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Before Pastor Andrew Stoecklein’s suicide, widow reveals he was haunted by dark presence

Andrew Stoecklein, Kayla Stoecklein
Late Inland Hills lead pastor, Andrew Stoecklein, 30 (R), shares a laugh with his widow Kayla Stoecklein (L) on August 12, 2018. |

Two weeks before Pastor Andrew Stoecklein died after a suicide attempt inside Inland Hills Church in Chino, California, in August 2018, he and his dutiful wife, Kayla, revealed to his congregation that he was battling anxiety and depression and had taken time off work to get better.

After staring down the terror of mental illness that had only months earlier sent him to the emergency room with a panic attack that had spiraled out of control, Andrew Stoecklein made a defiantly optimistic return to the pulpit he took over after his father’s death from cancer in 2015.

It was a fragile triumph that Kayla Stoecklein seemed reserved about even as she publicly supported her husband.

“We still have a long way to go to work through it but we are all in,” she told the congregation in their recorded address on Aug. 12, 2018. “We’re going to keep fighting to choose to believe that God has great plans. Great plans for our family. Great plans for this church, and great plans for our pastor right here.”

Before celebrating his 30th birthday that May, Andrew Stoecklein was forced by elders of his nondenominational megachurch to take what he called a summer sabbatical after he suffered a mental breakdown in April 2018. He had been going through a lot. While still processing the loss of his father, Andrew Stoecklein and his family were forced to move due to threats from stalkers and he had developed health complications that required surgery.

Kayla recalled how her husband had become not a “very fun person to live with." She publicly worried that his work as a pastor while dealing with multiple stressors in his personal life could “cost him his life.”

“You guys, he loves this place so much he didn’t want to stop. He would have kept on going and going and it probably would have cost him his life,” she said as her raspy voice cracked slightly. “That’s how much he loves you, that’s how much he loves this place.

"During this season of rest, I've asked him over and over, 'Are you sure?' You don't have to be a pastor. You could go be whatever you want to be,” she recalled. “[We] could go live wherever we want to live. We could go to Texas and buy a big house."

But Andrew Stoecklein insisted that he was doing what he was called to do, and then 29-year-old Kayla Stoecklein caved.

The church was growing rapidly and they were having their best season financially since his father, David Stoecklein, who had died on Oct. 9, 2015, founded Inland Hills Church in 1987.

Behind all the success, however, Andrew Stoecklein was “crumbling” under the weight of a struggle that was not just physical or mental.

Spiritual warfare

Kayla Stoecklein
Courtesy of Katie Bell Communications

In her first book, published two years after her husband’s death during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in September 2020, Kayla Stoecklein revealed that years before her husband’s mental health began a swift, unrelenting decline and culminated with suicide in 2018, she discovered he was being haunted by a dark presence he called “creature.”

The initial discovery she revealed in Fear Gone Wild: A Story of Mental Illness, Suicide, and Hope Through Loss, came in 2011 as they celebrated their first anniversary with a one-night stay at the Langham hotel in downtown Pasadena, California. Their anniversary celebration was also around the same time that Andrew Stoecklein’s father, was diagnosed with aggressive acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

They were young and “giddy “and “full of anticipation for a special night together” Kayla recalled. “It was picture perfect. We were madly in love, crazy about each other, and the night kept getting better.”

After dinner that night, Andrew went to take a shower. Kayla was passing time watching TV when she heard a noise coming from the bathroom that she soon realized was Andrew crying.

“I rushed into the bathroom, pulled back the shower curtain, and there he was, on the floor of the shower, curled up in the fetal position, shaking, terrified, and crying hysterically,” she wrote. “When he finally calmed down enough to talk, he described in detail an encounter he’d had with a dark presence he called a ‘creature.’”

Kayla was stunned by the confession.

Kayla Stoecklein
Kayla Stoecklein is an author, speaker, and mental health advocate. |

“I stopped rubbing his back. Full of confusion and fear, I sat on the cold tile floor, unsure what to do next. I began to look around the room. I didn’t see any ‘creature.’ ‘What do you mean a ‘creature’? Andrew, what are you talking about? There isn’t anything in the shower. You were the only one in here; I don’t understand,’” she wrote.

“He started crying again and shaking. I wasn’t helping. I was making it worse. So I did the only thing I knew to do—I prayed. ‘God, I don’t know what’s going on, but I pray your presence would overwhelm this room right now. Whatever Andrew saw, I pray in the name of Jesus for it to leave; it has no power here. In Jesus’ mighty name, amen.’

