Reducing the Rate of Pastoral Suicides

December 17, 2013

Suicide is not a new issue by any means. When a family member of a pastor commits suicide, we’re certainly sad and feel for the pastor and other family members. When a pastor commits suicide, now THAT we don’t expect. It’s a bit more deeply disturbing to most I’ve talked with about it.

We were all shocked and saddened when Rick & Kay Warren’s son, Matthew, committed suicide last April. I’ve been encouraged by the way the Warren’s held on to their faith AND how they’ve admitted to struggling honestly and even publicly. Even though they took a good amount of time out of the spotlight, they revealed themselves from time to time through social media as they processed their pain and loss.

However, the last few months have seen an increase of pastors themselves committing suicide. The most recent to hit the news is last Tuesday’s suicide of Isaac Hunter in Florida. He’s the son of Pastor Joel Hunter of Northland, A Church Distributed. Isaac resigned a year ago as Pastor of Summit Church, a church that had grown to over 5,000 people since he founded it in 2002. The year has been tumultuous and public. His resignation revolved around revelation of an affair and as the ensuing months unfolded, so did more news of domestic violence charges and assertions of his suicidal struggles.

There have been others in the last several weeks: Pastor Teddy Parker Jr. and Pastor Ed Montgomery

Every story has its own nuances and details. It seems likely that there were some significant mental health issues Isaac ( and Teddy & Ed) was struggling with. I’m not claiming that I know the history or circumstances for any of these dear men, nor am I diagnosing them. I don’t think any of us would question that something was happening for anyone’s mental health when despair reaches the point of suicidal thoughts or attempts.

There are lots of reasons anyone gets to this place. Not the least of which has to do with the ongoing and unmanaged issue of prolonged stress. You can read more about this regarding pastors here.

Ultimately, we have to ask: what can we do reduce the rate of pastoral suicides?

This is NOT a simple question, but I want to offer a couple of ideas:

1. Allow ourselves to be people first, before we are “pastor”.

I’ve heard it said in many places that “Pastors don’t get into trouble because they forget that they’re pastors. They get into trouble because they forget that they’re people.”

Remove the invisible Superman cape from your personas. Jesus already died for the Church. Why are you giving your life for it all over again? Let Him be the Shepherd and serve as His assistant. He can take care of things when you’re resting. He really can! Sabbath is good for your soul

Allow others to preach and lessen the expectation of yourself to be “the man (or woman)” every weekend. Slowly scale back your preaching schedule and ask the Lord to give you the right people to develop into this role.

Use your vacation time as it is intended, as down time. Too many of us “invest” our vacations preaching for our friends because “it energizes me.” That’s drawing on false energy for one’s soul. Your family wants you and needs you.

Identify the unrealistic, unspoken expectations that all pastors tend to labor underneath unnecessarily. Accept yourself as a person who struggles with the same issues that your congregants do. You need the same, if not more, support to overcome those struggles. Seek it and submit to it.

2. Address mental and emotional health as a discipleship issue

This is an area of life that the “C”hurch originally was seen as the primary caretaker of. Before we had “asylums” and “mental institutions”, the Church was the caretaker of what were seen as disturbed souls. Now we’re learning so much more about neuroscience, the brain and mental health.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, the Church is behind the curve, taking the easy road of brushing off mental illness as a “spiritual issue”. Instead, let’s get up to speed with the times, and the gifts of brilliant minds that God has created to help us get here and be able to resource the people we meet who struggle.

As a Pastor, I highly encourage you to read The Emotionally Healthy Church and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Pete Scazzero. The thesis is “you cannot be spiritually mature and emotionally immature; you cannot separate your spiritual maturity from your emotional maturity”. This speaks directly to much of what we are seeing happen with Christians as well as pastors.

At the church I pastor, we now teach Emotionally Healthy Spirituality in our discipleship process. We consider it a core piece of how we help people grow spiritually.

An organization called Mental Health First Aid USA has launched a certification program in many cities that is often offered for free. The class is called “Mental Health First Aid”. You can see their website to check for classes near you. In my city, our local Park District hosts the class every month. Recently, I church engaged them and we are now hosting the class for our city once every 3-4 months. We provide the room, they provide the instructors.

Any pastor has learned and knows that we can lead the proverbial horse to water, but we can’t make them drink. Well, just so happens, the same is true for us! Again, we are people before we are pastors.

What else can be done to reduce the rate of pastoral suicides? I’d love to hear your ideas!

Getting Our Arms Around Rick Warren’s Story

April 11, 2013

I am daily amazed and inspired at how Rick Warren is being real and yet still faith-full amidst his grief over the suicide of his 27 year old son, Matthew Warren. He could run and hide, but that’s not Rick. He could shut the world off and remain private. Nobody would blame him.

