REFLECTiON: On A Young Pastor’s Death

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Around noon on 24 August 2018 (Friday), at a megachurch 30 minutes away from the church I pastor, their lead pastor attempted suicide. Unfortunately, though he was rushed to the hospital, he passed away the next day (25th). This event sparked discussions locally and even across America on how churches should look after the mental health of individuals (both church members and pastors). Of course, there were also many messages and actions expressing care and support.

Inland Hills Church in Chino, California, is one of the megachurches in the area. It was planted by David Frank Stocklein and a few of his friends on 3 February 1991. Pastor David died of leukaemia on 9 October 2015. In May of 2014, he had already handed the position of lead pastor over to his eldest son, Pastor Andrew Stocklein. A very capable young pastor, Pastor Andrew was only 26 at the time.

Pastor Andrew, aged 30 this year, was a pastor well-loved by his church members. But his health was not very good. Added to the heavy burden of pastoring a megachurch, the mental pressure was too great. Elders of the church had even at one point forced him to take a vacation. This year in March while on vacation, he experienced panic attacks and anxiety. In April, he suffered a nervous breakdown. On Good Friday of this year, he was overwhelmed by a panic attack so strong that he collapsed and was unable to walk.

Finally, the tragedy occurred on August 24. On that morning, he was working at the church. In the throes of depression and anxiety, he tried to end his own life. On the 25th, 30-year-old Pastor Andrew died at the hospital, leaving behind his 29-year-old wife Kayla and their 3 adorable children, aged 5, 4, and 2 years old respectively. At 10 am on September 8, the church held a memorial service for Pastor Andrew at the California Baptist University Events Center.

This was a very devastating event, to see a young pastor end his journey of life and ministry in this manner. We cannot help but wonder: “What had happened?” or “Why did this happen?” and even: “What could we have done to help prevent this from happening?”

A true friend is hard to find

Leaving aside other topics, let us discuss the mental stress faced by pastors, causing some pastors to slip into depression and anxiety. Among the many thoughtful responses to the Pastor Andrew incident, I found two comments by pastors that struck at the heart of the difficulties of being a pastor:

“Pastoring is hard and very lonely at times. It’s hard to have genuine friends that you can be honest with without fear of being judged.” (Scott Graham, Pastor at Real Life Church of Kankakee, Illinois)

“In this generation, pastors are expected to be business savvy, Instagram quotable, preaching celebrities, fully accessible, deeply spiritual, not too young, not too old, and if a pastor doesn’t quite measure up to someone’s expectation at any given moment, they are given a two out of five stars rating on Google.” (Christ Church of Orlando Lead Pastor Paul Valo)

It is indeed hard to be a pastor! Allow me to make a few heartfelt comments here.

Do not make
frivolous requests

Dear church members:
I often remind my church members of one thing: When you go to work, you have at most one manager, one boss. But in a church, the pastor does not only have one manager, one boss. Instead, he has as many ‘bosses’ as he has church members. Every member has different expectations and requirements of their pastor. Not even the monkey king with all his transformations would be able to cater to every request. How less so a pastor who has emotions like everyone else?

Furthermore, every pastor has been given different gifts from God. So please do not make comparisons between pastors. This is unfair to the pastors and adds unnecessary pressure on them. A pastor’s gifting may be admired by some but ignored by others. This is not the pastor’s fault, so please hold back and stop making frivolous requests and judgments!

Instead, think of how to fill in the pastor’s deficiencies. Is this not what the Apostle Paul taught about different spiritual gifts, “many parts but one body”? (See 1 Cor 12:1-31)

Satisfy God’s heart

To fellow pastors:
I believe all of us are clear on God’s calling and we have offered up ourselves to this full-time ministry path. And I believe we all understand the difficulties of journeying along this path. Here I only hope that each of us would not place undue pressure on ourselves. Use the gifts that we have to the full. But that which we do not have and which we can learn, let us learn at our own pace, not by force, but also do not be lazy. Be humble when being taught or when asking for help from co-workers and church members with the related giftings.

Also, do not overestimate yourself and pretend to be “all powerful”. A minister concerned with saving face is one of the major reasons for depression and anxiety. Furthermore, if facing struggles mentally, besides praying and looking to God, do seek professional help as soon as possible.

Full-time ministry is to satisfy God’s heart, not people’s hearts. So do not imagine you can fulfill every church member’s desire, because that is “Mission Impossible”. Whatever that you cannot do, inform people with humility and honesty at once. It is better than delaying and pretending to do something, which gives people unrealistic expectations, and adds unnecessary pressure on yourself.

Do not add to
the sufferer’s guilt

Some people believe that depression and anxiety are mental disorders that appear only in the modern era. In fact this is not so, because there is nothing new under the sun. The prophet Elijah in the Old Testament faced these illnesses. After defeating the Baal prophets, Elijah was threatened by Queen Jezebel, who wanted to kill him. “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.” (1 Kings 19:3a). From this passage (1 Kings 19:1-14), we can see that under great fear, Elijah developed depression and anxiety, so that he wanted to take his own life. These are classic symptoms of these types of illnesses.

Actually, the Bible does not lack events about emotions and the struggle with them. But few are willing to face these messages. That is because we put Christianity on much too high a pedestal, thinking that since we believe in God, we should not have any psychological or mental issues. If the issues exist, then we would think: our faith is not strong enough, our prayers are not fervent enough, our beliefs are not pure enough. This type of response may seem like a reminder, but in fact it is a rebuke, adding to the guilt of the sufferer. In the end, it only worsens their illness, instead of healing them.

Elijah was open to facing his mental struggles, and he did not shy away from speaking his innermost thoughts. At the same time, he also did suffer through at least 41 days and nights of inner struggle. In the end, he obeyed God’s directions, and walked out from his psychological and mental prison. This is a good example for those facing similar issues. Perhaps we may not be able to escape psychological and mental issues in the same way as Elijah, but at least we know that these illnesses are not impossible to treat.

A young pastor’s death touched my heart, so I wrote this article that we may encourage one another.

The young pastor’s death awakened many pastors and church members in the local area, even across America. May it also awaken pastors and church members elsewhere.

May all beloved pastors and fellow workers in Christ draw strength from the Lord and be renewed to serve God.

Written by Rev Wong Yiik Sing 
(Church of Blessings, CA, USA)
Translated by Joy Tie
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