What Every Pastor’s Wife Needs to Know About Pastor Suicide
To say that a pastor dying by suicide is shocking is too understated.
It is heartbreaking, bowel shaking, and reality augmenting.
It takes the truths you’ve known forever and somehow recasts them as lies.
If you’re married to a pastor, chances are you feel the shock greater than anybody.
You know the load that pastors carry because you are helping your husband carry his.
And while it is a weight he willingly picked up, it is still heavy – sometimes too heavy.
In most of the stories I’ve read of a pastor dying by suicide, his wife is surprised.
And just thinking about that makes my heart break.
These pastors had lives that looked perfect from the outside, but inside they felt like taking their own life was better than living another day as a pastor, husband, and father.
So what can a pastor’s wife do about pastor suicide?
Actually, a lot. Pastor’s wives are on the inside of almost all of the issues that their husbands deal with and with some deliberation, we can help our husbands be better equipped to deal with all the pressures of ministry.
So let’s talk about the pastor’s wife and pastor suicide.
Why is pastor suicide on the rise?
Obviously we can’t say for sure, but here are eight things that are definitely at play.
The Pastor’s Wife and Pastor Suicide
1. Problem: Social Media
It’s easy to see the highlight reel of other people’s lives and feel like yours is just a train wreck.
The truth is that everyone’s life is a bit of a train wreck and some people are just really good at taking selfies among the rubble.
And as a pastor, sometimes that feels even truer.
Surrendering your life to ministry is accepting that Jesus is going to wreck it. The early church knew this all too well and did their best to count their suffering as joy.
“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” – Romans 5:3-5
But when you are steadily being bombarded by the enemy and all you’re seeing on social media are the “BEST DAY EVER” pictures and status updates, it’s easy to feel like you are completely alone in your suffering for Christ.
And feeling alone is one of the worst feelings ever.
I mean, sure, we all love a few quiet hours of solitude to read or relax, but the feeling of total isolation is a terrible one.
And if your husband’s social media feed is filled with other people living their “BEST LIFE NOW” while he is daily battling spiritual warfare and is completely exhausted from his own life, he will feel alone.
Solution: Don’t talk about the loss of his job as if it is the end of life as you know it.
Although let’s be clear, it is.
I know that. You know that. He knows that.
But talking about how your life is over if his career fails, does not help a single thing.
Because the real question is this: Even if life as you know it ends, will you still love him?
Will you still be able to love and worship God together?
Love your family together?
WILL YOU STILL LOVE HIM IF HE FAILS??
This is the question.
And it is one that he will probably never ask out loud.
But he needs to know that your answer is that you will love him even if he fails. No matter the failure.
Because in ministry life, people often stop loving pastors that fail.
Sure, people say they still love him and they try to act like everything is the same, but really they expected better of him than to do XYZ. And slowly the relationship falls apart.
And y’all, that’s a lot of pressure, and it’s one that every pastor’s wife needs to really be aware of to help prevent pastor suicide.
If your husband makes one of a million totally human mistakes, his career can end.
Has a terrible day, loses his temper, and yells and cusses at someone?
Has an affair?
Has one too many beers in public?
Goes on vacation while the wrong deacon’s wife is in the hospital?
And obviously, we all expect that our pastors aren’t out getting drunk at bars, cheating on their wives, or cussing at grocery store clerks, but other people do those things everyday without it ever affecting their career.
And yes, I know that He accepted a call to lead God’s people well.
But the burden he carries is heavy and God did not give him superhuman strength when he accepted his call to ministry.
Your husband is the same as every other human, but his entire career demands that he live perfectly.
That’s a lot to put on a person.
No wonder so many pastors feel hopeless and unable to live under the pressure of vocational ministry.
In fact, men, in general, put great stock in their self-worth based on how they are doing at work.
If things are going well at work, they feel successful, productive, worthy, etc.
But when things are going bad, they feel depressed, worthless, like a failure, etc.
This is all men, not just pastors. But so much of vocational ministry is relationships.
So it’s really hard to quantify and measure if things are every really going well. Because people are quick to complain and slow to praise. So while things may actually be going great at the church, your husband may still feel really discouraged because of relational things.
So help your husband to know that if he messes everything up and his career is over, it’s okay.
He is not his career.
He is your husband and you love him exactly like he is.
Failures and all.
2. Problem: Education
In years past, there was much less emphasis on education for pastors.
Sure, pastors have always been well read and more educated than the average parishioner, but as far as formal education requirements, those have greatly increased over the past few decades.
