Scott Sauls: Pastors must 'fight against isolation' amid uptick in suicide, mental illness

Scott Sauls attends the Q Conference on Wednesday, November 11, 2020
Scott Sauls attends the Q Conference on Wednesday, November 11, 2020 | Q Conference

In a year when the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified feelings of loneliness and anxiety, it’s “essential” for pastors to fight isolation by cultivating true friendships and seeking community, Pastor Scott Sauls said.

Sauls, senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, on Wednesday participated in the “Mental Health + Suicide” session of the 2020 Q&A: A Virtual Townhall event, hosted by Gabe Lyons. 

Sauls said that oftentimes, pastors feel “lonely” within their own communities.”

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“Case in point, 2020,” he said. “You've got this dynamic where reality is 70% of pastors right now around America are looking for another job.”

Because of the pandemic, many pastors feel “ghosted” by their congregations, the pastor said. 

“Our people feel like they're still with us because they see us and hear us from their living rooms, and yet, we just have this complete void of relationship,” he explained. “Oftentimes, people treat the church as a consumer good, [but pastors] see the church as our family ... so the dynamic of loneliness and isolation is amplified in a time like this.”

The current “negativity of environment” is often “taken out” on caregivers like pastors and therapists, Sauls contended.

“It really is the perfect emotional storm right now for pastors,” he said. “Fighting against isolation is utterly essential.”

Sauls said that while he does not struggle with suicidal ideation, he’s personally known fellow pastors who have died by suicide.

“It’s a desperate choice,” he said. “People don't want to be dead, they want to be relieved of whatever they're going through that leads them to this place. And for every single pastor that I've known, isolation has been ... the common thread.”

“What all of them shared is that they had more fans and followers than they had friends,” said Sauls, adding that these pastors “didn’t actually have friends” but instead had a “counterfeit relationship with a public platform, social media fame,” and “putting the highlight reel out there for the world.”

“And so the other common thread besides isolation was a ton of admirers,” he said, adding that oftentimes, pastors are “falling apart” “behind the scenes.”

The bestselling author admitted that he has historically struggled with anxiety and depression “because of the ministry.” While hearing of other pastors who commit suicide was at first “jarring,” he’s no longer “surprised” when it happens.

“I just try to comfort myself with the promises of the Gospel, that these guys aren’t judged by the last act that they committed, but by the last act that Jesus committed of being crucified,” he said. “Their judgment day is in the past, it was settled long before they were even born.”

Reading the Bible, taking notes, and then reading them back brings about rest and restoration, Sauls said. 

“Sometimes the best way to pray is to get less and less and less creative,” he said. “The purpose of prayer is not to bend God's will to ours; it’s to bend our will to His. ... And so I find that incredibly centering, and there's no pressure in it. Yeah, because it's guided by the one who taught us to pray.”

To care for their pastors, Sauls encouraged congregation members to “realize how important the ministry of presence is.”

“Showing up is powerful,” he said. “Just people showing up is a way to communicate, ‘you are not alone. We're with you in this.’”

Second, “if a pastor does have the courage to self disclose and be vulnerable,” Sauls said to consider it a “privilege, not a burden.”

“Your pastor is not going to choose everybody; you've actually been chosen in the same way that Christ has chosen the 12 [disciples],” the pastor said. “Consider it an honor when your pastor also needs shepherding and care, and then give it.”

“We don’t need to be fixed by our congregants,” he clarified. “But what we do need from our people is, ‘I see you, I know your job is to see me. I volunteer to see you.’”

“Pastors need to be found,” he said, later adding: “It is not good to be alone.”

Statistics show that 50% of pastors feel unable to meet the needs of the job; 90% feel inadequately trained to deal with ministry demands; 45.5% of pastors say they have experienced depression or burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from ministry; and 70% of pastors do not have someone they consider a close friend.

For the session on mental health, Sauls was joined by Dr. Curt Thompson, a psychiatrist, speaker and author, along with speaker Rebekah Lyons. 

Lyons urged those struggling to “go to someone and risk vulnerability,” but stressed that “real vulnerability will cost you something.” 

Thompson said that every individual has the need to be “seen, soothed, and safe,” and these things require the presence of another human being. Churches, he said, must have structures in place to care for the mental and emotional health of their pastors. 

“My hope, as we come out of this time of COVID, is that we discover ... that pastors need to be cared for,” he said.

“We can't give what we don't have,” Thompson charged. “And I would hope that within the next six to nine months, we can have a fresh new way of thinking about how are we going to systematically intentionally take care of pastors, so that the church members don't have to.”

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