His father passed away from leukaemia in 2015. After his father’s death, he revealed how difficult it’s been to fill his father’s shoes, who was the previous lead and founding pastor. To make matters worse, in 2017, a softball-sized mass was removed from his chest, which took multiple surgeries. Thankfully it was non-cancerous. This would be a tough couple years for anyone to handle. Now for Pastor Andrew Stoecklein, he’s now back from his summer sabbatical. On his first Sunday back, he starts a new series called called “Hot Mess” where the big idea and tagline is “God wants to meet you in your mess.” Next Sunday, he does it all over again and preaches a messaged called “Mess to Masterpiece”. Five days later on August 24, 2018, the Lead Pastor of Inland Hills Church in California dies in the hospital after attempting to take his own life. He was 30 years old. Articles come out highlighting how the father of three suffered from an open and public battle with anxiety and depression. His wife, Kayla Stoeklein, totally heartbroken, writes a gut wrenching public message about her husband’s suicide.
No doubt some were upset. Some were angry. Some felt guilty and wished they had reached out. Others confused and disappointed. Everyone is shocked. What happened? After all, this isn’t what we’re used to hearing. We don’t often hear of pastors taking their own lives, especially lead pastors of megachurches. This isn’t supposed to happen. Pastors are God’s elect. They’re to be spiritual giants, unshakeable, strong and faithful servants. God’s favored ones, chosen to shepherd God’s people. They’re to be the leading example in all aspects of life. As a fellow ministry workers, my heart hurts. He’s one of us – a man of the cloth.
Though pastors are leaders in their communities at various capacities, no matter the role, this tragedy reminds us of one thing: Pastors are people too. In a day and age of social media and online sermons, we tend to forget this. We find polished pastors preaching effortless profound sermons on perfectly decorated platforms. But every once in a while, our views of reality break through the spotlight. Pastors display fits of rage and churches split. There’s controversy over sexual misconduct. Pastoral couples divorce. Pastor’s kids live out of control lives. Then there are those who suffer from anxiety and depression. Long before pastors are on the platform, they were people first. But we forget this.
However, we can’t blame people. Christians need to look to their pastors as examples while knowing they’re just like the rest of us. That’s not easy. It’s confusing actually. Perhaps that’s why when pastors behave in any way less than perfect, we’re in shock. But we shouldn’t be. This isn’t an excuse, it’s a reality check. If we’re shocked by the brokenness in the world, then we haven’t truly understood the Gospel or the purpose of God’s grace and mercy. This tragedy, instead of taking away from God and the Gospel, affirms the fact even more how we need the Gospel. Pastors included. Brokenness shouldn’t shock us – it should move us.
Too often, pastors are raised above the curve of what it means to be human. They’re viewed to be invincible, untouchable and unscathed by the problems of the world. They’re expected to be superhuman – angelic perhaps. But if angels fall, how much more so will pastors? Don’t get me wrong. I believe pastors should be held to the highest standard. James 3:1 warns, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” Nonetheless, under the collar, cloth, suit or skinny jeans, pastors are just people. Just like all people, pastors have emotions, hurts and pain. Pastors are imperfect and carry insecurities. Pastors undergo temptation and trials. Pastors feel pressure and anxiety. I can hear some thinking, “Of course! We know that!” Though it is an honest question, I’m not sure if people understand if they would ask, “What do you do in between Sundays?”
Please allow me to give a glimpse into the life, heart and confession of a pastor:
Pastors have trouble balancing their responsibilities at home and the responsibilities of the church. It’s not easy shepherding our family while also shepherding God’s people. I need to remember to spend time with my wife and son. Not just time, but real quality time, where my mind is disengaged from my other responsibilities. Pastors try to be there for people during the good and bad times. We genuinely look forward to that coffee, lunch or dinner so we can connect. All the while limited ourselves in who we can talk to when we’re in trouble. We’re constantly thinking: How’s our kids ministry? Are the youth staying engaged? What about the families? The seniors and retired need to be taken care of too. The worship ministry is lacking people and resources, let’s see what we can do about that. Is our social media on point? Do people know what’s going on in the church? Right thinking leads to right doing, so what about our Christian education? We faithfully exegete God’s Word, but faithful interpretation is not enough. Pastors also need the skills to deliver the message in an engaging way. Are we on budget? How’s the offering? Are people praying? What about fellowship, are people connecting? Don’t forget the local outreach, we should care for those who don’t know Jesus and the poor. Not only those in need here, but what about those globally and overseas? Are people inviting their friends and family? Are we too cliquey? Right, even if people do come, we need a way of embracing them. The leaders need training. But I also need to find time for Sabbath, spiritual renewal and training myself. And the vision, right the vision. Are all ministries and people aligned and moving towards our vision? We should take part in city-wide and church unity events. Meanwhile, since we’re the body, loving comments are given left, right and centre on what can be better. Let’s not even get into the every day admin, the planning, prep and meetings, that phone call or email to reply to. Handling conflict is an entirely different issue and don’t forget to exercise. Pastors juggle all that – and don’t mention the important dates in the church calendar (Easter, Christmas, church anniversaries, retreats, etc.) Does this sound scrambled? Perhaps. Did we miss something? Probably. But this is what goes on between Sundays. In fact, this is what occupies much of our brain space.