Instead, he’s chosen to remain vulnerable and honest about the back story of Matthew’s lifelong struggle with mental illness. I can appreciate his recent tweet and Facebook post that said:

Pastor Rick Warren FB comment

It was Matthew’s story to tell. For me, as my own son has battled mental illness, I’ve been public about it. Many have questioned and criticized. I’ve never published anything without my son’s permission. I would never criticize anyone who has taken the direction the Warren’s took with Matthew’s story.

I’ve gone public because I believe that of all places that should be safe for us to talk about anything, it should be the Church. The unfortunate truth is that we are NOT a safe place to talk about anything, mental illness being one of them.

For some reason, we shun them. We call them crazy, wacko, nuts, weak, off their rocker, _____________, …..

Because we don’t know what to do with them. We don’t take the time to understand. We’ve been taught to believe that it’s all a spiritual issue, not a physical one. Maybe all of the above.

There are a few things any Pastor or church leader can do to help the cause:

1. Be open to learn.

If you’re unfamiliar with the reality of mental illness, admit it. Then educate yourself. More and more, there are some excellent ways to easily learn some basic issues that surround those who struggle with mental illness.

One of the best that I’ve found is a 12 hour class that certifies people who take it in Mental Health First Aid. You can peruse the website for more information and find out about classes in your area.

2. Be open to share.

Many of us actually struggle with mental illness ourselves, but the vast majority of us haven’t told anyone. We’re afraid of the very stigma that we contribute too. We don’t want to be seen as weak or vulnerable or less than.

What would happen if we as leaders began to actually be real about our struggle? You don’t have to broadcast it to the world. Maybe you can start slow. Find a safe place outside the church, maybe with some others pastors you trust, or a counselor you have confidence in. Maybe there’s a support group nearby you.

If you feel that it’s possible for you to do so, share your struggle with your leaders, maybe even your congregation. I know from experience that it’s a huge step. Over time, I’ve found more understanding and appreciation for sharing my struggle. To be clear, there has been some condemnation, rejection and loss of some relationships, but the healing I’ve found, been able to lead in and lead others to, has far outweighed the negative that I’ve waded through.

3. Be open to stand.

Join the conversation. Too many have been critical of the Warren’s for too many reasons. One person and one reason are one too many. People in the Warren’s shoes don’t need pointy fingers. They need loving arms, support, people who will stand with them.

Those who are suffering with mental illness themselves or in their families need people to stand WITH them instead of against them. One way you can stand up is to speak out. I addressed a piece of that in the above Point 2. However, another way you can stand with them is to be a proponent of those who struggle.

The Washington Post published an article highlighting how Matthew’s suicide is raising awareness of the need of the mentally ill in the Church. The Newtown shootings and other mass shootings have raised awareness, but not in the Church. Matthew’s story will bring further redemption to this cause in the Church. But how many people have to die in order for issues like these to get the attention they need?

Ultimately, the Church is the hope of the world. But this can only be true as we minister in wholeness, integrity, honesty, compassion and mission. May we be found embracing the Warren’s and all who represent them in greater ways than we ever have.

Rick Warren’s Youngest Son Commits Suicide

April 6, 2013

News has broken this morning of the suicide of the youngest son of Rick & Kay Warren. Rick is the Pastor of Saddleback Church and author of the best-selling “The Purpose Driven Life.”

His wording from an email sent to their congregation at about 10:00 am Pacific time says:

To my dear Saddleback Family,

            Over the past 33 years we’ve been together through every kind of crisis. Kay and I’ve been privileged to hold your hands as you faced a crisis or loss, stand with you at gravesides, and prayed for you when ill. Today, we need your prayer for us.

             No words can express the anguished grief we feel right now. Our youngest son, Matthew, age 27, and a lifelong member of Saddleback, died today.

             You who watched Matthew grow up knew he was an incredibly kind, gentle, and compassionate man. He had a brilliant intellect and a gift for sensing who was most in pain or most uncomfortable in a room. He’d then make a beeline to that person to engage and encourage them.

             But only those closest knew that he struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts. In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided. Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.

             Kay and I often marveled at his courage to keep moving in spite of relentless pain. I’ll never forget how, many years ago, after another approach had failed to give relief, Matthew said, “Dad, I know I’m going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?” but he kept going for another decade.

             Thank you for your love and prayers.  We love you back.

Pastor Rick

My heart, as I’m sure yours as well, just aches for the Warren’s. Our prayers for comfort and peace as they navigate these difficult days are without end.

Rick & Kay are not the first pastor’s family that has endured the stress of a family member with mental illness. They are high profile, and have done a stellar job raising their family under pressure most of us will never endure. They have walked this journey with grace, fortitude and deep commitment to the health of their family.

Someone once said….(I think it was Rick Warren!)….that “God never wastes a hurt.” Experience tells me that part of what will happen in the next days, weeks, months and more will be the heightened awareness of the issue of mental illness.

