When the Pastor Wants to Die: My Story of Hurt and Healing this Mental Health Awareness Month

I have started and stopped this piece more times than I can count. The words have been hard to come by and I’ve asked myself so many times if the vulnerability is worth the risk.

It is.

I’m done with the silence.

I’m done with the fear of judgment.

I’m done with the shame. 

And I’m DONE confusing suffering in silence with faithfulness to God.

I write this for 11% of you who will recognize yourselves in what I write. And for the 20% of pastors who are often desperately trying to care for their own mental health. I write this for leaders in our churches and denominations who can be a part of the solution, but only if you’ll talk about it. I write for those of you who don’t show up in any survey, but who have been hurt deeply by the church. But most of all I’m writing this so I can sleep at night knowing I’ve done all I can to leave things better than I found them.

I am an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament. I have suffered spiritual abuse. And in the depths of that pain, I have wanted to die.

There are lots of different connotations to the term “spiritual abuse,” so what I’m describing here is when those with spiritual authority misuse power andharm those for whom they should be caring. It is done under the guise of advancing the gospel, kingdom, or the church itself, but it bears no semblance to the ministry or teachings of Jesus Christ. In the last few years, we’ve heard a variety of stories of spiritual abuse – everything from priests preying on children, to pastors manipulating women into sex, to whole churches hiding and protecting cultures of bullying and intimidation.

This is my story.

I was pastoring an upstart church. It was an incredibly demanding call, but also the most fulfilling time of my life. I was growing. The church was growing. And we were partnering with our community to make things better. Any pastor can tell you, it really doesn’t get much better than that.

From the outside, everything looked amazing, and fun, and Spirit-filled, but behind closed doors, things were anything but. Over the course of months, I was subjected to manipulation, gas-lighting and pettiness from those who had taken vows to care for me. Week after week, their words and actions were aimed at my character, gifts, and core values. The pain was very real and very frequent, but also hard to accurately describe. If spiritual abuse is an arrow, and the soul, a vessel, then it’s not only the impact, the breaking of the skin that hurts. It’s the puncturing of the soul and the gradual draining of the spirit that over time does the most damage.

What I soon learned, though, is that there are actually two wounds that come with spiritual abuse. The first comes when someone with spiritual authority uses it to hurt you with their words or actions. Then comes the second wound, which is by far the worse. That’s when I started wounding yourself, repeating all the untrue things being said about me. I offered these unholy prayers to God:

I’m not doing things the right way.

I have failed to show any leadership, drive, or discernment as a pastor.

I should be working harder.

It’s not enough.

And all that meant I wasn’t enough. The weird part: any objective measurement of my work and the church’s success easily countered these claims. I was the pastor of a growing, welcoming, caring church and had just worked myself into not one, but two bouts of pneumonia. And yet, I could not stop these self-deprecating thoughts from taking hold. The two wounds of spiritual abuse turned had left me both wounded by others and wounding myself.

So it was that, one a warm Monday night, after a particularly rough closed-door berating, I sat in my suburban backyard and downed half a bottle of bourbon. My wife sat there for hours while I poured drinks and poured out the hurt, confusion, and anger that had consumed me for weeks. That night, for the first time in my life, at the ripe old age of 37, I got drunk. I mean clumsily climbing up the stairs on hands and feet, and passing out in our guest bed D-R-U-N-K. I got up the next day and went back to doing the Lord’s work, hoping that the loop of soul-wringing comments in my mind were lies, but fearing they were all too true.

Eventually the fear won out. I was depressed, barely functioning through the day, and would come home virtually catatonic at night. I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t playing with my kids or spending time with my wife. The only emotion I could express was rage. I felt like a pathetic excuse for a husband and father, and though my heart ached for things to be different, I just couldn’t make it happen. I spent nights praying for it to stop and strategizing a way to set it all right. But, finally I ran out of prayers and maneuvers. And with them, I lost hope.

