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.

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