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When pastors’ silent suffering turns tragiccomment (0)

November 19, 2009


What kind of personal pain would cause a 42-year-old pastor to abandon his family, his calling and even life itself? Members of a Baptist church in Hickory, N.C., are asking that question after their pastor committed suicide in his parked car in September.

Those who counsel pastors say Christian culture, especially Southern evangelicalism, creates the perfect environment for depression. 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. But Baptists in the Carolinas are soul searching after a spate of suicides and suicide attempts by pastors.

In addition to the September suicide of David Treadway, two others in North Carolina attempted suicide, and three in South Carolina succeeded, all in the last four years.

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.

“We set the bar so high that most pastors can’t achieve that,” said H.B. London Jr., vice president for ministry outreach and pastoral ministries at Focus on the Family, based in Colorado Springs, Colo. “And because most pastors are people-pleasers, they get frustrated and feel they can’t live up to that.”

When pastors fail to live up to demands imposed by themselves or others they often “turn their frustration back on themselves,” leading to self-doubt and to feelings of failure and hopelessness, said Fred Smoot, director of Emory Clergy Care in Duluth, Ga., which provides pastoral care to United Methodist ministers in Georgia.

A pastor is like “a 24-hour ER” who is supposed to be available to any congregant at any time, said Steve Scoggin, president of CareNet, a network of 21 pastoral counseling centers in North Carolina. “We create an environment that makes it hard to admit our humanity.”

It’s a job that breeds isolation and loneliness — the pastorate’s “greatest occupational hazards,” said Scoggin, who counsels many Baptist and other ministers. “These suicides are born out of a lack of those social supports that can intervene in times of personal crisis.”

No one knows for sure how many ministers suffer depression or attempt suicide.

“It’s like nailing JELL-O to the wall,” London said.

But he estimated 18 percent to 25 percent of all ministers are depressed at any one time.

“The likelihood is that one out of every four pastors is depressed,” said Matthew Stanford, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

But anxiety and depression in the pulpit are “markedly higher” in the last five years, Smoot said. “The current economic crisis has caused many of our pastors to go into depression.”

Besides the recession’s strain on church budgets, depressed pastors increasingly report frustration over their congregations’ resistance to cultural change.

Most depression does not lead to suicide, but almost all suicides begin with depression. Depression causes two-thirds of the 30,000 suicides reported each year, the AMA says.

Nearly two out of three depressed people don’t seek treatment, according to studies by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Counselors say even fewer depressed ministers get treated because of career fears, social stigma and spiritual taboo.

“Clergy do not talk about it because it violates their understanding of their faith,” Scoggin said. “They believe they are not supposed to have those kinds of thoughts.”

Treadway, pastor of Sandy Ridge Baptist Church, Hickory, was the exception. He told his congregation he was in treatment several months before his suicide. Still the shock was hard to absorb, co-workers said.

Rodney Powe, worship pastor at the church, said he only now understands depression is a mental illness.
Christians who don’t experience depression trivialize it, he said. “We just say, ‘Come on, get over it. We have the hope of Christ and the Holy Spirit.”’

There are apparently no statistics suggesting ministers are more likely to commit suicide than other professionals. Studies purporting to measure the suicide risk of various occupations have produced wildly different results.

Stanford, who studies how the Christian community deals with mental illness, said depression in Christian culture carries “a double stigmatization.”

Society still places a stigma on mental illness, but Christians make it worse, he said, by “over-spiritualizing” depression and other disorders — dismissing them as a lack of faith or a sign of weakness.

Polite Southern culture adds its own taboo against “talking about something as personal as your mental health,” Scoggin noted.

The result is a culture of avoidance. “You can’t talk about it before it happens and you can’t talk about it after it happens,” said Monty Hale, director of pastoral ministries for the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

For pastors, treatment can come at a high price. “You are committing career suicide if you have to seek treatment,” Stanford said, “particularly if you have to take time off.”

In some settings, however, it is becoming a little more acceptable for clergy to get treatment, he said.

The good news, Smoot said, is “most pastors don’t stay depressed. They find a way out of that frustration.”

“Depression is part of the human condition,” Scoggin added. “Some people simply find ways to gracefully live with it. Like other chronic illnesses, you may not get over it.” (RNS)

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