“I turned off the shower, grabbed a towel from the counter, and slowly helped Andrew stand to his feet. I carefully wrapped the towel around him and held his body close to mine as we walked toward the bed. ‘Are you okay? What do you need? What can I do for you?’ He pulled the covers up over his body, closed his eyes, took a long, deep breath, and then opened them again. ‘I’m okay. That was really scary. I’m still confused, but I feel better. Thank you for praying for me—that really helped.’ What was supposed to be a night to remember had quickly turned into a night I hoped I would forget.”

Kayla Stoecklein revealed that the darkness haunted Andrew throughout their marriage relentlessly.

“I wish I could say he never had another encounter with darkness, but I can’t. Throughout our marriage, Andrew continued to be taunted relentlessly. Sometimes Andrew would tell me about it, but other times he wouldn’t. Maybe he even felt like he couldn’t. Maybe he didn’t want to acknowledge it was real either,” she wrote. “He was burdened by a darkness difficult to fully understand. Every day there is an invisible war raging all around us. A war between good and evil, darkness and light, and we live in the tension. As different people with different upbringings, we may have different understandings of darkness and demons, but I think most people agree there is evil in this world, and it is truly dark.”

Overtime, as Andrew Stoecklein’s battle with depression and anxiety worsened, Kayla Stoecklein revealed his encounters with the darkness grew more frequent.

“The darkness continued to pursue Andrew relentlessly. He would often experience encounters with the darkness in his dreams, and this became magnified during his battle with depression and anxiety. Throughout our last summer together Andrew would often recount the terrifying dreams in detail to me,” she wrote. “Each time his eyes would open wide, and as he spoke I could sense the fear in his voice and his eyes. There was a war raging inside his mind, and it wasn’t just physical or chemical, it was also spiritual. It was a deadly combination of mental illness and spiritual warfare, and it was spiraling out of control.”

Despite Andrew Stoecklein’s ongoing battle with demons, depression and anxiety, Kayla Stoecklein explained in the book that doctors and the church’s board of directors gave him the greenlight to return to work as lead pastor of the church on Aug. 1, 2018.

And even after another harrowing encounter between her late husband and five “creatures” from the darkness while he was wide awake in their home shortly before he resumed his duties at the church, his planned return did not change.

“I was sitting on our front porch watching the boys play in our long driveway when my phone buzzed. It was a text from Andrew that read, ‘Five creatures surrounding me right now in my room. Each one has a meaning. Each one talking, taking turns. I’m praying them away. Might need some spiritual prayers to help. God is more powerful. God’s got this. But I am scared in this moment,’” Kayla Stoecklein recalled of her dead husband’s plea.

“I dropped my phone on the porch and ran through the house, down the long hallway, and back to our bedroom. I flung open the door, and there he was, the man I loved, absolutely paralyzed by fear. He was lying on the bed, he had the sheet pulled up over his head, and he was curled in a ball, trembling. I gently pulled back the covers, kissed his sweaty brow, and laid my hand on his chest. ‘Babe, what’s going on? Are you okay? I got your text. What can I do to help?’” she asked.

Andrew did not respond.

“I looked around the room and didn’t see any dark creatures; in my spirit I didn’t feel any evil presence. So many thoughts swirled through my mind. Is this all in his head? Is he experiencing some sort of hallucination? Is this really spiritual warfare? I didn’t have answers, but I knew I could do what I had always done since that very first encounter: pray. I was in over my head in so many way,” she said.

Kayla Stoecklein said she called in friends and members of the church’s staff to pray for her husband.

Andrew Stoecklein
Andrew Stoecklein, 30 (kneeling), the late pastor of Inland Hills Church in Chino, Calif., is blessed by his father Dave Stoecklein (wheelchair) and other members of his church and immediate family in May 2015 as he becomes lead pastor. His father who was suffering from leukemia at the time, died in October that year. |

“If this was spiritual warfare and the Enemy wasn’t going to back down, I wasn’t either. We couldn’t live like this anymore. The staff members arrived with anointing oil, and together we stopped and prayed over every room in our home. Then we circled Andrew, anointed him with oil, and each prayed for freedom and healing in his life,” she explained. “I wish I could say we saw miracles that day and Andrew was healed on the spot, but he wasn’t. The prayers of my friends, just like the prayers I had been praying all summer, seemed to fall flat. In my heart I cried out to God in desperation. I begged for breakthrough and healing in our home.”

