It’s a typical Sunday morning and the people are filing into the worship space at First Church in Some Town, Some State. The music flows, prayers are lifted up, and the Holy Spirit is very much present. The pastor comes up and delivers a well written and well prepared sermon and even throws in some humor to help drive the point home. Perhaps the people look upon the pastor and think that this is a person who has it all together, someone who doesn’t have many problems. Perhaps people in the congregation who are so inclined follow the pastor on social media and enjoy the engagement the pastor provides, the inspirational quotes, and the humorous posts they share. The pastor regularly makes posts about fun things they have done with their family, community events they have attended, church events put on, and such. In the pictures, the pastor is always smiling. Their words are always positive, uplifting, and give not one indication that anything is wrong in their lives. The pastor has it all together, they are among God’s favorites, and there is nothing bad going on.
Or is there?
Just from looking at your pastor, you may not know that they have some internal battles going on, battles that they have faced for up to their entire life. Specifically, they may have an invisible illness that seeks to destroy them, a disease that is raging in their brain and spreads to the entire body. If we knew that this person who did not look sick but actually had a disease such as cancer, we would be quick to encourage them in their treatment. But when the disease is not cancer but some type of mental illness, the reaction is often not as supportive. Many try to hide their struggles and live as normal of a life as possible. With the wonderful medications we have available today, counseling, and other means of psychological assistance most of the time people who struggle are able to live normally. But sometimes, the struggle gets harder. The patient – especially people who are in positions of ministry – dare not cry out for fear of being judged unfit for their position or as somehow not Christian enough. So, they struggle as quietly as possible until one day they get tired of the voices in their head telling them they are worthless, unloved, and a bad pastor. The person becomes so desperate to end this pain and – in their minds – improve the lives of those around them that they consider ending it all by killing themselves. And sometimes, they succumb to this disease and go through it.
This even happens to pastors such as Rev. Andrew Stoecklein of Inland Hills Church in Chino, CA.
Rev. Stoecklein took his own life last weekend. The Instagram post from Inland Hills Church began to go viral and eventually made its way to my timeline. As I read it, I felt a lot of emotions. Mainly, I felt sadness for the congregation, his wife and children who must now deal with this tragedy, pick up the pieces, and move forward. The second place emotion was fear. Rev. Stoecklein’s suicide hit home for me because, like him, I’m one of the 1 in 6 Americans who struggle with mental illness. For both of us, this illness take on the forms of depression and anxiety, disorders I have struggled with for over a decade.
Why did I feel fear? Because this could have easily have been me.
To be clear, I have never been suicidal and I at least would like to think that if I found myself in that position I would have the wherewithal to cry out for help. Having said that, one thing I have learned from both firsthand experience and from seeing others struggle is that mental illness can make one do strange things. I have had days where I could not get out of bed to even brush my teeth because my mental illness had zapped every bit of motivation from my body. These bad days are rare; most days you would not have any idea that I have mental illness. Most days, I appear perfectly normal (well, normal for me).
Mental illnesses such as depression are real diseases, as real as cancer, hypertension, and diabetes. It’s well beyond time that the stigma that exists about mental illness be ended, to have real and honest conversations about mental illness. People like me who struggle are not crazy. We are sick. We need help. We need love.
It’s time for the church to step up and give love and acceptance to people who struggle instead of judgement. Platitudes such as “You just need to pray more” or “You’re not sick, the devil is trying to steal your joy,” while well intended, are unhelpful and are actually harmful. Collectively, the church recognizes that diseases are real and generally encourage the faithful to seek treatment. But when it comes to mental health, this has not been the case. The church has generally preached that mental illness is purely a manifestation of a poor spiritual condition rather than a brain disorder. This, also, is harmful and toxic. This kind of thinking has caused more spiritual harm than almost anything else. To think that someone is depressed or having anxiety due to being in sin is a ridiculous notion and a gross misinterpretation of scripture. It’s not enough to just want to “pray it away.” In scripture, prayer is always followed by action. We have to act. We can no longer ignore mental illness and pawn it off as someone’s sin or stress.
The church must be a safe place for all of God’s beloved.
I am one of the 1 in 6. So was Rev. Stoecklein. I don’t know all of the details of his situation and it’s none of my business. But I would hope that he was surrounded by love, prayer, and was at least attempting to seek help. The harsh reality is, sometimes the voices telling a depressed person that they are worthless win. Let’s do what we can to be louder than the voices.
We do this with love.