A few days later, thanks to a patient and persistent wife, I found myself sitting in a counselor’s office unsure of how to tell the stranger sitting across from me the darkest secret I had ever kept. The gas-lighting and belittling had worked. I belived – no, knew – that I was the problem here, and I would always be the problem. With no affect on my face or light in my eyes, I finally voiced the one thought that had consumed me for weeks:

“I don’t want to live.”

The unceasing dread of another spiritually abusive encounter wouldn’t let me go. I had no hope, joy, or purpose. So I yearned, and yes, I prayed, for my own death. I had done the math, and I could trade my husk of a life for my death benefits. I could escape the unending hurt and not leave my family financially destitute. I could give my wife a chance at a better partner and my kids a chance at a better dad, and they deserved that second chance after all they had been through because of me.

I would sit in my children’s rooms, in the dark, while they slept, just hoping they would forgive me, and maybe even understand one day that this really was for the best. When I would start thinking about writing them letters telling them how much I loved them and how proud I was of them, I’d go to our guest room and wail into a pillow so I didn’t wake anyone up. The tears would stop when I would start weighing options. Maybe I could skip the letters and make it look like a car wreck or some other accident, so my family wouldn’t have to carry the baggage of me taking my own life? I would go back and forth weighing all the pro’s and con’s into the early morning hours until I would give up and go to bed wondering if someone as broken as me had earned the right to die peacefully in his sleep.

I went all in on my counseling and began taking anti-depressants. I was taking the right steps. But, here’s the truth; counselors aren’t magicians, and drugs aren’t a silver bullet. Wholeness was still a long way off. Every day I got out of bed hearing the voice of depression, feeling disappointed that I had to keep going. I thought about dying all the time.

Keeping this secret from my congregants just made the desire grow stronger. I’m sure some of the secrecy was motivated by my shame, but more than, it was fear that kept me silent. If I opened up to them about my depression and suicidal ideation, I was terrified I’d let slip why I was feeling that way: that I’d divulge too much about the spiritual abuse I was enduring week after week.

I wasn’t afraid that those in authority over me would fire me in a fit of rage. I was worried that if my congregants knew what was happening behind the scenes, they’d either leave the church, or even worse, confront those perpetuating the abuse. The latter kept me up at night; if anyone found out and brought it into the light, then it most certainly would intensify. I was uncertain about a lot during this time, but I knew one thing: I couldn’t make it through another escalation alive.

However, I also knew I couldn’t leave a church filled with congregants that I loved deeply. I took vows to be their pastor, and they took vows to support me and my ministry (they took on caring for my family free of charge). They were in this with me.

So, I couldn’t risk telling anyone and I also couldn’t leave. I kept the secret, feeling like a fraud all the while. Feeling so very hurt, but putting on that Sunday morning smile. Talking about light of resurrection, while all I knew was the darkness of the tomb. Claiming the sure and certain promises of the God of healing, but knowing only the pain of hurt in God’s church.

I talked with co-workers, and what they told me about their own similar experiences came to pass for me, as well: over time, the brow-beatings became less frequent. I stabilized. I found joy in the world and within myself once again. I even “graduated” from counseling after about one year. Things would still flare up, but they felt manageable, even in the middle of a pandemic. We found new ways to worship. I was fulfilling my call, in part, by protesting in the streets after George Floyd was murdered. The church was feeding hundreds of families every month through a pop-up food pantry. I felt renewed in my ministry.

Then came Fall. I’ve written about the difficult events of those days here and here. By the time December rolled around, I had been assaulted on church property, pushed out of my call, and banned from the building a day after turning in my six-week notice. Along with my family, I lost a community that we put our lives into. I watched as the leadership with impunity blew through the polity safeguards meant to protect me, while those with the power to stop it stayed silent. I was forced to relive these horrible days over and again; as leaders invoked “confidentiality” to avoid the questions of “why?” it was left to me to tend to the grieving.

