Pastor Andrew Stoecklein, Inland Hills Church and Our Problem with Perfectionism

by Dr. Carla Cornelius , Christian Examiner Contributor |

(PHOTO: INLAND HILLS CHURCH)Andrew Stoecklein, late lead pastor at Inland Hills Church in Chino, California.

No matter the magnitude or frequency of our achievements; no matter how many testimonies we have shared or witnessed, we remain at our core, fragile! In an instant, we can turn from happy to sad, confident to inadequate, hopeful to doubting, healthy to sick. No one can argue with the fact that our physical and psychological well-being is precarious. Only spiritual salvation—a gift from God to all who believe in what Jesus did to assure their salvation, is secure.

A case in point is the prophet Elijah who scored a jaw-dropping spiritual triumph against Queen Jezebel and her idol-worshipping prophets on Mount Carmel. He thereby demonstrated to all Israel, who had been led astray by the worship of false gods, that the God whom Elijah served was alive and all-powerful. Yet, less than 48 hours following this, he was plunged into despair due to Jezebel's threat on his life—"he prayed that he might die, and said, 'It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers'" (1 Kings 18:19-40; 19:1-7). Significantly, what followed was a 40-day retreat in which Elijah was induced to sleep and fed supernaturally by the angel of the Lord. We are told why this was necessary—"because the journey is too great for you."

On the scant evidence of news reports, Pastor Andrew Stoecklein seemed as if he was the "perfect man," or else seriously striving to be so. As a dutiful son, in the wake of his father's death, he took over the mantle of leading the church. His wife, Kayla, spoke of his devotion to the church, and spoke some strangely prophetic words to the congregation in August—"He would have kept on going, going and going and going. It would probably have cost him his life."

As a caring husband, his wife described him as having the knack of knowing "how to crack just the right joke to cheer me up when life felt overwhelming." She further testified that he was a hands-on Dad—evident from "the daddy dates, the donut runs and the soccer games...."

Could it be that Pastor Stoecklein was a man who gave so much to others that it cost him his health (the reason for his recent sabbatical) and that his anxiety was in part fuelled by a deep-seated need to fulfill all expectations? Might it have been the case that on return to his pastorate after a four-month Sabbatical, he realised that he was still not well enough to shoulder the responsibilities, and he felt like an irremediable failure?

The ultimate question would be this—why would someone who seemed to have it all, and whose future seemed so bright, be prepared to relinquish it all with such tragic finality? Speculation aside, there are certain driven personalities who set such high standards for themselves, that if they fail to meet them, they cannot bear the self-recrimination. Life, for them, becomes an endless treadmill of goal-setting and achievement but underneath it all is the fear of not being good enough. Thomas Joiner, Psychologist and author of Why People Die by Suicide (Harvard University Press, 2007), has observed that suicide is fundamentally motivated by either feeling that one is a burden on loved ones or the sense of not belonging. Pastor Stoecklein would probably have viewed his ill health and subsequent dependence on others, combined with his sabbatical, as a sign of weakness and cruel inversion of his care-giving roles as pastor, husband and father. It is said that the members of caring professions are most at risk of suicidal tendencies. Pastoring—"the care of souls"—is no less a part of this admirable, self-sacrificial community. In Depression: The Curse of the Strong (Sheldon Press, 2006), Dr. Tim Cantopher explains the energy depletion and self-blame associated with clinical depression, and cautions patients against allowing their minds to ruminate unchecked on their problems and on the making of any life-changing decisions such as resorting to self-harm.

As Christians, it's easy to forget that it is not God who is the harsh taskmaster, but the voices in our heads speaking lies. These voices must be silenced before they silence us. Some of these voices speak as follows:

  • "You are a failure."
  • "You will never be good enough."
  • "What's the point in going on?"

This negative thinking can be exacerbated by ill physical health, mind-altering drugs, or emotional loss. What we know for sure is that Pastor Stoecklein experienced all three.

In seeking to encourage others to avoid this path, we do not fail to acknowledge that he is not the first, nor will he be the last, believer to experience depression and anxiety, aspects of the human condition which can spiral out of control. For believers, their identity is to be found in Christ, whether or not they are feeling in peak form physically or mentally. Our faith may fail us, but God's faithfulness never will.

After King Solomon dedicated the temple in 2 Chronicles, he prayed for God's mercy upon His people that "...whatever prayer or request is made by any man ..., each knowing his own suffering and his own pain, and stretching out his hands toward this house, then hear from heaven, Your dwelling place, and forgive, and render to each in accordance with all his ways, whose heart You know; for You alone know the hearts of the sons of men" (2 Chronicles 6:29 -30 [AMP]). For those of us survivors who remain to continue life's journey, the message resounds—we are not as strong as we think we are, but we are stronger than we think we are. May Pastor Stoecklein rest in peace, and may all whose lives he touched be strengthened by "the God of all comfort" (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).

If you or anyone you know is at risk of suicide, please seek appropriate help or call your national suicide prevention hotline.

— Dr. Carla Cornelius, Ph.D. gained her doctorate from Trinity School of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana. Her dissertation proposed a biblical model of counselling the suicidal based on the book of Ecclesiastes. Because the causes of suicide are multifactorial, she endeavours to bring a psycho-spiritual perspective to this complex and ever-pressing issue. She is the author of five books including "Culture Detox: Cleansing our minds from toxic thinking," "Captive Daughters: Breaking the chains" and "No Way Out: Keys to avoiding suicide."