Mal Fletcher comments on the recent suicide of a young church minister from California.

Mal Fletcher
Mal Fletcher

In the US last week, news media carried the story of a young church minister in California who committed suicide. His wife, though aware that he suffered from depression and anxiety, was in no way prepared for this outcome.

"Never in a million years would I have imagined this would be the end of his story," said Kayla Stoecklein of her beloved husband, Andrew. He left behind three young children. His death has inspired many other pastors to write online about their struggles with mental health.

Until now, little has been said or written about the issue of church leadership and depression. Yet there is no reason to believe or expect that religious leaders should not be impacted by an issue which, according to the World Health Organisation, now affects 300 million people worldwide.

In the UK, there is little data on the scope of mental health problems among church leaders. Yet levels of depression among the wider population suggest that more than a few will suffer from it.

In 2013, the Office of National Statistics said that nearly one-fifth of British adults suffer from either anxiety or depression. In the US, the National Institute of Mental Health estimated that 16 million adults had at least one major depressive episode during 2015. No matter how strong their personal faith, church and other religious leaders cannot hope to be immunised from the effects of such a global problem.

Social media have helped to spread the success stories of a relatively small number of rapidly growing mega-churches. (I'm referring here mainly to churches in which more than 10,000 people gather on a Sunday.) Leaders of these churches, at home and abroad, are often seen as role models for pastors of much smaller groups.

The scope of their success is viewed as a realistic goal, despite the fact that their growth represents a statistical exception rather than the norm.

Like leaders of any stripe, in any sector, church and other religious leaders need benchmarks and heroes from whom they can learn and whose example inspires them to reach for more. Sometimes, however, the glittering prize proves to be perennially out of reach.

Faced with the resulting frustration, most people adjust their expectations. However, for individuals already struggling with identity or anxiety, this can prove harmful.

The fact that religious leaders will suffer in this way is not just a problem for churches. It poses a challenge for the wider society because religious groups - especially churches - carry a huge load in terms of helping to alleviate suffering among the deprived and dispossessed in society.

Yes, only 11 per cent of adults living in England take part in the activities of a religious group and just two per cent of the English population attends church each week. However, when it comes to social welfare programmes, local churches, synagogues, other religious bodies and their affiliated charities punch well above their weight.

When David Cameron introduced his (now somewhat maligned) Big Society idea, he looked in the private sector to religious groups, among others, to help make it a reality.

Churches and other religious organisations boast higher levels of volunteer participation than business or other groups can usually engage. Indeed, some people who rarely go to church will align themselves with a local church-run charity in order to help reduce suffering.

The Salvation Army alone has 700 centres across the UK, which deliver services to individuals and communities every day of the year. A good part of its support, at least financially, has traditionally come from outside of the Christian community.