I felt thrown away. I felt like no one believed me when I described to them how the church had treated me after the assault. I felt like I had let down people I deeply loved, counting on me to baptize their kids and bury their parents. Life is not without its wounds – for any of us – but it felt like these wounds were too deep to ever heal.

I did my best to pretend like the timing of all this was great: we’d get to enjoy Christmas with none of the normal Yuletide stress that come with being a pastor. So, I went full Clark Griswold until the self-deception and adrenaline ran out. I relived the trauma of being struck, and began to hear the chorus of self-deprecation grow louder each day:

I hadn’t done things the right way.

If only I had worked harder…

And now there was a new verse in this self-critical chant, because the church’s spiritual leaders met my demands for safety with freshly-sharpened spiritual arrows:

I failed to meet the needs of the church or community during the pandemic.

I didn’t grow the church, at least not fast enough.

I had forced them to micromanage me.

I got hit because I did something wrong.

Just like before, the first wound came from the the people who were supposed to care for me. The second wound, from my growing belief that somehow, they had to be true. I couldn’t make sense of months of cruelty otherwise. Looking back on that now, it was absurd that these negative thoughts should take hold of me. I was not a terrible, dumb person who baited people into hitting me. And the church had cobbled together a food pantry to feed dozens of families every month. We worshiped outdoors so people could congregate safely. And I’ve known for years that micromanaging, like shit, only flows downhill. The people at the bottom aren’t “forcing” anything; the gravity between those on high and the rest of us does all the work. And yet the spiritual abuse wouldn’t allow me to see what was actually happening or hold on to what I knew was true.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but when the lies of spiritual abuse infiltrated my head and my heart this time around, I dissociated from myself. It was like there were two Brandon’s – one getting the crap kicked out of him by people who were supposed to support and guide him, and the other, “Pastor Brandon” trying to care for him like he was a congregant suffering in a toxic workplace. I shouldn’t have been surprised about what came next, but it caught me off-guard again.

I had been fending off those feelings of not wanting to live for weeks already. And this time, it went further. I got attached to an idea about how I would end my life. I couldn’t get it out of my head: romanticizing how good it would feel to lay this burden down. Then one day, I found myself on the internet researching how I might actually go about this last act – like I was looking up a recipe or a DIY video. But at some point, with my eyes stuck to the screen and my mind processing through the logistics, dread overcame me as I realized the gravity of what I was doing. I slammed the laptop shut and started washing dishes, trying to normalize what was clearly not just some ordinary moment on a Tuesday.

I told my wife, and then my counselor, all of it a few days later. I laid myself bare before both of them, and they didn’t shame me or pepper me with questions, or tell me I had so much to live for. They just made sure I was OK, made me promise I’d tell them if I wasn’t, and had a lot of hard conversations. My counselor encouraged me to make a list of people I could trust – come hell or high water – and ask them if I could call when things got really dark. I did, and just knowing they knew and were there to support me was a huge relief. When I talked to them on those dark days they didn’t offer solutions or cliches, just friendship and a listening ear. These points of light, small but visible, kept me from from being swallowed by the darkness.

Light continues to break into my world. I can see well enough to continue my journey towards healing and wholeness, but not enough to make sense of the entire landscape or meaning of the journey. So, I’m going to leave a lot of that to you intrepid souls. However, there are a few things I know that I want you to know.

Help is near.

For some of you, my words have struck a little too close for comfort. You might be feeling a little exposed right now, so please hear this: you are not alone, regardless of what your depression is telling you right now. I wish I had reached out for help sooner, but pride and shame kept me from it. If you’re afraid of being judged, print this out and take it with you to show as a reminder that this is not a “you” problem. Go see your primary care doc. Go see a counselor. Just find a friend to talk through all this. And if you’re in crisis right now, remember the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline; they’re caring folks who will talk or text with you in your darkest moments. There’s help today so you can see tomorrow.

My depression and suicidal ideation don’t define me.