As a pastor myself who struggles with mental illness (I wrote about that a few weeks ago on my personal blog and will likely do so more on this blog) and who is raising a young man who struggles with mental illness (wrote about that too on my personal blog), I have become a firm believer that the Church can do more and Pastors can do more to help the people we lead who wrestle too silently. They struggle in shame, believing that their illness somehow correlates to their weak faith or some sin in their life.

For that reason, I’m a believer in the “Stand Up For Mental Health” Campaign. I hope more Pastors will join this cause and allow the Lord to use their experience to bring greater health and wholeness to so many who suffer in the shadows.

What Bill Hybels Wants Every Pastor To Know

June 24, 2012

…. how he got into counseling. Yes, you read that right! Bill Hybels really wants you to know that he’s in counseling, and he believes you should be too. I happen to agree with Bill.

Did you know they actually require counselors to be in therapy in order to become a counselor, because you can’t give away what you don’t have? Seems to make sense.

How much more important for pastors! We’re dealing with people’s eternity! And often the way we get there is helping them deal emotionally in healthy ways. Yet, most of us don’t know how either, and need just as much help as our people do.

I encourage you to watch, listen, pray, discern. Enjoy!

Holding Fast

February 4, 2009

Holding FastOne of my practices while I am on a Study & Planning Break is to read at least one book that doesn’t have anything to do with ministry or leadership. I will read a few books while I am on this kind of retreat that are “work” oriented, but reading something “non-work” just stretches and renews me. I just finished this one today and wanted to post a review:

It’s not often a book grabs me by the collar and doesn’t let go until the very end. Nor does one often go past the collar to grab my heart, but Holding Fast by Karen James did just that!

In this true account of three very experienced mountain climbers who lost their lives on Mt. Hood in December of 2006, Karen starts by holding your hand through the beginning of her courtship with Kelly James, her husband, and one of those on that fateful trip.

From the time Karen and Kelly meet until the day she gets the call that Kelly is in trouble on the mountain, I felt like I had become friends with the James’. When that call came in, and when she recounts the last six minute call between she and Kelly (a miraculous connection in that Kelly is stuck injured in a snow cave over two miles in the sky on Mt. Hood), I felt like I was in the story!

What I loved about this book is that Karen is quite vulnerable about her grief over the loss of the love of her life. She takes you into her grief, but doesn’t just leave you there. She also recounts the many ways God met her and their family as they have processed this tragedy.

I highly recommend this book for anyone of any age!

Congregational Grief at Crossroads Cincinnati

December 18, 2008

The topic of how a church body handles grief and loss is HUGE for a Pastor. How a Pastor and his/her leadership handle it makes all the difference in the world.

News comes from Cincinnati this morning about a tragic accident that occurred during a Christmas presentation at Crossroads Church. You can read their statement here.

What is of particular interest and, I believe speaks VOLUMES about how they are handling the circumstance is the connection they are helping their church family make to something called, “Critical Incident Stress Management” (CISM for short). As a Police Chaplain, I’ve received training in CISM, which is an intentional process to help people (in my Chaplain field, it would primarily be first responders, though the process is also extremely helpful to witnesses, such as in this case) work through their shock and grief.

As a pastor having led through tragic events that deeply impact a church family, it’s so critical not only that the Pastor care for the church family and community, but that the Pastor also practice adequate self-care. To lead through times like this is deeply draining!

Read what they placed on their website about CISM here.

You can look further into CISM here.

I commend Crossroads Cincinnati for taking BOLD steps toward helping their community recover from this event! They will go far in seeing healing and recovery take place with their proactivity

When Crisis Comes Home

September 22, 2008

It’s good to be writing again. This is my first post since our city experienced the tragic Metrolink Train Crash back on Friday, September 12. While the crash itself happened right outside our city limits, of the 25 people killed in the wreck, 10 were residents of Simi Valley.

I honestly have mixed feelings about the fact that none of those killed or injured were a part of the congregation I serve as Pastor. I am so grateful that our Church Family can share stories of God’s hand being upon circumstances that would have had a number of them on that very train. For various reasons, they weren’t.

The mixed feelings come in for those that were not spared somehow. I don’t come anywhere near trying to have answers anymore. I used to. At one time, I felt the pressure of having to produce some kind of answer that would somehow save someone from the grief ahead of them in their uncertainty.

Somewhere along the way, I got honest. I started to finally just say, “I am so sorry for your loss. I wish I could take your pain for you. I have no answers.”

I do, however, point people to God. He may not give us our answer today, but someday, we will get it. I believe that beyond cliche or form answer. I believe it to the depths of my very soul. And that’s where I point people.

He’s the Savior, I am not. When I rest my heart in that truth, I am able to navigate crisis becomes a lot differently.