Being a pastor used to be a family tradition that was passed on from generation to generation so that men were much more aware of what they were getting into when they accepted a ministry job.
They’d seen their fathers and grandfathers balance it all or rather try to balance it all. They’d grown up seeing men that they loved and admired struggle mightily with the calling on their lives and they knew what they were getting into.
Today, many pastors are totally shocked by all the things of being a pastor.
And it was much more common for pastors to be bi-vocational back in the day.
These men had a secular job as well as being a minister, so their entire identity wasn’t based on ministry. And while bi-vocational ministry holds many unique challenges on its own, it also has the distinct advantage of helping pastors to have other options.
Related Post: How to Not Be Bitter in Bi-Vocational Ministry
Here’s what I mean.
My husband has a Bachelor’s degree in religion from Baylor University and a Master’s of Divinity from Southern Seminary.
Those degrees, though they took 8 years, 219 hours, and thousands of dollars, do not qualify him to do much of anything outside of ministry.
Anytime he feels worn down and ready to quit, he realizes he can’t without greatly disrupting our entire life. Even though he would do a fantastic job, he can’t seamlessly transition into a job as a banker or a lawyer or a teacher because he isn’t qualified to do those things.
Feeling like you have no options is a horrible place to be.
Solution: Help him to build an exit strategy.
Whenever we go anywhere, my husband scans the room for the nearest exit.
In the rare instance that he doesn’t immediately spot it, he starts to freak out a little.
And the crazy thing is that in 16 years together, we’ve never used an emergency exit, but just knowing where it is in case we need it gives him great comfort.
Your life is the same way.
I am currently a stay at home mom to our four kids.
But I have a master’s degree in teaching, so if my husband needed out of ministry, I could go back to teaching pretty easily.
Knowing that we won’t be destitute if he leaves his job, gives my husband great comfort.
Just knowing that the exit is there and he can get out if he needs to, helps him to not feel trapped in his job or life as a pastor.
Because a lot of pastor’s report feeling trapped.
And it makes total sense.
His degrees are not marketable outside of ministry, even if his experiences would be invaluable in hundreds of careers.
More than once he has lamented his choice to get a degree in religion instead of teaching. But I have a degree that is very marketable and would provide us a fairly comfortable life.
We also do our best to manage our money well and save as much as possible so that if there were a period of transition, we’d be okay financially for a little bit.
What might he like to do in the next phase of his career? Can he get training now to make the transition later? How long would it take to get certifications, degrees, etc? Can you get the training, degree, certification, etc. to financially support your family if he needs a break from ministry? Helping to make an exit plan is one way that a pastor’s wife can help prevent pastor suicide.
And sometimes just thinking about other things that he might like to do can help him remember that he loves being a pastor. Sometimes it just gives a little hope that pastoring isn’t the only way he can contribute to your family and the world.
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3. Problem: Information Overload
With the internet, pastors are constantly inundated with information for how to grow their churches and increase attendance and renovate in a way that will attract new visitors and improve the music and on and on and on.
If there is a problem, Thom Rainer can solve it. Just buy his next book.
And while having a wealth of information at your fingertips is certainly convenient, it’s also overwhelming. Because what about when you’re doing all the things the internet tells you to and your church isn’t growing or thriving?
In years past, the only churches pastors really knew about were their your own town. The pastors they heard about lived near them or they met them in real life at conferences or conventions.
And then, pastors were interacting with real people whose success they were seeing but they also saw their struggles.
So if they met with the pastor of the biggest church in town, he’d tell them that Sunday morning attendance was way up, but he’d also tell them that he was dealing with XYZ and it was completely overwhelming to him.
Pastors could see him as a person not a statistic and know that every church and pastor has struggles.
But that’s not the case today.
Today, there are programs upon programs that pastors can buy to solve all the problems that a church could possibly face. And when that is added to the upbeat social media accounts of all the other pastors and churches, it’s easy for pastors to feel like failures.
Solution: Prioritize and Purge
No church is perfect. They will all always have flaws, but a good pastor will always try to fix them.
Have a conversation with your husband about the number one issue that is hurting your church.
He can likely give you a laundry list of things that are bothering him or may be potential problems. You can listen through all of that, but eventually you need to help him narrow it down to one thing.
Once you have one area to focus your attention, decide on who is the best guide when it comes to this issue.
Is there a local or regional pastor that has faced this issue and handled it well? Is there a book that tackles this topic? Is there an online course or blog that is niched on this area? The answer to all of these is likely, yes.
