A few years ago, when I was a pastor of a church in Chicago, I received a call from one of our deacons who said that the son of a church leader had committed suicide. I called the grieving family immediately and made arrangements to go to their house and offer words of comfort and assurance. After all, these are the things that pastors do.
But, what happens when it is the pastor who commits suicide? Who comforts his family? And who will offer words of assurance to a grieving church?
The topic of suicide of pastors came when my niece told me about a pastor who committed suicide. According to the news report, the pastor committed suicide by hanging himself inside the house in which he and his two children lived. The pastor and his wife had just returned home from a prayer meeting and a few minutes later he was dead. According to his wife, the pastor was going through a time of severe depression.
This report brought to mind three cases of suicides involving pastors of local churches. In each case, the three pastors were facing problems which led them to conclude that the only way to solve their problems was by taking their own lives.
The first case was the suicide of Teddy Parker, pastor of the Bibb Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia. According to friends, Parker struggled with manic depression and came to a point in his life where he believed he could not feel God in his life.
Parker killed himself on a Sunday afternoon after having preached to his congregation in the morning. He was scheduled to preach again that night, but he never made it. Parker was only 41 years old. He was married and had two children. According to a news report, he did not leave a note behind to explain the reason he took his own life. He died from a gunshot wound.
The irony in Parker’s suicide is that shortly before his death, he was able to convince a young man contemplating suicide not to kill himself. Parker counseled the young man for several weeks, up to a month before his own death.
The second case was the suicide of Ed Montgomery, one of the pastors at the Full Gospel Christian Assemblies International Church in Hazel Crest, Illinois. At the time of his death, pastor Montgomery was grieving the death of his wife, Prophetess Jackie Montgomery.
Montgomery’s wife died December 2012 and one year later, pastor Montgomery was still despondent about the death of his wife. Before his death he told members of his congregation that he was hearing her voice and footsteps. He died from a gunshot wound.
According to a news report, Montgomery shot himself in front of his mother and his son, inside his home in Matteson, Illinois. Both Montgomery and his wife served as marriage counselors in their church.
The third case was the suicide of Isaac Hunter, the founding pastor of the Summit Church, a megachurch in Orlando, Florida.
According to a news report, Hunter, who was 36 years old, resigned from his church on November 26, 2012, after he told church leaders that he had an affair with a member of his staff. According to the report, his wife filed a petition against Hunter, accusing him of domestic violence and describing him as being unstable and suicidal.
Isaac Hunter was the son of Joel Hunter, the pastor of the Northland Church in Longwood, Florida. Joel Hunter has been called a spiritual adviser to President Obama.
Why do pastors kill themselves? There are many possible answers to this question, but in the end, I believe, none of them fully explain why pastors take their lives.
One reason why pastors commit suicide is because of the demands of the ministry. It is true that when church members need the pastor, he or she is always there for them. However, pastors find it very difficult to confide their problems to members of the church for fear of recrimination.
Another reason pastors kill themselves may be due to the lack of reward or recognition they receive in the ministry. Many pastors are poorly paid and the lack of money imposes a severe financial burden on the family. This also requires personal sacrifice, humble living, and the depravation of some luxuries in life.
In some churches, the work of the pastor is not properly recognized. Some members are critical of the pastor and his family. Some members refuse to participate in the life of the church, leaving the pastor to do work that members should do. Some churches impose heavy demands upon the pastor’s wife without proper compensation.
These problems and a few others cause burnout and depression. A recent study by the Schaeffer Institute reveals the oppressive conditions pastors face in discharging their ministerial responsibility:
According to the Schaeffer Institute, 70 percent of pastors constantly fight depression, and 71 percent are burned out. Meanwhile, 72 percent of pastors say they only study the Bible when they are preparing for sermons; 80 percent believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families; and 70 percent say they don’t have a close friend.
As a result, the same study reports “that 80 percent of seminary and Bible school graduates will leave the ministry within five years.” The stressful situation in which most pastors exercise their ministry can contribute to suicidal thoughts. Anyone who takes his or her life has planned to do so even before the act is committed. Thinking about suicide is the first step toward suicide, but not always.
There are several cases in the Bible where people thought about dying, whether by taking their own life or by other means is not clear.
When the people of Israel were in the wilderness and approached Moses complaining and weeping, asking for meat to eat, Moses lost his temper and prayed to God: “I am not able to bear this entire people alone, because it is too heavy for me! But if you are going to deal with me like this, then kill me immediately. If I have found favor in your sight then do not let me see my trouble” (Numbers 11:14-15 NET).
When Elijah was threatened by Jezebel, he fled to the desert, dejected because of the situation in Israel. In his despair, Elijah prayed: “I’ve had enough! Now, O LORD, take my life” (1 Kings 19:4 NET).
A similar situation confronted the prophet Jonah. After Jonah preached his sermon to the Ninevites, they repented and the Lord revoked the punishment he promised to bring against the citizens of Nineveh. Jonah was so angry that he prayed to the Lord: “So now, LORD, kill me instead, because I would rather die than live!” (Jonah 4:3 NET).
