Printer-friendly version
Greg Warner of Religion News Service has written a good article on depression and suicide among pastors...

Here is a link about an important if somber topic, and one that is sadly familiar to parish clergy.

Greg Warner of Religion News Service has written a good article on depression and suicide among pastors. (We spotted it just yesterday in the latest issue of Christian Century but it appeared in USA Today three weeks ago, as well as in many denominational outlets.) It discusses the suicide in September of Baptist pastor David Treadway in Hickory, NC. One of the experts quoted in the piece is Steven Scoggin of CareNet, a pastoral counselor based in Winston-Salem and a friend of the Clergy Health Initiative.

Flickr/camil tulcanI can’t add much – the article is worth reading, and the fact that it got picked up in some prominent publications will ease the stigma surrounding these issues. Your humble bloggers have given health talks several times now before groups of clergy, and when we mention depression, it's greeted with rueful, slightly self-conscious laughter. Yes, we're all despondent and half-crazy -- what else is new? Suicide is more shocking, of course, and rarely discussed openly, though I know the 2005 death of Raegan May, a member of the North Carolina Conference, still weighs on the minds of many who knew him.

Most of Warner’s points are ones we make in our presentations on our work:

  • The congregation expects that the pastor should be constantly available.
  • Pastors tend to be people-pleasers with high self-expectations. Confronted with the challenges of ministry, this perfectionistic thinking can lead to a cycle of frustration and isolation.
  • There are serious career risks when a pastor admits the need for mental health treatment.

What was most striking to me in Greg Warner's article was the notion that depression is hard for the church to deal with and hard for some pastors to admit even to themselves. A pastor's interior life should not include depressive moods or thoughts; as Steve Scoggin puts it, the experience of depression "violates their understanding of their faith." I hope that here on the blog and elsewhere, we can explore more fully the borderlands of faith and mental health. The two realms are at odds in some ways, and there is work to do to overcome the gap in understanding.

We included items on last year’s Clergy Health survey about depression. We have done the analysis, are going through the academic peer-review process, and will have more to say about the findings soon.

Shalom y’all,

John

John James, M.A.
Research Coordinator
Clergy Health Initiative

Photo Credit: Flickr/camil tulcan

Comments

My name is Adrian Sawyer. I am a former UMC pastor who served as Associate Pastor at First UMC Washington and pastor of Trinity Parish - Rocky Mount District from July 2005-September 2008. I was removed from my appointment on September 30, 2008 after my attempted suicide on August 25, 2008. The following comments offer first-hand perspective on this topic.
Suicide is no more an act of "abandonment" than a heart attack. To call it such carries the potential of inflicting unnecessary suffering on the family, friends, and congregations already wondering what they may have done wrong or what else they could have done to prevent the pastor from committing or attempting suicide. They have not been abandoned. The pastor suffered from a mental illness that led to suicide just as a cardiac condition leads to cardiac arrest. The patient can't stop either as an act of will. Proper and timely medical intervention is necessary.
Unlike the statistics quoted by Greg Warner, I was receiving mental health care when I attempted suicide. I had regular counseling and was on two anti-depressants and an anti-anxiety medication. The medications did not improve my symptoms of depression. Psychiatric medications are often a shot in the dark. Some work for some people and some work for others. While the patient goes through the trial and error process of finding the right medication and treatment program, the illness can continues full force and even worsen. This happened to me. I sought treatment in fear that the "powers that be" would find out and my pastor ministry would come to an abrupt end. It did.
After 8 days of hospitalization following my suicide attempt, I was released home to begin 30 days of psychiatric rehabilitation. I still suffered from a relatively severe case of amnesia and major depression. A little more than a week after being sent home I was removed from my appointment and had less than 10 days to vacate my office and the parsonage. To satisfy the Book of Discipline requirements for the premature end of an appointment, in spite of the fact that I was in no condition to make such an important decision, I was compelled to take personal leave. My churches were not told the nature of my illness and were left to speculate. I had to send my two minor children to live with my ex-husband because I was too sick to secure new employment or housing. Still severely depressed, I regretted surviving my suicide attempt more than I regretted trying.
Warner quotes Scoggins, “Depression is part of the human condition. Some people simply find ways to gracefully live with it. Like other chronic illnesses, you may not get over it.” I have major depressive disorder with suicidal ideation. In simple terms, I respond to depression with thoughts of suicide that may become attempts. Having survived the trial and error experience, I am now on an anti-depressant that actually works. I have a healthy relationship with two of my children. After 15 months of un/underemployment I have a full time job and can support myself. My depression is manageable, my suicidal thoughts have stopped, and through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) I am developing healthy coping skills. My life is so different now that it seems as if it did end on August 25th 2008 only for a new one to begin on August 26th.
I send a thank you to John James for his emphasis on the church’s inability to deal well with depressed pastors. The church may be able to remove depressed pastors but that will not solve the problem as new, very human pastors enter the ministry.
I close with a question on my mind to challenge everyone who thinks they could never attempt or commit suicide: How does the United Methodist Church today suffer from a depressed mindset, what self-destructive actions does it commit, and what is your participation in or response to them?

Adrian, thank YOU so much for sharing your story. I am glad you are doing well.

I also appreciate your closing questions. I sometimes hear people speak of the church as an institution "in decline" and the effect on "morale," but it colors the issue differently to think of the church in terms of health (mental and spiritual, not just fiscal!) and to consider how mental health affects decision-making, in institutions as well as persons.

Thanks again and Happy New Year -- John J

Add new comment