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When depression leads pastors to suicide
One out of four pastors is depressed
Dec 01, 2009
“What kind of personal pain would cause a 42-year-old pastor to abandon his family, his calling and even life itself? Members of a Baptist church in Hickory, North Carolina, are asking that question after their pastor committed suicide in his parked car in September.
Those who counsel pastors say Christian culture, especially southern evangelicalism, 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.
Experts say clergy suicide is a rare outcome to a common problem. But Baptists in the Carolinas are soul searching after a spate of suicides and suicide attempts by pastors. In addition to the recent suicide of David Treadway, two pastors in North Carolina attempted suicide and three in South Carolina died by suicide, all in the past four years”. THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY
What would cause a Christian Minister, Pastor or Cleric to take their lives? On the basic level, the reasons would be the same as for anyone who makes the conscious (or unconscious) decision to end their lives. Despair seems to be the bottom line and is simply a condition a human being arrives at after they have spent years perhaps in denial over their reality, choices or personal failures or circumstances in life.
Let’s get this out of the way. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Easy to say and certainly those who “would never think of such a thing…” can see the truth in that. However, when lost in the fog of despair, it seems like THE solution to a permanent problem. And in answer to the impolite question most would ask me is…yes I have. I find that almost everyone I have asked about this topic say “yes” at one time in life or another. So the thought is common among humans evidently.
I know several COG ministers who have committed suicide over the years of WCG drama, scandal and disappointments. They are not listed on the sites that note such things. More have ended their lives than those whose lives ended by suicide are noted. The men I knew put on a good front. Intelligent guys with hearts for ministry and their congregations. Men, who as young men or even kids found hope in the teachings of the WCG. It took years to realize that the more you looked at the details of the “Big Picture,” the more disheartened you could become. These men drank themselves to death. I believe they meant to and of course the fog of drink to delay the pain felt makes getting out of the hole of despair almost impossible.
Over the years as a Pastor, several members committed suicide. One very nice fellow came to see me to talk, drove around the block I lived on, never stopped and drove home to end his life. I did have one man hang himself from his CB tower, rather unsuccessfully. He hung enough to not be able to get out of hanging but did not hang enough to die. When EMS rescued him, he called me to say he wanted me to remarry him and his wife. I guess he had a revelation hanging around on that tower. Probably a common thing but few get to undo what they have done.
I always quoted the Old Testament account of Saul falling on his sword. It simply says “and the battle went hard against him…” That explains it all. That is the definition of despair.
At any rate, I don’t intend this to be a study in anything. I would like to express my own thoughts, based on my own experiences on why a minister would commit suicide.
A. First of all, because or she is human first. Those who minister well and sincerely until the despair and disillusionment hit really want to teach and encourage others in the hope that lies within them. That was my goal and no matter how many times I am told “but you were one of them,” I know my heart very well. I am not speaking of the nut cases who see themselves in the pages of the Bible, both Old Testament and New. These men are mentally ill and need meds not contributions. But I spare you. The pastoral types I knew were generally and probably healer types all their lives. They tended to put others first and themselves last. They probably had a temperament very close to ENFP (Extrovert, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceptive) Job descriptions for these types are along the lines of “pastors, social workers, ministers and yes, even massage therapists…I’m not making this up) They have a heart for pastoring no matter the denomination.
The problem can be is that they are idealists and get totally befuddled over the concept of “I wouldn’t do that to you, why did you do that to me?” They believe the best until they can’t and then when they can’t, they go into denial hoping against hope time will heal or change what they see but have a hard time accepting. They are also good followers IF they believe in the leadership. They also tend to be the leaders worst critic when they wake up.
