Why an Increasing Number of Pastors are Committing Suicide

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A few years before Craig Sanders lost his father to suicide, a music pastor in their South Carolina town took his life.

“I remember the superficial and judgmental anger I had toward him,” Sanders said. “How could you do that to your daughters? What a selfish act.”

When his own father, Larry, a pastor plagued by depression and insecurity, died, Sanders was also angry at him. But it wasn’t the same; this time, he sought to understand the complexities of mental health and other issues behind his dad’s decision to take his life. Sanders felt hurt at being left behind and frustrated with a pastorate that doesn’t make it easy to get help.

“I remember the last conversation with him on the phone. He said, ‘Craig, I’m a failure.’ And I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I said, ‘Dad, you’re my hero. Do you understand that all my life I’ve tried to measure up to you? I’m at seminary because I want to be like you.’”

Larry’s depression, which was in part biological, had likely worsened from diabetes medication, church conflicts, and unhealthy comparison with other ministers, Sanders said. “He really got stuck in the comparison game. . . . He was doing a doctor of ministry degree and reading books on church growth, looking at models of how to make your church grow. He was like, ‘If I’m doing these things and my church isn’t growing, what does that say about me?’”

National Trend

The number of suicides in the United States increased 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, gaining momentum after 2006 when the increase each year jumped between 1 and 2 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The biggest jump was among adolescent girls and men aged 45 to 64.

It’s no surprise that more than half of Americans believe suicide is an epidemic (56 percent), according to a 2015 LifeWay Research study. Most said they didn’t think those who take their own lives are selfish (55 percent disagree that it’s selfish, 9 percent aren’t sure) or necessarily going to hell (62 percent disagree, 16 percent aren’t sure).

Among evangelicals, however, 44 percent said committing suicide was selfish (compared to 36 percent nationally), and 32 percent said those who commit suicide are going to hell (compared to 23 percent).

Pastors, Too

Pastors aren’t immune to the rising suicide rates. More than half of pastors have counseled people who were later diagnosed with a mental illness (59 percent), and about a quarter say they’ve experienced some type of mental illness themselves (23 percent). According to LifeWay, 12 percent have been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

Chuck Hannaford, a clinical psychologist who consults for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), said he believes the rate of pastor suicides has increased during his 30 years of practice. And he expects the number will continue to rise.

“Being a pastor is a dangerous job,” he said. “Especially in certain evangelical circles, where you have more of a fundamentalist orientation theologically, you find pastors who will reduce their depression or their negative thought processes to strictly spiritual problems.”

Indeed, a 2013 LifeWay survey found that 48 percent of self-identified evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians believe prayer and Bible study alone can overcome mental illness.

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SOURCE: The Gospel Coalition