Shortly after he returned to work as lead pastor of Inland Hills Church, Kayla Stoecklein said her husband expressed to her for the first time that he thought about suicide.

She said her husband asked her one night how she was doing while they were at home and she told him quite frankly how she was feeling.

“I’m just tired. I feel like I’m doing everything on my own. Our house feels like a war zone. The boys run around yelling and fighting all day, and I’m at my wit’s end with it all. I can’t keep up. I feel so alone,’” she recalled telling her husband.

“When he didn’t respond, I looked at him. He was tracing his fingers on the brown speckled granite. Then he said, ‘I’m sorry I haven’t been there for you like you need me to be, like the boys need me to be. I was up again last night, in the middle of the night. I was standing right here in the kitchen. I had papers spread all over the counter, trying to come up with a new organization chart for the church and feeling really overwhelmed and confused. And I thought about killing myself.’”

Kayla Stoecklein wasn’t prepared for her husband’s confession.

“My stomach sank. He was looking for compassion and connection, but I had nothing left to give. I was running on empty. I had told him I was tired and overwhelmed, and now he was telling me that he was just going to leave me? ‘Andrew, you know that is the most selfish thing you could ever do, right? What about me? What about the boys? Andrew, you couldn’t do that to the boys. They love you so much. How far did you think about it? Did you google it? Did you research how to do it? You wouldn’t actually do that, right?

“I was mad, confused, and stunned. He was being vulnerable and honest, and my mind wasn’t in a healthy enough place to handle it,” she said.

And her late husband told her that her response wasn’t helpful.

“Kayla, that’s not what you say to someone who is talking about suicide. You need to do some research and come up with something better to say. No, I didn’t google it. No, I don’t know how I would do it. It was just a moment. It was just a passing thought. It was there and then it was gone. And then I put my papers away and went back to bed,’” she recalled her husband saying. “I didn’t believe he would actually kill himself; I was so deeply convinced of this truth, I never brought it up again. That night at the kitchen counter was the one and only time Andrew ever mentioned suicide. This is a regret I will live with for the rest of my life.”

Hindsight

Rebuilding Beautiful
Contributed.

Now four years removed from her husband’s suicide, Kayla Stoecklein has evolved into an outspoken mental health advocate. She is also promoting her second book, Rebuilding Beautiful, published last month, in which she shares how she survived loss and learned how to rebuild a beautiful life without her husband.

“I am still learning how to shake off the shame. I am still learning how to admit that I’m a single mom without giving into the urge to defend myself. To embrace this sharp edge of my story will mean letting go of the strong sense of failure that says I’m a bad person or I did something wrong,” she wrote.

In two extended interviews with The Christian Post, she also revisited the events that led up to her husband’s suicide and candidly shared deeper insights into the experience that she hopes will serve as a cautionary tale for churches and their leaders.

She explained that even though she doesn’t think she’ll understand everything her husband went through with spiritual warfare, she believes it was important to share that part of his struggle.

“He wasn't able to be free from the spiritual warfare that was happening within him. And I'll never understand. You know, I'll never fully understand it. But I felt like it was really important for me to include that in the book because it was such a real part of our experience,” she said.

In Fear Gone Wild, Kayla Stoecklein recounted how just before her husband was supposed to deliver the Easter message in 2018, a security guard found him at the church suffering from a panic attack where he “was hyperventilating so badly that he was starting to lose sensation in his hands and feet.” Once it subsided he was still allowed to go onstage and preach.

When asked why the church allowed this to happen, she said, “I don't know, I honestly don't know.”

“I think we're so wrapped up in it and so close to it, and [it was] put the church first for so long. But I'm standing in the green room bawling my eyes out, like I can't believe that, he was just in his office shaking and crying and like totally in a full-on panic attack. And somehow he's on stage and he's speaking and this doesn't feel right. It doesn't feel right,” she told CP. “I had been saying that we need to get you home. This is not OK. You've been struggling with these things. You can't keep living like this. So, it was just a few weeks after that that [the] sabbatical started.”

She said she tried to support her husband as much as she could during his struggle but at the time, “there wasn't a lot of space for my opinions.”

“Andrew had a really strong personality. And there just wasn't a lot of space for anybody else. I loved him to pieces, and I thought purpose and meaning and being his support system and doing things that I could do to support him, like bringing him lunch in between services and having dinner ready for him after service and being there on the front row at his first service and taking care of the kids and doing the things that I could do,” she said.