They’re apart of me now, but I’m way more than just them, Given what was happening to me, I don’t know that there was any other option than for them to become apart of me and my story. I’m OK with it. They were canaries in the coal mine, letting me know how dangerous the spiritual abuse I was experiencing already was, and warning me about how all this was going to end up if I didn’t do something to protect myself. Now, they absolutely sucked at helping me find good solutions to my pain, but that wasn’t their job. They were only responsible for warning me, and from there my courage, self-respect and core values had to take over to get me out of the spiritual abuse and its effects. So, if you find yourself here, let the canary warn you, but don’t look to it for rational solutions. I mean, it’s a bird, after all.

I’m really glad to be alive.

I’m glad for my wife and my kids. I’m glad for my parents, my family and friends. And I’m really glad for myself. There are still some really hard days, but my kids have both started requesting Pearl Jam and Sturgill Simpson for bedtime songs, I’ve gotten to experience this touch on the arm from my wife that says, “I love you, and we’ve got this,” and blue skies, laughter, seasonal brews, and great authors – like Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, KJ Ramsey, Wendell Berry, and Mary Oliver – have helped me find the beauty in this world again.

These days, it’s hard to believe I wanted to end all of that, but I’m gracious with myself when I start to feel shame. I remind myself that the people who had authority over me don’t anymore. I may be journeying through the dark forest, and though they brought the darkness, one day I’ll find myself on the other side of that tree line in the light of a new day, and they and their darkness will have no place there and then.

Spiritual abuse is very real.

And it takes a variety of forms. Some of it is obvious. A lot of it is not. It happens behind closed doors. It happens with the rubber stamp of committees. It happens in half-truths and the “need for confidentiality.” It exploits, if not flouts, the checks and balances meant to head it off. It spares no one: pastors, staff, laypersons, Nones and Dones. And it’s hard to talk about, so check in on your people, especially those who are or were active in church. And if you are or were a “church person” who feels trapped in this deep hurt, I promise you it doesn’t have to stay that way.

It hurts like hell. Even today, the pain clouds the events of those days, and I still have to let them emerge from the fog. It’s not worse than any other kind of abuse. But, if you’re like me, and faith has been the hub into which all the other spokes of your life intersect, spiritual abuse will so damage that hub that most of the spokes will be left detached; there’s nothing to anchor them. It has turned a pastor who preached a personal God in the here and now into a guy who’s lucky to catch a glimpse of God in the there and then. I’m not content to leave things like this. I think we all need a hub to hold the spokes of experience in place even as they turn around us. But the corrosive damage cause by the sins of toxicity and spiritual abuse are going to take time to fix. That’s my task in these days, and I want to invite you into the hard world of meaning-making with me, regardless of what that looks like for you.

I’ve heard people excuse abuse – whether mine or others’ – as “how the sausage is made” or “the cost of doing business” in the church.

All of that is absolute horseshit. 

And if you need to know why people won’t come to your church, you don’t need scholars to dissect your theology or consultants to change your worship music or preaching style. You just need to slow down and sit with what that “sausage making” mentality. We’re telling people, “You know all those things you hate about the way the world works? We do the same here. You think it’s gruesome out there? It’s no better here. You think your bosses can hurt you out there, wait till they do it in here, and they’re wearing a clerical collar.

Too often, the only way the church is different is that we practice brutality, baptize it, and claim it’s the will of the Lord, and *spoiler* if that’s true, no one needs that one more day a week, especially not when it might cost them so much.

If the church is to be a place of healing, hope, renewal, and resurrection, there is work to be done – cleaning up the toxicity, and correcting the misuse of power that always comes with it. The question is – as it has always been – if the church is brave, imaginative, and faithful enough to do it.

Even if it fails again to do this work, I hope you, whoever you are, find the help you need to overcome the deep hurt of spiritual abuse, know that you are are worth that care, and find a peace that surpasses understanding. And I hope that we, the hurt and the healing, break through the darkness as points of light, beacons of comfort and hope for one another.

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