Pastoral Suicide: A Sad Dealbreaker for Evangelicals

Pastoral Suicide: A Sad Dealbreaker for Evangelicals May 12, 2020

Hello and welcome back. Recently, I learned of very sad news: Darrin Patrick, an evangelical pastor, has apparently died by suicide. Unfortunately, this news represents part of a widespread and growing trend in that end of Christianity. Today, let me show you what that trend is, and what it means for evangelicals as a group.

a pretty english meadow at dawn
(Benjamin Davies.)

(Content Notice: If you saw this post’s title, you can probably guess what we’re tackling today. I won’t be dwelling overmuch on any individual stories, however.)

(Additional posts about mental health: The Demons of Psychiatry; How the Satanic Panic Hurt My Friend; Abandoning All Hope; The PTSD Deniers; Compartmentalization; Mental Health; Euphoria; The False Peace of Christianity Hurt Me; Living Behind a Mask in Evangelicalism (2019); The Happiness Hucksters; Lying About Happiness.)

A Quiet Epidemic.

“This is getting to be an all-too-familiar story,” began an all-too-familiar story in 2018 in Christian News JournalA 31-year-old pastor, Andrew Stoecklin, had just died by suicide.

Indeed, evangelical pastors seem to be dying by suicide a lot lately. Perhaps this growing trend is related to the larger one involving middle-aged men. Whether evangelical leaders are separate from that trend or part of it, the stories pepper our feeds like a drumbeat.

Perhaps a huge scandal humiliated a pastor, as we saw with John Gibson when the Ashley Madison leak occurred. Maybe the pastor got caught doing something really criminal, like Bryan Fulwider, and decided to duck out of a trial. Or the pastor experienced many episodes of erratic behavior before spiraling completely out of control, like Isaac Hunter a few years ago. In the worst case scenario, the pastor harms others along with himself — as happened with the case of Richard Logan just a couple of months ago.

After all, this profession can attract some supremely unstable and unsavory people.

But that doesn’t seem like what’s happening to most of them.

A Difficult Struggle.

For most of these pastors, they struggled hard with mental health problems before losing their fight.

Sometimes, the church knew that their pastor struggled with mental-health issues, like Jarrid Wilson’s did — as well as Jim Howard’s and for that matter Andrew Stoecklein’s.

Or it’s a shock and nobody had any idea the pastor suffered at all until it was far too late to help.

Maybe the victim even tried to make everyone think he died by homicide, as Dale Cross, Sr. apparently did. One can understand why, too. These deaths run completely counter to the evangelical party line. Evangelicals have never found an effective or even plausible way to reconcile mental illness and suicide with their “Good News” and “wonder-working” god.

When we look past the sensationalistic headlines behind the spiral-out-of-control guys to zero in on the quietly-struggling guys, we see a very tragic and grim story unfolding behind the scenes.

A Surprisingly-Familiar Name.

The name Darrin Patrick popped up in my news feed recently — and for the worst imaginable reason.

We’ve met him before. Indeed, I mentioned him briefly in a criticism I wrote in February of an evangelism group called Acts 29. In that post, I discussed how Patrick’s scandal turned out so differently from one sparked by his organization’s leader.

Well, after losing his church and his position in Acts 29, Patrick received that song-and-dance “restoration” hooha from a pastor buddy (a process I’ll explain in greater detail at some near-future point). Afterward, he got certified by that buddy as Official Pastor Material again, and then resumed his preaching profession — at the buddy’s church.

Well, Darrin Patrick’s story got the worst kind of update ever.

During a day out shooting guns with a friend, we learn from this Religion News Service (RNS) story, he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. (At this stage of the police investigation into the matter, they don’t yet know if the injury was unintentionally-inflicted or deliberate.)

These days, such updates are becoming more and more common in evangelicalism.

“Now Another Friend Is Gone.”

One of Darrin Patrick’s other pastor friends, Robby Gallaty, leads a Tennessee church. Upon learning the sad news of Patrick’s passing, Gallaty told Religion News Service, “This is the second close friend I have lost in a year.”

The second.

The other friend turns out to be Jarrid Wilson.

Jarrid Wilson worked as a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) pastor. He advocated tirelessly for mental health, speaking often about his own struggles with depression and anxiety. Also, he created a ministry to help church members facing similar struggles.

I remember looking at his group a while ago. The way they addressed the topic of mental health seemed really counterproductive, just the usual blahblah non-solutions evangelicals offer in lieu of real solutions that work. (See endnote regarding how deep that rabbit hole goes.)

That said, Wilson tried his best with the limited resources his tribe allows. In fact, it’s very possible that nobody highlighted mental-health issues in evangelicalism like he did.

So when Jarrid Wilson died last fall from a self-inflicted gunshot wound (notice any trends there?), it was a very big deal.

The Tribe Responds.

For a while after Wilson’s death, evangelicals fretted hard about pastoral depression.

Pastors wrote opinion pieces and posts about their own struggles (like this one). They recounted similar struggles they’d seen their fellow leaders facing (like this other one).