That wasn’t so much a rant but more a peek into our lives. It’s not a rant because we love it. We love that we get to do this. Our role is so simple and also so complex. Yes, it’ll be different for pastors in different contexts. I’m aware of the time, role, culture, and context in which I serve. So this isn’t a complaint to make anyone feel sorry for pastors, but it is meant to shed light. Pastors know full well when answering and accepting the call and beautiful burden of ministry. Pastors do love their people and their church – I dare believe some pastors may literally die for them. We have counted the cost, but that doesn’t make it easy.
No matter what we our job description is, there’s another unspoken expectation that underlines it all – we’ve been entrusted with making the ministry the best that it can be. It’s a double edged sword, really. It’s a great attitude to have, but an impossible goal to achieve. After all, how do you know if something is the “best” that it can be? When is it ever enough? How many hours does it take to make something the “best”?
As a pastor, I’ll let you in on a little secret. While we battle the “Messiah Complex” (the temptation to believe we’re the savior to others), most of us don’t really care about our image. If we wanted it to be about us, we’re really in the wrong line of work. Most of the time, we’re concerned less about how you view us, but more how you’ll view God and how your walk will be if we fail. It’s actually not only the workload we struggle with, it’s the weight of the call. We care whether you love and know God or not. We’re worried about your soul. That’s where the pressure comes in. We all have responsibilities at our jobs, but I firmly believe the pastor’s responsibility is unique. No words can explain the weight of taking care of someone’s soul every week. Whether directly through interaction or indirectly through what our churches and leaders offer, we feel responsible for you. No words can explain the gravity of how it feels when every word and action flowing through you has the potential to tip someone in or out of the Kingdom. That’s pressure. That’s difficult. The stakes are high. This is what gets at our heart. We’re trained to never settle and to keep pushing forward. The pastorate isn’t all fun and games and singing “kumbaya” around the campfire at camp. Yet no matter the difficulties, we still hang on and believe fully “it’s worth it.” Why? Simply because Jesus said so on the Cross – and Jesus is my boss.
Yet, it’s so difficult to be confident in our calling while fully knowing our own inadequacies. We know our brokenness and shortcomings all too well. Then once in awhile, we swing to the other side, becoming so ignorant and proud by believing we’re fully adequate. Both are dangerous. Both result in the same: Pain, brokenness, burnout. But there’s a better way, and it’s in the way of the story of God. He chooses to use the meek to shame the strong. (1 Cor. 1:27) He says “my power will be made perfect in weakness” because His grace is sufficient. (2 Cor. 12:9) God’s light is to shine through the cracks of our brokenness. We need to embrace and face our brokenness even though people see our role as a position of strength.
If you’re a pastor or ministry leader, hear this: it’s not on us. It’s all God. You may feel like it’s on us, but it’s not. Feelings can be deceiving. People may tell you that it is, but it’s not. Our call comes from God and not man. I know you know that. But I know you also need to hear it again – because I do. In a swift world of chaos, that’s the only stillness God has promised us in ministry. Our union with Christ is all we got. We need that engrained into our hearts. We need to be reminded of this time and time again. Talk to people that you trust, but talk to God even more. Be thankful for people who care for you. Trust your leaders and share your burden. How come? Because Satan is after your heart. He goes after your heart with feelings of pride, insecurity, jealously, impatience, hate. He wants to take it, destroy it, and embed it with lies with either selfish sufficiency or Godless inadequacy. You might even start thinking your sheep are against you. Satan wants the Church to turn on each other. Fight that thought because we’re all on the same team. We’re all one body – whether we act like or not. Underneath the tones, the words, the criticisms, choose to believe people want what’s best.
As David Paul Tripp writes in his book Dangerous Calling (highly recommended),
“We have forgotten that pastoral ministry is war and that you will never live successfully in the pastorate if you live with the peacetime mentality. Permit me to explain. The fundamental battle of pastoral ministry is not with the shifting values of the surrounding culture. It is not the struggle with resistant people who don’t seem to esteem the Gospel. It is not the fight for the success of ministries of the church. And is not the constant struggle of resources and personnel to accomplish the mission. No, the war of the pastor is a deeply personal war. It is far on the ground of the pastor’s heart. It is a war of values, allegiances, and motivations. It’s about the subtle desires and foundational dreams. This war is the greatest threat to every pastor. Yet it is a war that we often naïvely ignore or quickly forget in the busyness of local church ministry.”
So pastor, how’s your heart? This is the question I face every day (and if I forget, my wife is sure to ask). When you’re expected and so used to giving, taking and receiving seems unnatural. But that’s the only way to battle against the callousing of our hearts. Learn to receive as much as you give. Most important remember: “Pastor” is your role, not your identity. We need to wrestle everyday with how the successes or failures in our ministry do not define who we are as children of God. In ministry, we are people and children of God first, and pastors second.
This is part 1 of 2 of a response to questions I have received on this topic. The next post will address the tough questions I’ve received regarding: Is suicide a sin? Do Christians who commit suicide go to heaven?