That doesn’t mean that crisis is any easier. When it comes home, everything else adjusts. (Thus, my absence from posting here for a number of days.)

Where the crisis did come home for me was as a friend to Pastors in town and as a Police Chaplain.

As a friend to Pastors, I have a couple of friends who DID lose people in their church and whose congregants were badly injured. I have offered a shoulder and an ear.

As a Police Chaplain, I was not at the scene of the accident, but did get called upon to represent our City in two public gatherings held to memorialize and offer opportunities for people to grieve and mourn. That is a true honor to me.

Being a Chaplain puts me in places behind the scenes that others rarely get to see and experience. Watching City officials grapple with the demands and responsibilities of their leadership while still allowing for their own grief is an interesting place. (Just a quick plug … I am very proud of how our City has responded to and handled this incident.)

Bottom line as it pertains to Pastor For Life …. when crisis comes home, everything else must adjust. You can’t give what you don’t have. Crisis situations demand a lot more giving than everyday life.

If you’re facing tragedy and crisis in your life, be sure to find the people God has placed in your path that YOU can lean on. Give yourself extra time and grace to allow your own mind and soul to wrap itself around what just happened and what continues to unravel over the next days and weeks. It is a process that takes time.

Your Personal Pace, Part 4

August 7, 2008

I don’t want to do this. I really don’t. But I must. It’s where the Lord has me right now, so I must address this part of anyone’s personal pace.

What do you do with your grief and loss? How does that impact your personal pace of life?

It used to be that when I experienced grief and loss, I did my best to “weep with those who” wept, but wouldn’t grieve much because we “don’t grieve as those who have no hope.” Both of those biblical quotes true and poignant …. and so easily misunderstood.

You see, like many of you, I’m a Pastor. Loss and grief is something my people face every day. Over the years, when you don’t have any grasp on what it means to be “blessed” to be someone who “mourns”, you tend to just pull up your boot straps and just move on.

Until, that is, you end up suffering a loss, or a spattering of losses that cause you to emotionally come to a grinding halt. A painful, yet powerful, lesson I’ve learned is that loss and grief must impact your personal pace. If it doesn’t, something’s wrong.

I don’t mean to sound brash or harsh, but having been one who thought others grieving should get over it and move on, I had to learn that if God grieves, so do I grieve. I can grieve now, as the losses occur, or I will grieve them later, more painfully, and maybe at greater cost to my own health.

I mentioned a few sentences back that this is where the Lord has me.

  • Two church member funerals in two weeks
  • Three funerals in a month
  • A case of cancer gone wrong for one lady I pastor (after four surgical procedure in two months to remove masses, now they will do a full mastectomy)
  • A staff member’s uncle who died suddenly this week
  • My son, whose leg is fine and will be stronger, but who is missing much of his 13th Summer
  • A Pastor in my city who hangs on the brink of life in an ICU after a massive brain hemorrhage 10 days ago
  • A man I pastor who survived a quadruple bypass a few months back and was ready to go back to work right when the need for a pacemaker came into his picture.

I now realize that when I face loss and walk through it with the people I lead, it impacts my personal pace. If I don’t allow room for it, I pay for it later. What does it mean to “make room for it”? A few things:

  • I cry when I feel like it.
  • I slow down my schedule to account for the time spent with grieving friends and relatives.
  • I admit to others that I don’t have all the answers.
  • I do my best to give myself grace to not feel “on top of it” all the time.

This is a piece of personal pace that I don’t like, but I believe it’s a really important one. Is there anything you would add to the list of “make room” allowances?

Pastor Greg Laurie’s Son Killed

July 25, 2008

My heart is aching tonight, as I am sure yours is if you are reading this, for Greg Laurie’s family. Greg is the Pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, CA, and the heartbeat behind Harvest Crusades.

His 33 year old son, Christopher, was killed in a car accident today in Riverside. You can read the official statement and even leave condolences here.

This, friends, is the heart and soul of the Christian life …. not how well someone as strong or “stand up” as Greg Laurie and his family will endure through such a tragic loss, but how we grieve through it. I am not sure how much it is really our strength that defines us, but even more so how we grieve and live through mourning that does so.

There is so much more to Jesus’ precious words in Matthew 5, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” than we can imagine. Something deep and more alive than any of us can comprehend about how the Holy Spirit, the Comforter Himself, comes to bring life to us in the midst of death all around.

I encourage you to pray for the Laurie’s and for Harvest Christian Fellowship family as they mourn in a season nobody wanted or could have anticipated.

Help When You Hurt

Who ministers to the Minister when you're hurting? Many do, and they can be found on this listing. Please find a friend in your area and seek the help you need today.
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A Place For You

Many Pastors are not aware that all over the country are a number of places you can retreat to for a number of given reasons or purposes. Find some of them here, get there, and find your pace!
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