Choose the best guide for your husband. Although a blog or book is the most accessible option, they may not be the best.
The best option would be to find a pastor nearby to serve as a guide for your husband. Being able to engage a person who has been through your situation in real time is an invaluable resource. Your husband will likely say, “Oh Pastor John is way too busy to meet with little old me and hear about our small church problems.”
Don’t accept that for an answer.
Buy a gift card for a restaraunt in the town where the pastor lives. Encourage your husband to call and see if he can meet for lunch. If necessary, you call that pastor’s office and see if you can schedule a time for your husband to take him to lunch.
Older, successful pastors know that the best way to grow the kingdom and extend their legacy is to invest in younger pastors. My husband and I have never met a pastor who would not enjoy the opportunity to invest in a young pastor or eat a free lunch.
The next part is to purge.
Your husband’s inbox is likely a minefield littered with well-written sales copy and beautifully designed ads for the best way to do everything a pastor must be doing if he doesn’t want his church to die and for him to be unemployed. (See how compelling they can be?)
Remove that junk from his life.
(With his blessing) help delete those offers and unsubscribe from those sites.
(If you think he’ll be opposed to purging his inbox, it may be best to just do it for him. While I’m not at all a fan of doing things secretly, I’m also not a fan of my husband being stressed and overwhelmed. So to me, cleaning out his inbox, is like straightening up his tools in the garage. To do this for him, just unsubscribe from one mailing list every few days and keep a written list of what you’ve unsubscribed from. If he misses the emails, you can easily resubscribe, but I seriously doubt he’ll feel anything but relief to have fewer things vying for his attention.)
Eventually your husband may identify church audio as the biggest issue facing the church. If he does, you can look at the six services that he is currently being bombarded by daily or find a local guide. Until then help him get rid of the noise and focus.
4. Problem: National Trend
Suicides rates have increased 24% from 1999 to 2014 according to a study from the CDC.
And pastors aren’t immune to the rising suicide rates.
“Pastors are hard on themselves, often judging themselves for sins of omission and commission,” Chuck Hannaford, a clinical psychologist who consults for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) said. “But they fail to take the Fall’s effects on the world into account: The Fall disrupted everything, including the brain.” (from an article on The Gospel Coalition’s website)
Solution: Be a mental health advocate
Talk about your mental health and his mental health until it’s a totally normal discussion in your house.
Do this because mental health needs to be a perfectly normal conversation in his ministry.
Let me say it again, for the people in the back.
Mental health needs to be a perfectly normal conversation in his ministry.
A lot of people seek counsel from their pastor.
They ask him about the Bible, but also about fertility treatments, hospice care, hurt feelings, and a million other things. Every counselor, therapist, psychologist, and psychiatrist I know sees a counselor, therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist themselves. They know that they need people to help with the burden of care that they carry.
Why don’t pastors do the same thing?
We all know the answer: because of the stigma surrounding mental health.
Encourage your husband to see a counselor during the first month of his pastorate and let it be common knowledge. This way he isn’t seeing a counselor because something is wrong, he is seeing him so that things stay right.
People will know that when he encourages counseling that he believes in the process.
People will know that even their pastor, who no doubt loves the Lord and follows Him well, needs someone to talk to.
People won’t know when things are going poorly with his mental health.
If he has seen a counselor faithfully since the beginning of his ministry it won’t be a source of gossip when he goes to talk about depression, anxiety, or marital problems.
If he will see someone then you will have an ally fighting beside you for your husband’s mental health.At the same time your husband can more effectively advocate for other people’s mental health.
We must do our best to normalize mental illness because pastor’s aren’t immune to illness – mental or otherwise.
Everyone gets sick and everyone should get treatment when they are.
Help your husband to see that.
5. Problem: Pastors are isolated
According to a study done by the Schaeffer Institute in 2016, 58% of pastors said they don’t have any good and true friends.
That’s sad y’all.
But it’s also understandable.
If you are friends with people, you open yourself up to people.
And in doing that, you make yourself vulnerable.
And when you’re vulnerable, you’re open to being hurt.
Letting people in means that you will get hurt.
Every pastor I’ve ever talked to has a story about how a friend hurt him because of ministry.
So the smart thing to do is to not let people in which only perpetuates the feeling of isolation in pastors.
Solution: Encourage him to spend time with friends.
Jesus had 12 disciples with whom he did life daily.
And I don’t mean like they worked together during the day and then went home to their own families and met back up at the
water cooler well the next day.
Those 12 left their families to follow Jesus. So they were together 24/7.
Jesus definitely had friends.
