(Feature photo courtesy of Kayla Stoecklein and family photo courtesy of Facebook)
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS CONTENT FOR MATURE AUDIENCES ONLY
Passing On The Mantle
An Interview with Kayla Stoecklein
By Sarah Komisky
“I never asked for this.” Those words, written long ago, seem to be the present theme in Kayla Stoecklein’s story. Simple. Honest. Human. That’s Kayla. Look at her words and they’ll grip you. Make you cry. Remind you it’s OK to not be OK. 2018 was the year that marked Kayla’s life like no other. Her husband, Andrew Stoecklein, who pastored Inland Hills Church, died by suicide after fighting an intense battle of anxiety and depression. A little over a year later, that phrase has come back to her. Although it is woven with pain, Kayla has opened her hands to it and discovered the beauty and hope it can offer to herself and to others. This interview is a glimpse into that experience as Kayla remembers Andrew, shares his legacy on advocating mental health, and opens up on her own journey as the mantle has been passed to her.
Sarah: I wanted to honor your husband’s legacy and just talk about who he was and how you want other people to know him and his story. So share a little bit about who Andrew was.
Kayla: I met Andrew my sophomore year at Vanguard University. Right away, I just knew he was different. He was very driven. He wasn’t messing around, like he knew where he was headed and he ran fast towards it. He actually was going to be a graphic design major. His sophomore year he had to be a graphic design major and then in his sophomore year, he just had this special moment with God and he just felt called to ministry. So he switched his major and started pursuing that. And, basically, his junior year he moved back to Chino and became the Junior high pastor at his parents’ church. And that’s when I met him, right about that time.
Just very passionate about ministry and about the local church. He was more of a serious person. So if he was in a crowd, he wouldn’t have been the most fun, energetic person. He would have been the guy that you’re sitting on the couch having a good conversation with. He could be funny, he could be silly, but he was a little bit more serious. He was more introverted as well. He just had a small circle of friends and probably spent more time with family then he did with his friends. He worked hard and was really gifted. I mean, he was an incredibly gifted communicator on and off the stage. So gifted at teaching the Bible and he would never use any notes. And he was just smack dab in the middle of the calling God had for him, and he was doing a great job. He loved to surf, snowboard, and was athletic. He was also very handy at home. So good at everything, well-rounded guy, and he just had this drive for excellence.
Sarah: I’ve heard your story, so take us back to that place where you first got into ministry. What did that look like?
Kayla: We got married in 2010, and we actually lived in Seattle for a little bit. He was a high school pastor at a church up in Seattle and it was a quick turn around. We didn’t love the weather, and it was cold and cloudy all the time, so we moved back only after 6 months over there. And right when we moved back in the fall 2011, Andrew started working at his parent’s church. His parents had started the church when he was three. He had worked there before we moved to Seattle, and we took off for our own little adventure. And then he came back, and he became the Creative Arts Director there. And he only did that job for a little bit because just a few months later, his dad was diagnosed with leukemia. And it was a blindside. His dad was a really healthy man and our church was just shaken. So Andrew stepped up to the plate. He was only twenty-three pretty much running the church with his dad from this little tiny hospital room in Cedars-Sinai in L.A. It was a four-year battle with leukemia, and it was up and down. At one point, his dad was bound to a wheelchair. A few months before his dad passed away, we had this really special service at church. His dad had an actual baton that he had Andrew’s name engraved on and the date and he handed it to Andrew, and Andrew became the lead pastor. That was 2015.
Andrew’s heart was so for the church that he hardly took any time off to grieve. He took two weeks off and then came back and did this incredible series on heaven. He wanted to lead the church through their pain and he cared a lot more about them than his own grief. He just kept going fast and hard. He took a little sabbatical every summer, but he would still be working, looking forward. For three years, he was the lead pastor.