Evangelicals timidly began to discuss the number of people they were losing to suicide, and why the situation only seemed to get worse year by year. Every evangelical pastor seemed to know a colleague who’d died that way. Many more recalled friends who nearly had.

Then, everyone forgot all about the whole situation.

Every time a high-profile pastor dies this way, evangelicals totally freak out, and then nothing changes at all and it’s business as usual a week later — till the next death.

Next Verse, Same as the Previous.

As the tribe discussed Jarrid Wilson’s and then Darrin Patrick’s deaths, they very obviously didn’t remember that this topic has come up many, many times before.

When David Treadway, a North Carolina pastor, died by suicide in 2009, it merited a big (and disastrous-sounding) op-ed at one of the SBC’s state-convention sites. That op-ed raised a lot of questions and made some poignant observations, then simply shrugged off the whole problem. I’m not even kidding. Here’s what they wrote:

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

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

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

And that’s pretty much been evangelicals’ reaction to mental health struggles for decades.

Get over it or live with it. Find a way out. I dunno, just FIND one. Most pastors can do it, so why can’t you? Obviously something’s wrong with you. If your “setting” doesn’t approve of real treatment, it really sucks to be you, amirite? Live with it. Gracefully.

Oh, and what does “gracefully” mean?

QUITCHERBITCHIN. That’s what.

Evangelical. Culture. Hurts. Pastors.

Statistics abound about just how much stress evangelical pastors labor under. A group called Soul Shepherding brings us some eye-opening statistics:

  • 75% of pastors report being “extremely stressed” or “highly stressed”
  • 90% work between 55 to 75 hours per week
  • 90% feel fatigued and worn out every week
  • 70% say they’re grossly underpaid
  • 40% report a serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month (1)
  • 78% were forced to resign from their church (63% at least twice), most commonly because of church conflict
  • 80% will not be in ministry ten years later and only a fraction make it a lifelong career
  • On average, seminary trained pastors last only five years in church ministry
  • 100% of 1,050 Reformed and Evangelical pastors had a colleague who had left the ministry because of burnout, church conflict, or moral failure
  • 91% have experienced some form of burnout in ministry and 18% say they are “fried to a crisp right now”

Yikes. Of course, Soul Shepherding sells stuff to frazzled pastors. Their post might be another example of evangelical salespeople overstating a case to improve sales. Still, I’ve seen a whole library’s worth of very similar statistics (like this set here).

Anecdotally, we also recently heard an earful about the realities of pastoring from Thom Rainer. Also, in that RNS biography (relink), Darrin Patrick’s friend Robby Gallaty confirmed the gist of these statistics.

So overall, I agree with these numbers. This is a rough profession.

A Recipe for Disaster.

Here are five alarming truths I’ve noticed concerning the state of evangelical leadership over the past couple of decades.

  1. There are decent pastors doing their best, and jerkweeds who are in it for the power they gain in the role. Both suffer, but the latter group has a lot more options for dealing with it because they simply don’t take the tribe’s rules very seriously. As always, the more seriously a Christian takes the ideology and its rules, the more impossible things get.
  2. Evangelical leadership chews up and spits out most of the men involved with it. Their leadership culture has a body count.
  3. Few evangelicals approve of any real-world, effective measures to help resolve the anguish, stress, burnout, and loneliness that their leaders often face. They reject real therapy and psychology. Instead, they promote methods of self-help that not only don’t work but backfire.
  4. Over recent years, evangelicals have only worsened the situation by developing a culture of toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity encourages men to perform and gatekeep stereotypical maleness in ways that damage and harm men and women both. Disastrously, nowadays this culture also overwhelmingly promotes gun ownership, a recognized factor in self-harm.
  5. Evangelicals largely don’t care about fixing any of these problems. 

And like look, I get that a lot of these pastors are culture warriors and not nice people at all. Being fervent and well-meaning doesn’t absolve anyone of hurting others or excuse their ceaseless attack on human rights. All the same, my heart goes out to anybody suffering from mental illness — especially if they’re in a group that condemns real treatment for it and gives them no tribe-approved, street-legal way to address their pain.

If someone’s sick, they need treatment. Period.

No Real Solutions in Sight.

In more secular venues, the problems I’ve mentioned have answers. Maybe they’re not easy answers, but they’re there.

However, in evangelicalism there seems like little chance that anything will change for the better, especially for their Dear Leaders. They might enjoy a great deal of power, but they live in gilded cages at the mercy of their flocks’ whims. As the leaders of those flocks, pastors must embrace and follow all of the tribe’s talking points and rules no matter how whackadoodle they might sound.

Their educations have prepared them for careers in ministry, but nothing else (and even then, ministerial education programs don’t adequately prepare evangelical pastors for the nuts and bolts of church leadership). Once installed in their gilded cages, most pastors make so little money that the majority of them don’t even maintain health or disability insurance, let alone life insurance. Almost none make any financial preparations for retirement, either. Thus, it’s almost impossible for them to find some other decent-paying job if ministry doesn’t work out for them — and indeed, for most of them it won’t.

