Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

The Unthinkable

I recently ran across a five year old, but still relevant, article on clergy suicide. We wish those two words were never used together, but those who are in ministry understand the reality.

The article (which is now behind a pay wall) observes:

Those who counsel pastors say Christian culture…creates the perfect environment for depression. Pastors suffer in silence, unwilling or unable to seek help or even talk about it. Sometimes they leave the ministry. Occasionally the result is the unthinkable.

When pastors fail to live up to demands imposed by themselves or others, they often “turn their frustration back on themselves,” leading to self-doubt and feelings of failure and hopelessness, said Fred Smoot, executive director of Emory Clergy Care in Duluth, Georgia, which provides pastoral care to 1,200 United Methodist ministers in Georgia.

I know the pressures. I know the culture. And I know the depression. And therefore I know as well how blessed I’ve been to have been befriended by other pastors who understand the pastoral world. To have such friendships is key to survival in ministry.

But I’ve also been blessed with caring congregants. Shortly after the high-profile suicide of a pastor here in Orlando, one member of the church I pastor determined to love me in a very concrete and highly unusual way. She found me at Starbucks and said she wanted to ask me a very hard question. She looked me in the eyes and asked if I’d had thoughts of killing myself.

That question is a bit shocking, and blunt, and necessary. I might have lied to her (I didn’t) but even if I had, the fact that someone loved me enough to ask the question might have been sufficient to draw me out.

Anything I post which calls for caring for pastors is going to come across as self-serving. But knowing the challenges of pastoral ministry, I know how important it is for pastors to be loved in hard ways like this. I know how important it is for people to pray for a pastor’s emotional health. And I know how important it is for pastors to seek out and find friends.

Note: Some time ago, a pastoral acquaintance (‘friend’ would be claiming too much) of mine, Petros Roukas, did take his own life. The sermon at the memorial service was preached by Dr. Bryan Chapell, then of Covenant Seminary. It is a paradigm for how one ought to handle such difficult situations. It’s a wonderful sermon which I commend to all. The text is found here. I can no longer find the audio on-line, but I have posted it in my dropbox, though I cannot guarantee how long it will remain.

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2 Comments

  1. Suzanne

    The compelling realism of Dr. Chapell”s memorial message is a much needed reminder of why we MUST uphold our leaders in prayer. The message gave me new insight into the meaning of “blessed are the poor in spirit.”
    As always, I appreciate the transparency provided in your blogs.

  2. Adri

    I’ve read Chapell’s sermon more than once; it’s excellent, and, strangely somehow, comforting even if one has never had thoughts of taking one’s own life.

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