The structure of the church, she said, also gave the young lead pastor a lot of power which she doesn’t think her husband was fully prepared to manage after the death of his father.

“It was a nondenominational church and so he's in control. [For] a lot of nondenominational churches, there's a board, but the lead pastor is in charge of the board. So they still have the final say,” she said.

A lot of the decision on stepping back from ministry as he struggled with his mental health, she explained, required her husband’s support.

“I think it had to be up to Andrew to take that sabbatical, and when he was in the hospital, [with] this major panic attack that led him there, I think he finally realized that I think you guys are right. I think it's time to like, stop and try to figure this out,” she noted.

Kayla Stoecklein said she believes the elder board of Inland Hills Church really tried to help her husband but “I think it was just hard.”

It was a challenge, she believes, partly due to her late husband’s youth and being thrust into leading a 4,000-member church with a staff of nearly 40 and hundreds of volunteers without enough experience in leadership.

“When you're young and you have a lot to prove and you have a huge ego, a lot of people that are young in any profession are trying to prove themselves and they're working out of their own ego,” she said. “It can feel like a bit of a bulldozer, that no one's going to get in my way and I'm going to do what I feel like is right.

“I hope and I think if he was still [alive today], I'd say that those are some of the things that he would have been able to grow out of or move past and truly work on,” she said. “I think Andrew had a lot to prove. He would listen to his mom and really went to her for a lot of things. I struggled to find my place.”

Accountability

Looking back at her experience in church leadership, Kayla Stoecklein firmly supports the development of governance structures that ensure grounded and healthy leadership.

“You can get so wrapped up in it (ministry leadership) so having people that can help you stand out and see the bigger picture and see the things that are important [is a healthy approach],” she told CP. “I think oftentimes people that are in ministry put the church before everything else and that was our story.”

She said her husband didn’t take a lot of time off from work after his father passed away in 2015, and she believes he modeled that work ethic after his parents.

“After Andrew's dad passed away, he only took two weeks off and then he went back and he preached a series on Heaven. He should have taken a year off, he should have taken way more time off. He probably shouldn't have become the lead pastor at such a young age, they should have hired somebody,” she said. “And they could have helped raise him up into that position in a healthier way, that slower way, in a way where he had more time to learn.

“It's hard to learn when you're at the top of an organization. I feel like there's a huge learning curve and there's a lot to catch up on when you just get thrust into a position overnight. You can only work out of your gifting … until you get exhausted,” she added.

Kayla Stoecklein believes that churches would likely be healthier if they are led by a team and not a lead pastor who functions like a CEO with a high concentration of power and responsibilities.

“I feel like there needs to be a shift in the way that lead pastors … [are allowed to] become the most important person. And it's shifting to more of a team atmosphere, an atmosphere that we're all in this together. And we're all here to serve one another,” she said. “It takes a whole body, we need the whole body, we need every part. And a pastor is just a small part of the whole body.”

Senior associate leader of Bethel Church and co-founder of Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry in Redding, California, Kris Vallotton, shared last year that many years ago, he, too, “personally battled with suicidal thoughts.” He said that examining suicide from a spiritual angle is a legitimate approach to healing.

“The truth is that there are two sides to suicide. In some cases, suicide is rooted in the soul. In others, it begins as a spiritual attack,” he wrote in a post on his website.

“Suicidal temptations that begin in the soul are, in many cases, the result of unprocessed pain. When you experience trauma or situations in life that make you feel like your heart could quite literally break under the weight of your depression, taking your life and going to Heaven can be a tempting escape.”

He also explained that people experiencing suicidal thoughts stemming from spiritual attacks are not uncommon and can be overcome with the power of God.

“If a suicidal spirit is talking to you, I want to encourage you to remind yourself of who God says you are, and the condition He says you’re in now. I know what it feels like when all seems lost, to not see a way out of your agony, and to feel like nobody in the world can sympathize with your struggle," he said. "The truth is, God is holding you this very moment and He will not leave you or abandon you. He can identify with your struggle because He, too, was tempted with suicide. He can empathize with your profound pain because He experienced it all on the cross.”

Contact: leonardo.blair@christianpost.com Follow Leonardo Blair on Twitter: @leoblair Follow Leonardo Blair on Facebook: LeoBlairChristianPost

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