But remember that study we talked about earlier? 58% of pastor’s say that have no friends.
If we’re supposed to model our life after Jesus, that means that over half of the pastors out there are totally missing the mark on that one.
Having friends is scary.
Friends are the people you let in to know the “real” you.
And that’s scary because we all know that there’s a part of us that is ugly.
We are all still sinners and real friends will see your ugliness. And there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll get hurt by a friend in the course of your ministry.
The same thing happened to Jesus.
But God didn’t call us to be like Jesus except the part where we protect ourselves and don’t make any friends because they might betray us.
Because y’all, I’m just being really transparent here, I’d rather my husband have his sinfulness put on blast across all of social media by “friends” than for him to feel so alone and isolated that he doesn’t want to live any more.
And sure, those are extremes, but isn’t that exactly where the mind goes?
If I let these people in, they’ll see that I’m not perfect and they’ll tell other people that I’m not perfect and my career will be destroyed.
I’m so lonely. My wife is my only friend and that’s only because she has to be. She’s married to me. She has no other choice. And if I’m such an awful person that not a single person wants to be my friend, then what’s the point in even living anymore? My wife will probably be better off without me, too.
So while your husband may not be to the point of either of these extremes, he still needs friends. Every pastor’s wife can help prevent pastor suicide by helping her husband to make friends and helping him to spend time with his friends.
Here’s how you can help him to make friends:
1. Help him get a hobby.
Whatever he’s into – encourage it.
Whatever it is, there are other people into it as well.
Help him find those people.
Help him to find people outside of the church who are normal friends.
They’re friends with your husband because of who he is not what he does.
Often times relationships in the church feel very transactional. The pastor was really there for my family when my aunt was sick, he’s a great guy. The pastor didn’t come to visit my aunt a single time when she was in the hospital, he’s not very caring.
By having friends outside of the church, he is being valued for being him. Not for what he’s doing for someone else.
Now, it’s also important to have friends inside the church.
These friends have your back if things go south at church.
They know the real you and they love you anyways.
Related Post: 4 Reasons Why Every Pastor’s Wife Needs Church Friends
And yes, this could get you burned.
Stop living your life afraid of fire.
2. Help him make friends at church.
Invite people over.
Have people over for lunch and dinner and cookouts and barbeques.
Yes, it’s work.
But let’s be clear.
Hospitality is pretty important for ministry.
Related Post: How to Be Hospitable When You’re an Introverted Homebody
3. Make friends yourself.
Good husbands want their wives to have friends.
So if you’re friends with someone, your husband (and probably her husband) will want to come hang out with y’all to make their wives happy. It’s a bonus if they have kids that get along with your kids.
And I know that ministry can be isolating and making friends isn’t easy for everyone.
Making friends is a struggle for me too.
Related Post: Three Steps to Making Mom Friends
But I think with effort and prayer, you can make friends and stop the isolation that surrounds ministry families. Because, honestly, if you and your husband are lonely, there’s a pretty good chance that your kids are too.
6. Problem: Society/culture has changed
There was a time that people went to the same church forever. It was their church and while they might not like the pastor or the music, it didn’t mean they switched churches.
Today, people are pretty quick to switch churches.
This creates a whole other set of pressures besides the job description duties – don’t upset anyone and make them leave.
Because when people do leave, the people that stay often blame the pastor for them leaving.
It is no wonder that a study done by the Schaeffer Institute in 2016 showed that 52% of pastors say they can’t meet their church’s expectations.
Solution: Change The Expectations
If you were to ask what a pastor’s priorities ought to be, he would likely make a list something like this:
1. Be devoted to the Lord.
2. Be a good husband.
3. Be a good father.
4. Love the church well.
I know this list is vague, but it is much more biblical than many pastor job descriptions that I have seen.
Now, what if your expectations of him were aligned with those priorities?
I’m not talking about the whole church.
Would he see himself as successful in your eyes? Wouldn’t that matter?
Could your expectations be infectious?
Imagine if you shared those priorities in Sunday school as expectations for, not just the pastor, but for every believer.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if every man in your church viewed his life against that rubric?
Imagine how much pressure that would take off of the shoulders of our men. Imagine if women in your church held their lives against those four priorities instead of social media perfection.
It might even become the case that other people would use that as the rubric for your husband as well.
But even if they don’t, seeing himself as a success in your eyes may be more valuable than the way he is seen by everyone else.
After all, you are his second priority behind God.
