It’s a prescription for tragedy.
A high-profile, high-stress job with impossible expectations for success starts you down the road to depression.
Then a stigma against weakness and treatment, along with a cultural and professional code of silence, keeps you on that destructive path until you can’t take it anymore.
Sometimes the result is the unthinkable — suicide.
Most often, however, depressed ministers suffer in silence, unable to talk about it even with family. Sometimes they leave the ministry. Occasionally they get help.
What kind of personal pain would cause a pastor to abandon his family, his calling and everything else around which he has built his life?
Members of Sandy Ridge Baptist Church in Hickory are asking themselves that question after their pastor, David Treadway, 42, committed suicide early Sunday morning, Sept. 27.
Those who counsel pastors say our Christian culture, especially Southern evangelicalism, creates the perfect environment for depression among pastors.
It’s a job that breeds “isolation and loneliness” — the pastorate’s “greatest occupational hazards,” said Steve Scoggin, president of CareNet, which counsels many North Carolina Baptist pastors.
“These suicides are born out of a lack of those social supports that can intervene in times of personal crisis.”
“We create an environment that makes it hard to admit our humanity,” Scoggin added. “…We believe that (pastors) are not supposed to struggle as others do.”
“We invite depression by unrealistic expectations,” said H.B. London, vice president for pastoral ministries at Focus on the Family, based in Colorado Springs, Colo. “We set the bar so high that most pastors can’t achieve that, and because most pastors are people-pleasers, they get frustrated and feel they can’t live up to that.”
A pastor is like “a 24-hour ER” who is supposed to be available to any congregant at any time, said Scoggin of CareNet, a statewide network of pastoral counseling centers that is a subsidiary of North Carolina Baptist Hospital.
When pastors fail to live up to the frequently impossible demands — imposed by self or others — they often “turn their frustration back on themselves,” to self-doubt and to feelings of failure and hopelessness, said Fred Smoot, executive director of Emory Clergy Care in Duluth, Ga., which is responsible for providing pastoral care to 1,200 United Methodist ministers in North Georgia.
Matthew Stanford, a neuroscientist who studies how the Christian community handles mental illness, says depression carries “a double stigmatization.” Society in general still places a stigma on mental illness, while Christians make it worse by “over-spiritualizing” depression and other disorders — dismissing them as a lack of faith or a sign of weakness.
The result is a culture of avoidance.
“You can’t talk about it before it happens and you can’t talk about it after it happens,” said Monty Hale, director of pastoral ministries for the South Carolina Baptist Convention.
It’s a silent conspiracy in which both the church and pastor are complicit, the experts say. The congregation creates impossible expectations that can lead pastors to depression, then punishes a pastor who seeks professional help. Meanwhile, pastors often deny themselves both the prevention measures that could avoid depression and the treatment that could cure it.
“There is a tendency to keep it quiet to protect your career,” said Scoggin. The added tragedy, he said, is that depression is treatable for most people.
But even treatment can come at a high price.
“You are committing career suicide if you have to seek treatment,” said Stanford, “particularly if you have to take time off.”
Depression “is a darkness like no other,” said Stanford, an evangelical Christian who teaches at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
Most depression does not lead to suicide, but almost all suicides begin with depression. Experts say it’s a rare outcome to a common problem. But Baptists in the Carolinas are asking tough questions after a spate of suicides and attempts by pastors in recent years.
In addition to Treadway, two other ministers in North Carolina attempted suicide in the past couple of years, said Scoggin. And three depressed pastors in South Carolina have taken their own lives in the last four years, said Hale, although most were not publicly acknowledged as suicides.
Treadway’s death doesn’t follow all the patterns of stress-induced depression. Unlike most depressed pastors, the Hickory pastor told his congregation months ago that he was in treatment. And those closest to him say there were no signs that pastoral stress pushed him over the edge on that morning he took his life while in his parked car.
“This kind of blindsided us,” said Rodney Powe, worship pastor of the 900-member church. “I don’t know that we could have done anything different to prevent this.”
Although Treadway had talked about his depression, Powe said, “for people like me who didn’t understand (depression), it was difficult” to come to terms with the pastor’s death and the stigma of mental illness.
Counselors who have since met with the staff and others have discussed the clinical characteristics of the disease, he said. “For me to see it as an illness has helped me sort through it.”
Those who don’t experience depression tend to trivialize the suffering of those who do, he said. “We just say, ‘Come on, get over it. We have the hope of Christ and the Holy Spirit. You should be able to get over it.’”
“People look to pastors as being impervious to any kind of pressure,” said Powe, who has worked at the church for nine years. “We’re professional Christians. We’re supposed to be above this.”
While tragic, Treadway’s death has not crippled the church, he said. “I’m not the least concerned about our church moving on and reaching out to the community. … The work is bigger than an individual.”
The good news, counselors say, is that most ministers eventually are able to deal with their depression and put their problems, and their jobs, in perspective.
“Most pastors don’t stay depressed,” said Smoot. “They find a way out of that frustration.”
Sometimes that means learning to live with their demons.
“Depression is part of the human condition,” said Scoggin. “… Some people simply find ways to gracefully live with it. Like other chronic illnesses, you may not get over it. Many, many people have to learn to live with it.”
Main clergy stressors
- Vocational stressors — inadequate pay, low work satisfaction, high time demands
- Intrapersonal stressors — emotional exhaustion, burnout, low personal satisfaction, sense of personal failure, low family satisfaction, lack of family time, lack of privacy
- Social stressors — social expectations, high expectations regarding personal behavior, high criticism, intrusiveness, lack of social support