The fall of 2017 is when things kind of changed. He started having panic attacks. We had a stalker issue in our family and it really sparked this sense of fear in him. They were happening 2-3 times a week – very debilitating. There wasn’t much I can do to help. At first we thought it was his thyroid. From October to April, we were trying to figure out what was going on and after all the bloodwork, the doctors said it wasn’t his thyroid. And instead of Andrew’s panic attacks getting better, they were getting worse. It got so bad right before the Easter service in 2018, the security guard found him on the bathroom floor in a full blown panic attack minutes before he was supposed to be on stage. By the grace of God, he was able to do all the services, and by the next week he ended up in the hospital. And that’s when we said, ‘OK, we need to get to the bottom of what is going on in your body, you’re suffering, and we can’t live like this anymore.’ So we had the board over at our house and we decided to put him on a sabbatical. A few weeks into his sabbatical, he was seeing a psychiatrist and that’s when he was diagnosed with depression. I’ll never forget sitting in the psychiatrist office and the psychiatrist said: Your husband has depression. And I was shocked. I didn’t say anything. We just walked to the car quietly and got in. And I turned to him and said how did we end up here? This incredible man who led our church through so much, this invincible, amazing person had depression, and I felt like he was unstoppable.
Sarah: What would you say to somebody who’s in this place as a caregiver, processing what’s happening, this new diagnosis, and this new world that you kind of recognize, but not fully. It’s very different when you hear a diagnosis of your loved one. So maybe talk about that for a minute.
Kayla: I think I was just so shocked, and was so busy with my kids. I think I might have been in denial too. The doctor said he was on the low end of the spectrum, that he just needed to rest. So my biggest regret is just not trying to understand it better. I have this degree in psychology, but I still should have been reading books and doing research and trying to understand what he was going through and asking him questions and I didn’t do a good job of that. I kind of just left it up to him and his doctors to figure it out. I was a support system for him at home, and I was caring for him, creating a margin for him to do what he needed to do to rest and get better. I put no pressure on him to help me with the kids or work or help me around the house. And that was my way for caring for him. But as a loved one, it’s so hard. It’s like you’re living with a completely different person, at least in my case, with Andrew. It was kind of like his personality traits were magnified in a way [making it] so hard to know when it was mental illness/depression Andrew or normal Andrew. His mood was very unpredictable. Some days he would be happy, some days sad, and some days he would be angry, and I just kind of never knew what I was going to get. So I think, just be patient and empathetic and understanding. Let them be in their feelings. Ask questions about how they’re feeling, and why they’re feeling that way, and seek to understand instead of criticize. I think we so often minimize mental illness and think it’s something people can shake off, or pray away, or that it’s not real. I didn’t realize the gravity of what we were up against, and just how real it was for him. So I think just allow them to feel like they can talk about their feelings without shame.
We went to counseling for two hours together every week, so that was the biggest support system that we had. He was seeing a psychiatrist every other week. I was just so tired; I had a two year old, a four year old, a five year old, and a sick husband. We were doing this for seven years. We had 4 years of leukemia, and then 3 years of learning how to take care, take over, and lead a church. So I was operating from a place of exhaustion. Our counselor called it co-burdening. I think I had a dose of what he was going through as well, so I wasn’t able to get the support that I personally needed, and it all happened really fast. There is a really big learning curve with depression, and we only had from April to August.
Sarah: You said that you learned that it was important to listen and to be empathetic. In the church, we don’t want to have those conversations and it could be scary and uncomfortable. And it can be many different things, but it’s absolutely needed. So maybe talk about why that is so important?
Kayla: I think a lot of people silently struggle in the dark because they’re ashamed and they’re afraid to talk about how they’re actually doing. And that’s why sometimes suicides happen and it seems like they happen out of the blue. The problem is they were probably struggling on their own, and they just didn’t tell anybody. So, I think that’s the case. And a lot of times, I think especially for people in ministry and for leaders, it’s very difficult for them to be honest on the state of their mental health because they’re afraid of losing their job, their position, and respect. I think for Andrew – I remember we had gone down to our lifeguard Tower 52 in Newport Beach over the summer and prayed. And I had written this Instagram post. I wanted to say [in the post] that we were praying for healing for his depression and anxiety, and he didn’t want me to post it. I think there is this fear that people are going to judge you and it’s so the opposite. Vulnerability is one of the most beautiful things that we can do. It’s contagious and, when we are vulnerable, it allows other people to be vulnerable. I’ve just seen that talking about my own experience with depression and grief. Sympathy says I care about you, but empathy asks the questions, can I sit with you? How can I serve you? How can I lighten your load? Empathy is an action. It’s like sitting with somebody and seeing what life is like from their point of view and asking questions. Questions can change the game and offer solutions maybe people haven’t thought about before. And especially if someone is struggling with suicide. Another one of my main regrets is that Andrew talked about suicide one time, and I didn’t take it seriously. So I think taking any talk of suicide seriously and reaching out to the suicide hotline, or the crisis text line, or counselors, or psychiatrists, or therapists.
