. Pastors, however, are not immune to worldly ills, including an outsized desire to succeed or struggles with depression. 

The Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School found that pastors experience depression at rates double that of the general population—and yet the resources available to them specifically are few. 

“We are surrounded daily by people’s trials, pain and suffering—and if you aren’t taking care of yourself, over time—you can get numb, tired and weary, “ said one pastor I spoke with. “There’s this expectation that the pastor has it all together and it almost comes across as a weakness—and it’s difficult for [us] to find outlets to say, ‘I’m not doing well.’”

Additionally, admitting to struggles with mental health may cause fear of potential job loss or reputation downfall. That fear has valid roots. According to 2015 LifeWay Research, evangelicals are far more judgmental about suicide than the population at large with 44% saying they think suicide is selfish, as compared to 36% nationally. 

Lastly, faith is by no means the only pathway to hope and healing for those who struggle. The Suicide Prevention Hotline may not pray with callers, but they are there for everyone who needs them. Sadly, pastors may feel uncomfortable attending non-faith-based support groups or seeking outside counsel because they fear being found out or manifest guilt that their faith isn’t enough. But, more awareness about the pressures of depression and anxiety among faith leaders, better resources aimed specifically toward them, and destigmatizing mental healthcare for this demographic will go a long way. Perhaps efforts of this kind would have been the safety net Jarrid Wilson needed to prevent his tragic end.

“People think that we, as pastors, are above the pain and struggles of everyday life. . . at the end of the day, we are just people like you,” said Harvest Church lead pastor Greg Laurie at a memorial service for Wilson last week. 

Maybe that message is one to remember as congregants enter houses of worship this Sunday.

Ericka Andersen

Ericka Andersen is a freelance writer. Her first book, Leaving Cloud 9: The True Story of a Life Resurrected From the Ashes of Poverty, Trauma and Mental Illness was released by Thomas Nelson in 2018. She lives in Indianapolis, Ind., with her husband and two children. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24