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Suicide of a Pastor with Mental Health Struggles

Jim Howard, a megachurch pastor in Santa Clarita, California, shot himself on January 23. Pastor Howard was the Family Life pastor at Real Life Church’s (RLC) Valencia campus and had a history of struggling with mental health. The Senior Pastor of this 6,000-member church, Pastor Rusty George said in a prepared message: “Sadly, Jim suffered in private with mental health challenges—some of which he bravely discussed in public—and was wrestling with some personal issues in recent months. This week he made the tragic decision to end his pain. He will be missed by his family, friends, the RLC family and all those who were blessed to know him.”

Pastor Howard was described by staff and friends as an energetic, encouraging, and fun to be around. But not even his closest friends were aware of how deep his struggle was.

The above words were taken from the Feb. 3 addition of Christian Leaders, Inc, an online round-up of Christian stories and topics from around the country. This was the lead article this past weekend.

It highlights a growing issue facing many senior pastors and associate pastoral staff members in Christian churches, and yes, even Lutheran churches. Leaders struggle with depression and anxiety professionally and personally in secret. While they may look energetic, encouraging and even fun and pleasant to be around, and they may preach great sermons and do their overall ministry well, there comes a time for most when they become discouraged, burned-out, cynical, have dark thoughts, and even consider ending their pain with thoughts of suicide. When a Christian leader ends his life suddenly by suicide, the shock to his family, his friends, his church and the community is enormous.

Christian leaders are human beings like all of us. They have special gifts like pastoring, teaching, caring for the sick, counseling, doing weddings and funerals, assisting with worship, helping with congregational projects and fundraising, teaching Sunday school, assisting children in parochial schools, doing community outreach to the hungry and needy, and the list goes on.

But how are these church leaders doing on the “inside”?

Jim Howard gave signals that he was having trouble on the inside, where he was battling with his mind. Mental illness is a deeply personal matter for most leaders. They keep the dark thoughts, the troubling thoughts, hidden. They become overwhelmed with fear. They become depressed and anxious. They do not open these thoughts to the light. They suffer silently in darkness.

If you are a church leader and you are struggling with difficult thoughts, now is the time to let someone know. Speak to your spouse, or a close friend, or to a doctor or Christian counselor. Let someone know you are struggling. Resist the temptation to quit. Open up a window to your pain. It may be very difficult to do. You may be feeling like a failure in ministry or in your family life, and you feel as if you have done everything possible to stop your pain. Ending your life seems like the only way out.

Don’t Do It. There are people who love and care about you even though you can’t feel it. There are those who have been where you are and they can help you. Tell someone what you face. Ask someone to listen to you, someone who is safe. You can always call this hot line phone number: 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK, the National Suicide Hot Line).

(This article was written by pastor Ron Rehrer, Counselor for Church Workers of the Pacific Southwest District. Ron can be reached at phone 949.433.5182. or e-mail

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