Also, telling more people. If your loved one tells you they’re struggling, call their parents, your parents, your friends, tell more people so it’s not the two of you doing it alone. Mental illness needs a team. It’s not something just a husband and wife can do together, or a friend and another friend can do together. You just so need to be surrounded by support because it’s so hard to be the loved one that’s walking alongside somebody, and it’s so exhausting because you’re dealing with emotions. It’s very different than any physical illness.
Sarah: I think sometimes we can also dismiss the spiritual warfare aspect. You brought that up in another interview when you were talking about your husband and what you were dealing with. So why do you think knowing about having good spiritual health is also important?
Kayla: Yeah, so I think sometimes it’s both. Sometimes we can make mental illness too spiritual where we think it’s something we can pray away, or if you’re not close enough to God, then you wouldn’t be struggling. And, it’s so wrong. It’s not the result of an underlying sin issue, of not praying enough, of not reading your Bible enough. It’s not there. But also, for all of us, spiritual warfare is real and we are fighting a real battle. We definitely did have spiritual warfare amplified when Andrew was struggling, and it was very real for him. It’s hard to know how much of that is mental illness and how much of that is spiritual warfare. I think we have a real enemy that’s after us, but also there is mental illness where your brain is actually sick, and it’s not the enemy. So I think it’s a mixture of both, and for us, it was both.
Sarah: I want to go back to that place where Andrew came back from his sabbatical and he did this series “Hot Mess” on mental health. When I was listening to an interview, you were saying he was being awakened, himself, to the epidemic of others who were struggling with these issues. And he courageously became a voice for others on this important subject. I really think he pioneered the path, especially for pastors and church leaders, where it previously wasn’t happening. As someone who really devoted himself to others, what did it mean for Andrew to preach that series and be an advocate for mental health as a leader, as a pastor?
Kayla: He was so passionate about it. He was excited to get back to work and to give this series. He just really wanted to help people and he was using his own experiences, and he was being very, very vulnerable. It was powerful because it wasn’t something that pastors were doing. He really was one of the first in our area, that I knew of, that was willing to talk about mental health from the stage. He was really excited to talk about it. He gave out the suicide hotline number and, suicide statistics, and talked about mental health facts, and he was still fighting it. He said he was only 65% when he went back to work, so he wasn’t 100%. He wasn’t fully better, but the doctors thought going back to work would be better for his mental health than too much time away from work. So he was really preaching from a place of pain still, and speaking from a place of still [being] in it, and still going through it. And that’s what vulnerability is. I mean courage is sharing where you’ve been, but vulnerability is sharing where you are.
The response was so powerful. The church was flooded. People were sitting on the floor. They were so excited to have him back. They gave him a standing ovation. He had the church’s support. The church was so supportive of him taking a break and coming back and sharing about mental health. Mental illness is such a public health crisis. It’s like one in 4 people struggle. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in people 10 to 34 [years old] and suicide is the highest that it’s been since the Great Depression. I think that’s why it struck a chord, and it’s such this taboo thing and it still is. So many Christians have it wrong to think it’s something that you can just pray away when it is an actual real physical illness.
Sarah: I liked what you posted on Instagram in light of when you received the news about Jarrid Wilson, and you said, “Pastors are people too.” Talk about what those simple words meant to you in putting out that post in light of everything that is going on out in the world?