About 20 years ago I ended myself up in a counseling program for depression. One morning my little group of equally depressed types were told to show up at the gym. When there, we could see there was a regular wooden pallet in the middle of the gym floor and we all were simply told to all make a way to get on the pallet and get our feet off the floor for 30 seconds. There were almost too many humans for a bit too little of a pallet. At any rate, feeling like fools, we all did as asked. When finished, we went back to the group session and the leader asked us one question. “Where did you find yourself on the pallet?” It hit me right between the eyes and I got it. Some were smack in the middle assuring their place. You can’t fall off the middle. We were all scattered from the center of the pallet to the edges. Guess where I was? Yep…on the very edge, hardly able to stay on, arms around all I could embrace to hold them on with me. I have been doing that all my life. Caretakers when in despair tend to feel life is all or nothing.
B. Ministers take their lives because they have to live a double life. By the way, this is true of every member as well. I have met NOT ONE MINISTER who did not have two ways of being once we got acquainted. There is the way one thinks they are supposed to be and that bangs up against the way one also is. Both are sincere and both exist in everyone actually. When you join a church, you put on the mask and hope to keep the other side at bay. I don’t believe we have “an evil side,” just the “other side.” ….the human side. Every minister I know and knew has topics that he feels strongly about but has to balance that by saying, “but if I teach that, I’ll lose my job.”
The problem is that while members in a congregation demand forgiveness and understanding when they fall short, that grace is not generally extended to the minister who is just like them. The minister tends to be the sacrificial goat and the member expects him/her to be and do what they generally have no intention of being or doing. Its why we don’t think it’s such a big deal for the Pope to forgive the guy who tried to kill him. HE”S THE POPE! HE HAS TO FORGIVE HIM! THE POPE IS A PROFESSIONAL FORGIVER!
It’s the rejection and despair of having to pray others won’t find them out that leads to ending one’s life at times. I at least have to credit the Apostle Paul in his writings in Romans with admitting to this duality and pain. Paul was a very guilt and shame ridden human being. Conveniently we aren’t told by him what the thorn in the flesh was or what it was that he should have done, but couldn’t do but I understand it. You only let out the fact that there is a struggle. But the nature of the struggle or the despair it causes is often just something that most don’t trust to share about. Admitting one’s struggle to some types can also be a form of suicide. You know…”twas not a foe who did deride for that I could endure…..”
C. Ministers take their lives literally because when their faith tanks no matter the reason, there doesn’t seem to be anything else. It has been their career, job, calling and inspiration for decades. Finding out or suspecting one has wasted a life teaching the wrong thing, or being with the wrong group, or sacrificing for the wrong cause can bring despair. Or as one of my counselors said once when he first met me….”Wow…you got fired by God!” At the time, it wasn’t funny.
D. Ministers take their lives because of their sense of personal failure and also letting others down. I always admired those who really seemed not to give a flying leap about what others think of them, and that is probably better mental health, but most pastor types do care. It goes with the turf and their idealism and healer tendencies. Most genuine ministers, regardless of what denomination of which one Jesus and God really like, are healers by nature. These healer/idealist types are NOT the ones who rise to high position in organizations. They are not the type who declare themselves to be Prophets, Priests, Apostles or Witnesses. Many men who rise to these positions do so on the backs of the healers and idealists. Healers and idealists do not become gurus or dictators. When things fall apart, they generally and quietly slip away unnoticed. Some are overtaken by their idealism gone bad. They may lack the balance to accept certain realities in the world of people. I find the solution to this sometimes misplaced idealism to be curable by abiding by the Four Agreements by Ruiz.
The Four Agreements are:
1. Be Impeccable with your Word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the Word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your Word in the direction of truth and love.
2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
3. Don’t Make Assumptions
Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
4. Always Do Your Best
Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.
Well, this is not all there is to this topic, but some of the more personal reasons, in my experience and even in my own struggle with all the losses and change that has exploded my own idealism and caretaking tendencies. It’s a big topic. We’re all in this together even if we can’t quite figure out anymore what “this” is.
The Spa beckons and I have to go rub someone the right way for a change..Gotta go….:)