Meanwhile, the flock scrutinizes them and their families 24/7 for any infractions of the rules.

For all the blahblah hand-waving evangelicals do to excuse the hypocrisy of their leaders, they’re quick to leap on pastors who disobey rules they deem important.

The Crisis Point.

Here’s where all these statistics slam together.

When a depressed pastor hits a crisis flashpoint, he thinks that no help exists.

He’s likely already tried the tribe’s recommendations — which don’t work. Jesus-ing doesn’t fix anything. Fervent faith and regular devotions don’t actually cure mental illness any more than any of it cures toothaches.

Fundie-style therapy is a total joke, focused mainly on making sure clients Jesus hard enough and correctly enough. But that’s as far as evangelicals are willing to go in allowing their leaders to find help. They get outraged at the mere suggestion of secular therapy.

Many pastors sneak around to medicate and soothe themselves using non-tribe-approved methods: alcohol, substances, illicit sex, etc. The tribe can usually forgive these after a sufficient period of humiliation and busy-work (like that inflicted during the aforementioned restoration process), but very few pastors will ever recover their career momentum after that. So this route bears serious risks — and pastors who take their ideology and rules seriously refuse to go there anyway.

If our troubled pastor goes outside the tribe for real help and the flock finds out, his career is OVER. Chances are he’ll be homeless soon after they discover his transgression.

And if he’s immersed enough in today’s bro-dude-dominated evangelical culture, then well, the means for self-harm are very close to hand.

The Human Detritus of False Promises.

The mind boggles at just how cruel and inhumane evangelicals can get. They devour and trample anything within reach, even (maybe especially) their leaders. They remind me of toddlers repeatedly trying to shove a square peg into a round hole, then throwing the whole game away in a tantrum when that doesn’t work — or lying about it working grandly when it just doesn’t.

Every single depressed, burned-out, pushed-to-the-edge pastor in their tribe reveals the truth of evangelicals’ grotesque sales pitches. These men’s situation refutes every party line the tribe insists is a cosmic truth handed straight to them by the real live god of the entire universe.

And so evangelicals as a group would rather push sufferers away and silence them than deal meaningfully and constructively with their pain. And the only solutions they come up with (like this one, ugh) push party line adherence over healing.

To put it plainly:

The epidemic of mental illness and suicide in evangelical Christianity speaks to the falseness of their truth claims as well as to the nonsensical, unworkable nature of their social rules.

Ideology + Social Rules.

Evangelicals claim that both their ideology and their social rules come to them straight from a real live god who loves them and talks to them all the time, is omnipotent and omniscient, and who is ultimately benevolent, wise, and compassionate.

And that’s impossible. The endless, excruciating suffering we behold in their ranks immediately reveals the truth.

This suffering is the result of plain ole mortals devising a very flawed social system built around false truth claims, then tricking generations of victims into thinking this all-too-human creation was the will and desire of the god of the entire universe.

However, nothing whatsoever about evangelicalism looks supernatural, let alone unexpected, difficult-to-explain, or desirable.

That’s why people reject them and their demands, and why we will only continue to do so.

NEXT UP: A pastor’s long-ago confession to me has an unexpected result. 


Endnotes.

The Hopeline’s help gets really bad. Some of their stuff struck me as kinda okay. Other stuff? Downright cringy and horrifying. As you might expect, they sneak fundie party-line non-solutions into their books wherever possible. Consider, for example, their free ebook “Understanding Depression.” (They ask for personal info before giving the link, which I consider weird and off-putting. So I’m trying to save you from that step.)

Here is a very short list of the sneaky bad-fundie-advice I spotted in that ebook:

  • An interview with Dawson McAllister, a fundagelical radio talk-show host who completely lacks a background in mental health, on p.3.
  • A fundagelical singer, David Escamilla, shows up to talk on p. 13.
  • More Dawson McAllister on p. 14.
  • Also on p. 14, a sidebar suggests pastors as great people to turn to in a mental health crisis.
  • Page 20 suggests two fundagelical resources to those facing depression: Heart Support, founded by fundagelical musician Jake Luhrs, and I-kid-you-not Focus on the Self-Delusions Family.
  • On p. 22, they do debunk a suggestion about reading the Bible enough, but they do it in a ultra-Jesus-y way by implying that their god totally does “remov[e] some struggles immediately” while “He allows us to walk through others,” a notion which will likely only confuse and agitate someone suffering from depression. Then, just to make matters worse the writer goes on to reassure readers with the most disastrous advice imaginable: “Even though we might not understand, He has a purpose in all things.”
  • Pages 24-25 are a spread containing a photo of a young woman praying on one side, and “A Spiritual Perspective on Depression” on the other. It is exactly as bad as you are likely imagining. Oh, and it offers a link to “Bible Verses for Hope.”
pp 24-25 of 'Understanding Depression'
Click to embiggen. pp. 24-25, ‘Understanding Depression.’ Seriously, this is the worst.

Needless to say, these religious-inspired suggestions Hopeline offers do not enjoy peer-review approval or rigorous reality-based testing and assessment. 

(Back to the post!)


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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