Kayla: There was another post that made the post that post. This person had posted a post and it was just so insensitive… basically saying if you’re pastor and you’re struggling, you shouldn’t be a pastor. There should be higher standards for people to be a pastors. It made me mad, and I kind of posted that post as a response to that, to stand up for people that were hurting, and stand up for pastors. And say it’s OK to struggle and, actually, please tell us about your struggles. And pastors aren’t superhuman – they’re human. There’s never going to be a perfect pastor, so encourage your pastor to talk about their experiences. Create space in the church where that’s admired, and where we applaud pastors when they’re being real. I think there is time for pastors to take some time off, but I think it’s also important to note that mental illness shouldn’t disqualify anyone from ministry. Like if someone had cancer and wanted to work, we would let them work.
We put pastors on a pedestal and think they are exempt from mental illness. They are just as human as the rest of us and need just as much empathy as the rest of us. And we need to pray for them. I think there’s a lot of pressure to put up this persona that you have it all together. And I think that’s social media too. It’s this week after week struggle to keep up and outdo yourself. And make sure attendance stays up, giving stays up, and make sure that your relevant, you wear the right clothes. You have to be Instagram quotable, look a certain way, workout, and have muscles. There’s just so much pressure.
Sarah: I think that was well said. And I think you’re an incredible writer. So, every time you post something, I’m like, ‘wow that is so refreshing and transparent and something I’ve appreciated.’ So what has that meant? I know you have been blogging and posting. Talk about that journey that you’ve been on using that platform to write and to be able to express and process your own pain and grief.
Kayla: It just kind of happened naturally. We already had a blog in place (godsgotthis.com). We started it when Andrew’s dad was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2011 as a way to communicate the leukemia journey with our church. So I pretty much took to the blog right away. I wrote Andrew a letter, and the letter went viral and spread all over the world. And I think it was surprising for a lot of people because when someone dies by suicide, there’s so much shame saying the word suicide. You put a lot of shame on talking about suicide, and a lot of times there’s a lot of blame on the person that died. You say committed suicide when it shouldn’t even be committed suicide. You put all this shame and blame on the person who died. By writing him a letter and saying, ‘I’m so sorry that this happened to you, and I’m not blaming you for doing it.’ I think that surprised a lot of people.
And I just kept on writing him letters. And it was therapeutic for me, and it was a way for me to process my grief from my pain. I also saw how God was using it. I was getting messages and e-mails all the time. All the messages made this fire that I already had inside of me burn even hotter and more intensely. I feel like it’s been this living, breathing journal – both of them, the blog and my social media. It’s very raw, very real. I’ve seen the way God has used it to share their stories too, and bring mental health in the light.
Writing was not something I really did before. I felt like a few years ago, and I actually had a conversation with Andrew, I had felt like God had told me I was going to write a book. I used to wake up at 4:30 every morning. Andrew was working, and I was a stay-at-home mom and it was the only quiet time by myself. In those quiet hours, I felt God telling me to write a book. So I had talked to Andrew about it, and he was like, ‘That’s great, but it’s not the right time. We’re doing this church, we have little kids, I definitely think you should do that, but now’s not the right time.’ God had planted the seed for that a few years ago. And then after he died and I was blogging and writing, authors started reaching out to me, and agencies started reaching out to me and saying I think you’re a gifted writer. So God made it really clear that that is what He would call me to do. So I actually have been writing a book this past year, and I just turned in my manuscript a few weeks ago. It will come out next year sometime. It’s definitely been a therapeutic process for me. The most painful, painful, painful thing I’ve ever done. I typed it out myself. I mean, I’m sitting at my computer typing, and tears are streaming down my face. Having to sit in the pain and in the book, it’s some of the most intense things you can write about, but it’s been really, really healing. It’s been a gift that God has brought out in the most painful season of my life. God has given me this gift of communication through words that I didn’t know that I had, but He had planted the seed.
Slowly, stepping into whatever He has. I’m saying those brave ‘yeses’ to those things I feel that He’s calling me to. But I mean, it’s such a growing, learning, scary journey. I mean, I’m doing what Andrew was doing, but on a greater level. He was speaking to thousands at our local church and a voice for our community. And I’m carrying that same mantle. But, that mantle was taken off his shoulders and put onto mine in an even greater way, a bigger platform. So for me, going from being supportive, behind scenes, maybe do an announcement every once in awhile, to being the person giving a full message, the person writing a book, and being the mouth piece for God is such a wild ride.