None of these people killed themselves, but there are six cases of suicide in the Old Testament and one in the New Testament. There are also three other cases of suicide in the Apocrypha. In none of these cases, with the exception of Judas, does the Bible condemn or reprove suicide.
Suicide raises an important question: What are the moral issues associated with suicide? Another question that Christians ask is whether a person who commits suicide will be saved or will be lost.
When Samson committed suicide by killing himself and the Philistines with him, Samson prayed: “O Master, LORD, remember me! Strengthen me just one more time, O God, so I can get swift revenge against the Philistines for my two eyes” (Judges 16:28 NET).
The Lord answered Samson’s prayer. Samson’s strength was restored and he brought down the Philistines who were worshiping in the temple of their god. As a result, Samson “killed many more people in his death than he had killed during his life” (Judges 16:30 NET).
What is so ironic about Samson’s suicide is that he was able to kill himself and the Philistines with the help of God. If God had not answered his prayer and restored his strength, Samson would be unable to bring down the pillars of the temple and kill himself and his enemies.
It is this event with Samson and the suicide of these four pastors that has prompted me to study the six cases of suicide in the Old Testament. In the next few weeks I will be looking at each case of suicide in the Old Testament in order to learn what the Bible has to say about what some people have called “the impossible possibility.”
At the end of my study I will return to the issue presented at the beginning of this essay, about pastors who kill themselves. At that time I will seek to present a rationale for a Christian perspective on suicide.
A Personal Note: I have been in the ministry and theological education for more than fifty years. Over the years I have seen the struggles pastors face in being faithful to their call. However, most church members are not aware of the personal sacrifices pastors make in their work in the Kingdom of God. They need to be educated. If you feel that this essay is a good beginning, then share it with others. Put a link on your web page, share it on Facebook or Twitter. Churches need to learn to take better care of their pastors.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Dr M- Thanks for bring to light the demands and pressure put on pastors today. Thanks for this article… well said
Thank you for words. The work of pastors is difficult and need to be recognized and appreciated by all who love the Lord.
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Suicide is an unfortunate consequence of a “loss of hope,” I think. It is not a decision taken lightly and far too often few, if anyone, ever understands why someone would take their own life. Robin Williams comes to mind as someone who had just about anything (material) that anyone could want, yet it was not enough to sustain him during what may have been the darkest period in his life. It is not a reflection of a failure on anyone’s part to do more to have prevented it. I think the only thing any “Church” can do to build a better foundation for folks who wind up here is to guide people into “finding” Their Own Relationship with the God of Their Understanding. In Churches, it is my opinion (as a former Seminarian) that the tendency to proclaim rigid and often “bloodless” creedal system of (f)aith leaves out the one key ingredient people most hunger for; the Unconditional Love of God as each person perceives Him. No one will ever have the exact same (F)aith, because no one will ever have the exact same Relationship with God or another human being.
We may never understand why some people go so far as to kill themselves. We know that life is a precious gift that God has given to us and we have such a short time to enjoy this precious gift. I agree with you that we must accept and enjoy this unconditional love of God. It is this love that helps us face the problems of life with the confidence that we are never alone. Sometimes we tend to substitute creedal statements for a personal relationship with God. When we do that, we create stress because spiritual peace comes from a personal relationship with God.
Thank you for your comment.
Your diligence and concern regarding this dilemma among the population and disconcertingly in the ministerial profession is a worthy endeavor. I question the absence of mentioning the role of the Holy Spirit in ones life. Once we are filled with the Holy Spirit He does not leave. We are sealed in Christ Jesus. How then can we take our life? The NT suicide was by a person who was filled with the spirit of the devil. Thus he did not see repentance and atonement as an option. He had committed blasphemy for which there was no redemption. I look forward to your thoughts on the OT examples.
I agree with you 100% that pastors must allow the Holy Spirit to work in their lives. Without the power of the Spirit, the work of the pastors cannot prosper. The reason I did not mention the Holy Spirit in my post was because I was just introducing the problem. In later posts I will mention the work of the Holy Spirit, prayer, fellowship with God, and other things that can prevent pastors from taking their lives.
As for Judas, if you read my post today you will discover that I will write a post on the suicide of Judas. I hope you will follow me in this series of studies.
Thank you for your comment.
What I see as a front running reason that pastors commit suicide is that the church, the people of God, those that truly love the Lord their God with all their hearts, fail to effectively pray and Intercede for their pastors. How many of us truly have an effectual and fervent prayer life? We are all called to it. There is no gifting of prayer. Every believer must pray in order to have Gods will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Pray for your pastors! Intercede for them and their families. Begin a systematic and continual prayer vigil. Everyday they need to be interceded for in every way imaginable. Come on church.
I say “amen” to what you wrote. Pastors need the prayer and support of their people, Honestly, as you said, churches do not pray enough for their pastors. The reason may be that church members do not understand that the work of the pastor is very difficult. I hope church members will be encouraged to pray more for their pastors.
Thank you for your comment.
