Ministers are people who answer God’s call to serve the world, offering the love and hope of the good news of God’s redeeming love. But what happens when a minister of the good news dies from suicide?
How do we wrap our hearts and minds around the suicide of a minister?
The minister who preached love and hope, who confirmed the youth and baptized the babies and buried our dead…is now himself dead.
Some will say the darkness overcame him. Others will say she lost the battle with depression.
What does God say? We look to the sacred text for a word that directs us towards God’s words for us. First, we recognize that we know much more now than the Biblical writers did about how the human brain functions. Second, the field of psychology has evolved over the decades and enhances our understanding of the causes of mental illness. Third, as Christians we view suicide through the lens of mental health in light of the Bible.
We look to the promise of Scripture that “mercy triumphs over judgement” (James 2:13). Also, to view the act of suicide as a sin is to negate the discoveries and advances in the understanding of human psychology of the past century.
Yet, many Christians still believe suicide is a sin. Was she defeated by the angels of darkness? Was he too weak to win another day of life?
Thinking of mental illness in these terms of spiritual or moral failures stigmatizes the person who died (as well as the family members).
When a person dies from a self-inflicted injury as a result of a mental illness, then it is best referred to as a death caused by the disease of mental illness.
A person doesn’t “kill himself” or commit murder by committing suicide, but she is killed by a brain disease.
A person doesn’t lose a spiritual battle when he dies from suicide. She dies because there was not adequate prevention, treatment and recovery from a brain disease. However, even when the disease is treated with the best care available, people can still die from it. Therefore, we need to support advocacy and research to ensure the best care to treat mental illness.
When a minister dies from suicide, he or she does not go to hell.
Jesus’s heart holds him or her close.
And we are left with a huge loss.
We are left with more questions than answers. We are left to wonder how to prevent the death of ministers because of mental illness.
How can the good news and hope of the gospel be shared with those called to serve?
What steps can churches take to prevent clergy suicides?
With the increasing stresses and growing challenges of ministry, the mental well-being of ministers becomes a critical factor in the vitality of congregations.
Ministers’ mental health must be tended to, nurtured and cared for as a witness to God’s love. Often ministers are the first to give care and the last to receive care. Many ministers have what is known as a “servant’s heart,” sacrificing their own well-being in order to provide for the needs of others. This sense of constantly serving others leaves ministers with little energy at the end of the day to meet their own basic needs.
There is an unholy stigma attached to ministers admitting to having a mental illness, creating an unhealthy veil of secrecy and shame. So that ministers and their families most often suffer in silence and alone, without a strong support network.
A minister can be hospitalized in the psychiatric care unit and the church never find out. Why? The minister doesn’t feel safe telling the church she has a mental illness. This silence leaves the minister and the minister’s family to hide in a world of fear and shame. Meanwhile, the disease progresses and the family feels cut off from Christian community because of the secret they carry.
If the minister had a heart attack, instead of a psychotic episode, the church would be informed and hot dishes prepared and prayer chains created. Why do we in the church view heart disease as an acceptable illness, but brain diseases like bipolar are less acceptable?
If we could talk openly about mental illness from the pulpit and in Sunday school and at coffee hour, then we can begin creating safe spaces for people to get support. Being a welcoming church means that people with disabilities are included in church and their lives reflected in worship: prayers, songs, sermons and conversations reflect the reality of mental illness. God invites us to extend mercy and grace to people with mental disabilities and diseases, to love and support them and their families.
If you are part of a community of faith, then see to it that your religious leader has the support she or he needs in order to maintain mental wellness. One simple place to start is to encourage the minister’s practice of self-care.
Ministers often skip their day off because of the difficulty in “shutting off the pastor switch.” Often times, the needs of others overshadow the needs of the minister and the minister’s family. Every minister needs a mental health advocate in the congregation…someone to hold the minister accountable for taking days off and encouraging their spiritual leader to stay mentally healthy.