California has mourned the deaths by suicide of two beloved pastors in under six months. Although tragic and sad, the deaths of Pastors Jim Howard and Andrew Stoecklein leave many of us—especially within the church—scratching our heads. What happened? Aren’t pastors supposed to be filled with the joy of the Lord? And the dreaded but often unspoken question: Will a pastor go to hell for committing suicide?
On the bright side (if there is one in this situation), the recent deaths also point to the need for mental health care within the church. As the editor of Southern California Christian Voice, I had questions, too. But most importantly, I wanted to know what we, the church, can do to help. I figured the best place to start was by talking to pastors.
When I reached out to several pastors about the issue of mental health struggles as a pastor, most were willing to share and answer questions but wanted to remain anonymous. While frustrating, the responses also brought perspective to a 2015 Lifeway Research study, that reported among evangelicals, 44 percent said suicide was selfish (compared to 36 percent nationally), and 32 percent said those who die by suicide are going to hell.
With a report like this, it’s no wonder mental illness, especially among pastors, remains a taboo topic within the church.
Author of From Pastor to Psych Ward and former Pastor, Steve Austin aims to change the stigmas often associated with mental illness. Austin travels the country speaking about his experience and the events leading up to it. He offers advice to struggling Christians and pastors. His message: No more shame.
Below are Austin’s candid responses to my questions.
Q: What did your personal experience teach you about the need for mental health awareness within the Christian church and ministry? In what ways did the church fail you? In what ways did the church offer support?
A: I grew up in a fundamentalist church culture that demanded outward performance, to the detriment of genuine faith. Because my brain didn’t work like other Christians I knew, I learned to blend in and keep my mouth shut.
For those of us with mental illness, the church can sometimes feel cranky and unkind. We often hide in the shadows, for fear of being thought of as less than a full Christian. But we continue to stubbornly white-knuckle the back of the pew, hoping to one day be accepted, just as we are.
Anyone who has spent time in a psych ward would love for the church to look a little more like an in-patient unit. We don’t expect the psych ward to immediately “fix” us any more than we think church attendance will magically remove all of our doubts or struggles. But respecting the process and cultivating a community where honesty rules the day has the power to shatter our shame.
Q. Do you think we place unfair expectations on pastors? How can we do better?
A: 100% yes. We say we want pastors who show up and are genuine and authentic, but as soon as a pastor shows weakness, or peels back their leatherbound mask to reveal the humanity underneath, our stomachs pitch. We expect pastors to have all the answers we seek, all the time we need, and to never complain. In short, we expect our pastors to be little gods. It’s unhealthy and unfair.
Q: Tell us about your books and why you chose to write and speak on the issue of mental health.
A: I was a pastor when I nearly died by suicide. I survived childhood sexual abuse, plus years of toxic theology, but the effects rippled through my life for the next twenty-five years. This isn’t your typical Christian story. I wrote From Pastor to a Psych Ward to chronicle the years leading up to the suicide attempt, and to give people the practical steps I took in the first year of recovery after nearly dying. There was no “magic Jesus pill” that suddenly made life better. Recovery from a suicide attempt is a living hell, but it is possible. Faith was a part of my journey, but so was medication, a powerful support system, and grueling hours in therapy. This book is for anyone who has nearly died by suicide and is left wondering “what’s next”. It’s also a great resource for people who care about someone with a mental illness.
I wrote Self-Care for the Wounded Soul about six months after releasing From Pastor to a Psych Ward because people were asking for more practical steps to find healing and hope. The result is a 21-day self-care journal, rooted in the messy grace of Jesus.
After spending ten years of my life at the intersection of Christianity and mental health, I realized there were far more people who needed hope than just Christians or those with a mental illness. I wanted to cast a wider net, to spread a larger table, so I wrote my latest book Catching Your Breath: The Sacred Journey from Chaos to Calm. This book is one-part memoir and one-part self-help. It’s a book for anyone who is overwhelmed by the pressures of daily life. If you’re desperate to come up for air and catch your breath, you’ll find simple ways to cultivate calm and practice self-care while living courageously and authentically.
Q: Do you have advice for pastors struggling with mental health issues?
Get out. Full stop. Get out from behind the pulpit and rest. Even Jesus felt overwhelmed by the crowds and drew away to a quiet place to rest and recover. Sabbath is rarely practiced by pastors. Sabbatical is almost unheard of these days. But if you want to see your soul restored, you’ve got to take a break. Whether it’s blocking off a day each week away from your phone and email or taking three months away to find yourself again, you have to do it. Desperate times call for desperate measures, they say.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to express about the issue of mental health and the church?
Are you a church person who doesn’t understand mental illness? It’s okay. Just remind us that grace is here, even when our life feels overwhelming and dark. Tell us that we aren’t a lost cause and that our life isn’t over. Remind us that God makes all things new and accepts us exactly as we are.
As I continue to recover from my suicide attempt, I am learning that life isn’t neatly boxed and bowed, and neither is faith. When it comes to church, I’m not asking for my pastor to be my psychiatrist. I don’t need my Sunday School teacher to try and fix me, or for any clergy person to have all the answers. I just need people to choose kindness, even when they don’t understand.
For more information or to contact Steve Austin go to iamsteveaustin.com