Dear Dr. Mariottini,
Suicide, from a Biblical point of view, is a slippery slop. As you have observed, there is no clear yea or nay. I have held thoughts and feelings on this subject for quite some time. In light of God’s assistance in the case of Samson, I don’t think the Church can be so definite in its assessment overall. Each case carries its own circumstances which must be weighted in the balance. The balance itself is a sensitive and delicate one… making it sometimes difficult to read. I will be looking with interest as you unpack this topic.
On the other hand, suicide, in the case of pastors, is a subject that does need addressing. The stress of burden taken to bear by any pastor is overwhelming. Just as Moses was aided by Aaron and Hur, in the battle against Amalek, so too must “The Men of God” be aided by the congregations they serve. In order to better educate, the dialog must start and the conversation has to be looked at with seriousness.
God’s speed as you press toward the mark,
I agree with you. At the end of the study we will discover that the Bible may not offer much guidance on this issue. And whenever we come to a few conclusions, others will disagree with those conclusions. I just hope I will be fair and present an unbiased exegesis on the biblical texts dealing with suicide.
As for the work of the pastor, it is a difficult work. Pastors need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead them in their daily work. Only a personal relationship with God will provide the strength and the help pastors need to do their work. The biggest problem is that some pastors do not have a strong spiritual life and this causes a lot of unnecessary stress in their lives.
Thank you for your comment.
I think we sometimes forget just where our Pastors come from. Churches may “call” pastors to lead them, but a Pastor is still God’s man, not theirs. If he is there, it is because God ordained it and/or allows it. Honestly, the way we treat Pastors in so many cases is a crying shame. It’s no wonder they are as stress filled as any so called high powered position in the world. The burdens they sometimes have to bear alone seem ,from my observation, to be overwhelming . If we would remember who really called them we might change our attitudes toward them and support of them.
I agree with you, but how can we communicate this great truth to church members? Many churches are not aware of the demands of the ministry and they treat their pastors as employees rather than people whom God called to be His representatives in the world.
Very few church members read articles or books about the work of the pastor and the demands of the ministry. It is this kind of ignorance that contributes to the stress and frustrations pastors face as they seek to be faithful to God in their ministry. Maybe we should find better ways of educating our churches.
Not sure about recent studies but for many years pastors we’re number 2 on the list of siucides by profession. Suicide is an act if hopelessness but also of anger. Another factor that I’m certain enters in is the isolation many, if not most pastors feel and experience. Finally, when a pastor fails and falls – where is grace for them? Many are ostracized creating further shame, guilt and isolation. I’m in my 37 year of ministry with 32 as a pastor. I think we try to go too far for too long. The priests of the Old Testament were retired after 25 years. Burnout, frustration and anger gone inward (pastors feel unable or not allowed to be angry) lead to a deep pit of despair from which there seems no ens or escape. This makes one vulnerable to the enemy’s tactics of condemnation and hopelessness. We must get this out in the open or there will continue to be the tragedies you describe.
First of all, let me thank you for your 37 years in the ministry. Your love for Christ and your commitment to his Kingdom deserves the appreciation of all of us.
I agree with you in all that you said in your comment. The problem is that many churches love their pastors, but do not understand the demands of the ministry and the pressures pastors face as they serve the Lord in their local community. Our secular society makes the work of the pastor even more difficult.
I wish more churches would find ways of developing some kind of ministry to their own pastors. It takes more than just nice words to minister to the pastor in his hour of need. I just hope more lay people could read my post and the response of the readers. They would become more aware of the needs of pastors.
Thank you for your comment.
I think you may have underestimated the incredible power of depression to obliterate one’s rational decision making abilities. Certainly pastors face a lot of stress at times, are often underpaid, under appreciated, overworked, and sometimes ill-prepared for the challenges of the ministry. But, as one who has experienced quite serious depression in the past and had developed a “workable” suicide plan, I can tell you that those who have not been through extended bouts of so-caled “clinical” depression have no clue how overwhelming it can be. (And it may not even arise from circumstantial causes … sometimes it just comes. And perhaps that’s one reason it is so overwhelming — there seems no logical reason for it.)
Pastors who are experiencing serious depression should not hesitate to seek help from their family physician.
So you won’t be worried about me: I’ve been “depression-free” (for reasons known only to God) for over 20 years.
First of all, praise the Lord that you have been depression-free for more than 20 years.
You are right. Many pastors face the problem of depression often because of the demands of the ministry. Those pastors who are depressed or burdened with the demands of the ministry should seek help. There is nothing wrong in saying “I need help.”
Personally, I want to thank pastors everywhere for their work and ministry. They are a blessing to the world.
Thank you for your comment.
Excellent post, with so many valuable questions asked and observations. Thank you for touching on something people at church don’t think much about, the needs of their pastor…in a larger category (suicide) about which the church can use more serious Biblical consideration.
Thank you for your comment. Churches need to take better care of their pastors.
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blessed day Dr. Claude, get I have a pdf copy of your very wonderful article so that I can distribute and print copies for our church so that other church members would be able to know and understand the life of a clergy? more blessings
If you want a copy of my post, find my email address on my blog and then send me your email address and I will send a PDF copy of the post.