8. Problem: Technology
Have you ever had one of those days where it feels like you get nonstop text messages/phone calls/Facebook messages/Instagram messages/Twitter messages/calendar alerts/etc.?
On days like that, I really want to throw my phone.
Except, what I actually feel is totally overwhelmed by all the demands from other people.
I don’t actually have the sense enough to just silence the phone and put it down. Instead, I get very wrapped up in all the things other people need from me and I end up getting nothing done on my to-do list.
Then at the end of the day, I look at what I accomplished and feel incredibly defeated.
Apparently this is my husband’s day EVERY DAY.
He gets nonstop notifications and a lot of times, they’re really important.
So and So was rushed to the hospital.
The 7 pm meeting has been moved to 6 pm.
What are your thoughts on predestination?
Pastors are more accessible now than ever before.
In an article in Appalacian Magazine, pastor Jeremy Farley gives a snapshot of a day in the pastor’s life and the picture is eye opening.
Before cell phones, if you wanted to talk to your pastor, you called the church office or stopped by the church office. If he wasn’t there, you left a message. If he was there but was in a meeting, you left a message. People only called pastors at home if it was a really big deal – like an emergency.
But now, it’s easy to send him a text at any time of the day or night. Literally, everyone at the church has my husband’s cell phone number because it’s on the front cover of our bulletin.
And Siri doesn’t triage texts.
All texts come through the same, so whether it’s a message letting us know that a woman’s daughter and 3 grandchildren were in a fatal car crash or a group thread with 57 people sending a thumbs up emoji confirming a meeting time change, they’re all the same.
So they all have to be checked.
Because let’s be real.
If a person texts the pastor to let him know that they’re on the way to the ER and he doesn’t respond, there will be consequences.
And maybe it’s just hurt feelings, but it could just as easily be a moved membership.
That’s a ton of pressure.
I know that’s a lot easier said than done.
But, the pressure of being constantly available can be crippling. Not to mention the feeling of failure most pastors feel from being constantly inundated with problems they can’t possibly solve.
So if you can find a way to get your husband to disconnect from his cell phone, you will be helping him immensely with his mental health.
Here are some practical ways to disconnect.
1. Set “Office Hours.”
Have your husband set regular hours that he will answer and respond to texts/calls/messages/etc. Make these hours known and then abide by them.
It may take some gentle retraining but if he sticks to it, people will adhere as well.
2. Set Do Not Disturb
Most smartphones come with a feature where you can set it to not allow alerts to come through. On the iPhone, it’s called Do Not Disturb. When this is turned on, notifications don’t make any noise (including texts), but you will still receive phone calls from people on your favorites list.
This is good because it means that your husband can still get a phone call from his mom or kids or you, but he won’t be notified of every text and email.
So he won’t have to worry about his grandma being rushed to the ER and no one being able to reach him.
This is a great feature because he can set it to automatically turn on.
So your husband could set his Do Not Disturb at 5 pm when he gets home or 7 pm when he’s winding down for the day or 9 pm when he’s headed to bed or whatever time he’d like to disconnect from the alerts.
3. Take a One Day Fast Each Week
Have your husband take every Friday or Saturday or Whateverday off from his phone.
He can turn the Do Not Disturb setting on first thing in the morning and leave it on all day.
If you’re saved as a favorite on your husband’s phone, your calls will still go through, but he won’t receive notifications for the entire day.
This may actually be stressful for him at first, but after a couple of weeks of having an entire “alert free” day, he’ll probably begin to really look forward to it.
And for any of these to be successful, your husband will need to inform the congregation about the change as well as the reason behind the change.
It doesn’t have to be an in-depth discussion of the difficulties of being constantly available. Simply saying that he needs to set some boundaries on his technology usage so he will be disconnecting from his phone for a little bit each day/week should do it.
Obviously he can say that if anyone wants to talk to him some more about the decision, he’ll be available will let people know he’s open to discuss his decision.
And people may genuinely be curious because they might be struggling with a similar situation themselves. This is a great opportunity for him to be a model for the congregation.
In conclusion, as pastor’s wives, we have a great privilege in serving alongside our husbands in vocational ministry.
But with all great privileges comes great responsibility.
And as a pastor’s wife, we have a responsibility to help prevent pastor suicide. Yes, it’s a huge responsibility, but we are up to the task. We are women of faith who’ve accepted a call to minister alongside our husbands and help them bear the weight of vocational ministry.
We’ve got this.
What are some other things you think every pastor’s wife needs to know about pastor suicide? Tell us in the comments!
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What Every Pastor’s Wife Needs to Know About Pastor Suicide