Suicide & Depression in the Church: How to Lead After Loss

Suicide & Depression in the Church: How to Lead After Loss by Andrea Hamilton

Have you ever felt inadequate as a worship leader?

I was hired 8 years ago as a part-time worship leader at a church in Southern California named Inland Hills. This was my first church job, and I could tell I had a lot of growing to do. I soon found out I loved it even more than I’d imagined, as I learned and grew alongside a staff of gifted and loving people. 

I continually felt humbled and honored at the opportunity, but thankfully as my experience grew, that initial feeling of inadequacy waned a little. 

After 20 years of leading Inland Hills, the founding pastor Dave was diagnosed with leukemia. It rocked our church. We held prayer nights, had guest speakers, and planned services with very open hands. It was heartbreaking to watch cancer treatments put him in a wheelchair, and then see his family and the church grieve his death at age 55. 

At the memorial, our worship team wept as we watched a video of his life – and the familiar feeling of inadequacy returned as I felt the weight of leading through this huge loss. In my grief, I just tried to be present in my community and do my best to point people to God in worship.

We started a new season: our Creative Arts pastor Andrew Stoeklein was Dave’s eldest son and the obvious choice to take over. He’d stepped in a lot during Dave’s battle, carrying the same mantle as his dad had: reaching people that were far from God. He was amazing at it. He shouldn’t have had to start this soon, grieving his dad and being in his late 20’s, yet God was so present in the transition.

Soon after, a lot of spiritual warfare began to come against our church staff. 

We were deliberately being targeted by the enemy, in any and every way he could manage. Panic attacks, serious illnesses, car accidents, unexpected expenses, a stalker, robberies, nightmares… I could make a big list here, but if you’ve been a Christian any length of time, you may already know how it feels to be under attack. 

I believe that part of our role as worship leaders is discerning what’s happening both in our churches and in the unseen realm. To read the moment – like in worship when we feel compelled to create more space for another chorus or say something specific from the Bible. Or like when we just KNOW someone needs encouragement. To have our ears tuned to the Holy Spirit.

Or in Inland Hills’ case, to recognize when the enemy comes against your church on every front. During this season, I often woke up early with an uneasy feeling. I’d flip on the lights and write in my prayer journal. One day I wrote, “Lord why is it so hard to pray for Drew?” and then tried my best to write a prayer. 

3 years after he took the baton from his dad to lead the church, Andrew died from suicide.

I write it this way because that’s how it felt: shocking, confusing, and sudden. No. No way… I was speechless. I laid in bed crying – how do you process losing your 30-year-old pastor? To suicide? 

Andrew died on a Friday and was pronounced on a Saturday. People were going to show up Sunday, and we had to tell them. I don’t think I slept. Our elders fumbled words as they told the congregation our dear pastor had taken his own life. 

We didn’t hold normal church service, but we did give everyone space and time to process, pray, sing if they wanted, and sign up for free group counseling at a nearby therapist’s office.

I was a grieving worship leader all over again…

Wishing I could have done more. Prayed more, had Drew and Kayla over more, been there and ran into the room and saved him. Then somehow rewind time further and saved Dave. 

I didn’t want these horrible sentences in the story of our dear church. I wanted to stop this confusing heartbreak that shook a city. 

And I’m supposed to lead from stage in this unprecedented season? At this point in the story, I don’t know of anyone who WOULD feel adequate, but I knew that it was God’s job to be God – it was my job to just keep giving Him worship.

In the next few months, a lot of eyes were on Inland Hills, especially on our leaders. We did our best to be there for the people hit the hardest – which were often the people Drew’s ministry had helped the most: people who were fighting mental illness, or serious doubt, or hurt from previous churches. We may have known him better, but at no fault of their own, some of their hearts were even more vulnerable.

It was painful, but I’m so very proud of my coworkers for showing up and loving well. We bonded together from going through this grief, and the event ended up sparking conversation globally about how to care for hurting pastors.

I can honestly say that God supernaturally sustained Inland Hills. I thank God that I’m still here along with many of the same incredible (resilient!) staff, and the vast majority of the same attendees on Sundays, plus a surprising amount of newcomers.

We defied all kinds of church statistics. Honestly – only God could do this. Our church is so… alive. 

Here we are a year and a half later with a new pastor and executive pastor who have big hearts, fresh energy, and huge vision. It’s clear that this is GOD’S CHURCH, and not even what felt like the literal gates of hell could prevail against it! 

We can’t always predict the changes in ministry. And if you’re like me, you didn’t imagine that it would be quite this hard. Yet, I’m sure you also relate to the deep sense of calling, purpose, and yes even JOY that keeps sprouting back up in the soil of our hearts as we continue to declare His goodness.

 I’ve learned how to rely on God when I’m inadequate. If you’re a worship leader going through something tragic or hard in your church community, remember that God loves His Church. He will always take care of it; our job is to partner with and follow Him – questions, wounds and all. 

I hope we never forget the magnitude of what we do on Sundays. We’re training God’s people to endure until the end and worship God in their trials. To declare the victory Jesus won for us and invite more of His Spirit into their lives. And to bring Him all our brokenness, inadequacy, pain, and everything else, because He really can handle it.

My church is living proof of that. 


For questions and comments, please feel free to reach out in the comment section below or email us at support@worshiponline.com –  and for anyone who may be experiencing thoughts of suicide or knows someone in need, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-8255.

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