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In the Darkness, Search for Hope

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Belief and faith do not offer immunity from suicide.

Last week, Jarrid Wilson, a well-known evangelical pastor, ended his own life.

Wilson, an associate pastor at Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California, advocated for churches to help those struggling with mental health.

He wrote and spoke about his own battle, even founding a mental health nonprofit, Anthem of Hope.

Unfortunately, the person called to help others felt as though his time on earth was over. The bright lights of his life and ministry gave way to an overwhelming and paralyzing darkness.

Wilson fervently and respectfully fought the battle for years, even empowering others to fight alongside him, but in the end the darkness was just too powerful.

Wilson’s death has left many in the church questioning how often clergy routinely enlist and practice mental health precautions.

After ministering in local churches for over two decades, I can answer that question fairly simply. Clergy often neglect their own mental health because they are too busy ministering to others and caring for their families.

After Pastor Andrew Stoecklein committed suicide in 2018, I offered 10 vital ways churches can minister to their ministers. I think it’s important to revisit that list:

  1. Having a mentor saved my ministry. If I did not have men and women I could confide in from time to time, I would have left ministry a long time ago.
  2. Colleague support. Having a trusted group of colleagues where sacred space can be created to learn, grieve, gripe, laugh and cry will provide much needed encouragement.
  3. Professional therapy. Pastors need someone (preferably a professional therapist) to communicate with outside their congregations, colleagues and family. Pastors should not wait to see a therapist until problems arise. Routinely talking with a professional therapist can often head off emotional and cognitive problems before they escalate.
  4. Routine time off. Pastors are notorious for working 50 to 60 hours per week. They need routine time off with their families and friends, plus time to be alone with their thoughts.
  5. Mandatory vacation. Make certain pastors take their allotted vacation time. If they attempt to forgo it with the excuse of lack of time or resources, churches should make time and find the resources for them. Both the minister and church will benefit.
  6. Permission to be human. Pastors rarely are allowed to be themselves. Even in social situations with church members, they are often confronted with a question about the church or theology. They need space and moments when being human is more important than being pastor.
  7. Freedom to learn. Giving pastors the freedom to learn and expand their knowledge of God can be a life force for many. Many pastors have inquisitive minds that thrive on learning more about God and God’s ways, but often the business of the church and family responsibilities hinder academic pursuits.
  8. Freedom to preach. Stop criticizing your pastor’s preaching to others. Pastors work very hard on sermons, so when members start conspiring behind the pastor’s back, it creates mistrust and an unhealthy environment. Giving a pastor the freedom to preach often inspires ministers to be more creative and thoughtful in their preaching. Subtle and secret criticism often stifles preaching, creating suspicion and cautiousness.
  9. Freedom to lead. When a congregation gives the pastor permission to lead as partners in ministry, entrepreneurism and creativity flourish. Pastors need freedom to cast vision as they work with the congregation. Gamesmanship and political maneuvering can be replaced with collegiality and collaboration when pastor and church work together instead of as competing entities.
  10. Share the burden. Freedom to lead means the church must accept its responsibility not merely as an overseer of pastoral leadership, but also as a true partner in ministry. The burden of a Christian minister is far too great for one individual to bear, so sharing the burden strengthens the bonds that unite pastor and church.

As I think about the deep darkness clergy face throughout their lives and ministries, I am reminded of the ancient Psalm of David.

David praises the Lord in the first section of his poem, but things quickly turn when the writer enters the “darkest valley” and the writer changes tenses.

Instead of speaking about the Lord, the conversation turns personal and direct with David speaking to the Lord, “You are with me; your rod and staff comfort me.”

It’s in the darkness where one finds companionship and hope.

We must acknowledge that clergy are particularly susceptible to the darkest valleys. Often, clergy find themselves addressing the most difficult circumstances of peoples’ lives and working on the most perplexing and difficult issues facing the world.

Clergy are so busy ministering and offering hope to others, they quickly find themselves isolated and alone. Please consider ministering to your minister.

When I arrived in Norman, Oklahoma, as the pastor of NorthHaven Church, I will never forget the congregational response.

A church member stopped by our house during our first Holy Week with an incredible meal ready to eat.

When we opened the door, the church member said, “I know this week can be chaotic for your family. You’re so busy helping us get to the empty tomb that you must find yourselves empty every day. Please take this meal as a symbol of how much we appreciate your hard work, the sacrifice of your family, and the love we have for you all.”

In that moment, my family understood the importance of having the support of a Christian community during times of stress.

Our clergy are struggling, friends. Let’s get busy offering them the support of family and the hope of a good meal.

Mitch Randall

Mitch Randall is executive director of EthicsDaily.com.