Longform

Reverend Brian Henderson is keeping the faith

You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.

— Leviticus 18:22

And there followed him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and the young men laid hold on him.

— Mark 14:51

Reverend Brian Henderson is sitting stiffly in a hospital bed, awaiting another visit from the doctor who will ask if he still wants to kill himself.

Henderson is unshaven, his eyes red. He hardly slept the night before and does not know what he will tell the doctor when the time comes. Typically the picture of clean, confident leadership as the minister of Calvary Baptist Church, Henderson is known as the man with the answers, the cornerstone of support and guidance for both his congregation and his family. But Henderson has a secret, a secret he's held on to for decades, one that threatens the life he knows, one that threatens to make him take his own life. And now, in March 2012, the secret has started to leak out.

Please, God, take these thoughts away from me, Henderson prays, as he's prayed countless times before. But despite Henderson's unfailing belief in a loving creator, God has left his requests unfulfilled.

His muscles clench and his heartbeat soars. He seems caught in a lose-lose situation, with no way out. For years he's repressed this desire, assuring himself that he would grow out of it as he's gone through seminary school, marriage, the birth of three children and twelve years as a Baptist minister. But he has not grown out of it, and the idea of his secret becoming public both exhilarates and terrifies Brian Henderson.

Please God, take this away from me.

Time passes. Snow falls outside the window as cars race home for the evening. A once overwhelming schedule filled with responsibilities has slowed to a crawl. An attractive nurse takes Henderson's blood pressure and temperature, but he hardly notices.

Finally there is a knock at the door. But instead of the doctor who has been checking up on him during his two days on suicide watch, it is the therapist whom Henderson has been seeing for the past few years.

Taking a seat at the foot of the hospital bed, the therapist looks at Henderson firmly, but with care. He knows the secret, as do a few others — a small list that recently grew to include Henderson's wife. That makes Henderson wince whenever he thinks of it. He readjusts himself on the bed, uncomfortable in his own skin.

"You've got two options, Brian," the therapist says, striking the delicate balance between empathy and confrontation required when dealing with a suicidal person. "You're either going to kill yourself through taking your life, or you're simply going to die inside if you don't come to terms with this."

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There is almost no data on the number of ministers suffering from depression in this country, for the same reason there is very little data on the number of closeted gays and lesbians: You can't poll people who don't want to talk.

"I conduct a lot of surveys with pastors, and it is extremely difficult getting them to even respond," says Matthew Stanford, a professor of neurology and psychology at Baylor University who studies how Christian societies react to mental illness. "Even if the survey is anonymous, honestly answering questions like 'Have you ever thought of killing yourself?'...they're concerned that their response is going to get out and taint them in some way.

"I hear a lot of pastors say they're alone, that they have no one to talk to," Stanford continues. "It's a very isolating position, because they are held to a different standard. They're expected to be the symbol of the church, have the perfect family, perfect life, and not be tempted in the same way that others are. If they're struggling, they're seen as a failure."

While serious depression is often the result of not expressing grief, the suicide that can follow in extreme cases often communicates a clear message to other people suffering from depression. Having a friend or family member commit suicide dramatically increases the possibility that you will consider it an option. So does having someone in your field of work end his life. A recent outbreak of pastor suicides in the Carolinas (six attempted, four successful) has sparked a debate surrounding the vulnerability of church leaders and the lack of resources they can access.

"If you're depressed and work at Microsoft, they probably have a full-time counselor who works there. But if you work as a pastor and say to the church elders that you're depressed, you could lose your job," says Stanford. "So many pastors are afraid to tell their congregants that they have fears and doubts. There's that stress of being put on a pedestal, putting these unrealistic standards on someone that drives them to never be vulnerable."

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Josiah Hesse