Why are we painfully seeing more suicides in the ministry? Why does it seem like a “taboo” topic to bring up? Why does it seem that people are fearful to tell the truth when it comes to someone taking their own life?
Honestly, it angers me greatly every time I hear of another pastor getting to a place where they believe the best solution, if not the only solution, to their pain is to end their life! I painfully read of yet another one this week. Hear me clearly on this. I have zero anger toward those taking their lives and plenty of anger toward the powers of darkness that relentlessly magnify and turn up the volume on the pain and feelings of helplessness, spiraling down a dark staircase whose bottom step is hopelessness. “Why don’t they think of their families?” many ask as if they selfishly decided to do something not even considering the consequences to others they love.
It’s not as selfish as you think
The truth is they DO consider their families and loved ones. They obsess over it! However, due to feeling like there is no way out and that everyone would be better off without them and the burden they feel they are to others, they make a conscious decision to solve the problem of their pain by ending their life. It is certainly the worst decision they could make. However, from my experience working with people as a Sr. Pastor for over 36 years, I’ve come to understand 2 things more clearly. #1. Few people understand the potential vocational pain from a life of ministry. Seminaries and Bible schools fail miserably in preparing ministerial candidates for real world ministerial life other than sermon preparation. Every pastor tells me this. Pastoring is FAR more than parsing and preaching. #2. Few people understand the depth and grip of the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness leading someone to take their own life to stop the pain. As a Sr. Pastor, at least to me, the pain cascading from suicide is the worst type of pain to see, feel from others, and experience as you attempt to minister to a family in loss.
In addition to being a Sr. Pastor, I also serve as a Law Enforcement chaplain to 4 local agencies. The most difficult part of what I do is knocking on a door and delivering the worst possible news anyone can deliver…that a loved one is not coming home due to a tragic accident. The worst of the worst is delivering the news that a loved one is not coming home as a result of taking their own life. I painfully recall a Sunday morning before church, being called upon, as the Chaplain for one of our Police Departments, to accompany one of the officers I knew to a home and deliver the news that their teenager, who was missing, had been found dead resulting from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. After delivering that news in the most compassionate way we could, the level of grief and pain I saw, felt, and heard gushing from hearts ripped apart in that home, haunts me to this day. It was a sharp wound. It was a deep wound. It was an unexpected wound. Their pain and the reaction to that news was the worst I have experienced both as a pastor and LE chaplain. It affects us. As Pastors, we are exposed to unnatural amounts of pain and suffering as we try our best to help those in difficult situations.
Pastoring has its Moments!
As I teach on this topic to both Pastors and those in Law Enforcement, I mention the 2 types of pain potentially making a ministerial career unbearable. It is the pain resulting FROM a career in ministry and the pain we take INTO a career in ministry. Let me also be clear on one thing, I absolutely love being a pastor and have for over 36 years. I love people and love ministering to them and with them. I love the sheep! However, and you pastors know what I mean when I say, “Pastoring has its moments!” It will break you. It will wear you out. It will run you into the ground. It will take away your joy. It will turn the people you serve into your enemies. It will ruin your family, possibly your marriage, and draw you to cross moral boundaries you thought were not possible…IF…you don’t know how to deal with the compounding emotional pain and trauma. It’s not always easy; and to intimate that a few simple steps could save a life seems ludicrous. But they can. They may be simple but that doesn’t make them easy. However, the earlier you implement them, the greater your chances of survival are! Looking back over my career, it has primarily been these steps, even when I hadn’t recognized them that helped me pastor my first church for 13yrs and my current church for 23yrs. No matter where you are in your ministerial career, you must implement them!
Pastoral Legacy Framework
The three steps? Disconnect. Distract. De-stress. This is a framework I developed while working with LE officers to equip them to be able to deal with the emotional trauma resulting from all they see, hear, and experience. I’ve adapted it for pastors because I saw the glaring similarities between a LE career and a pastoral career. For those of us who regularly deal with others pain, and to differing degrees, our own pain, we must first learn to Disconnect from the emotional power-drain of our career. Like a truck carrying a heavy load, we MUST be able to find neutral, disengaging from the weight that takes so much of our energy! If we fail to do this, we may very well end up like a rechargeable battery that has become too depleted too many times to even take a further charge. Then….bad things can and do happen.
But we can’t just Disconnect and do nothing. Doing nothing takes our minds back to the things that drain us! To truly Disconnect we need Distractions. Not just any distraction. We’ve seen too many in the ministry get caught up in distractions which ruin their lives and those whom they love. What we need is life GIVING distractions. To truly Disconnect, we must change the channel and to do that we need life-giving Distractions. We need to be able to change hats. We need to be able to put time into something completely unrelated to the ministry; something that puts life IN rather than taking it out. Alcohol doesn’t put life back in. An affair doesn’t put life back in. Prescription or non-prescription drugs don’t put life back in. Gambling doesn’t put life back in. Pornography doesn’t put life back in. While these things and many other things may supply a short-term distracting thrill, they are certainly not life-giving. Make something. Learn something. Build something. Sing something. (maybe not) Swim, bike, run! Color. Cook. Plant. Play. Hike. There are a host of things one can do to put life back in and assuage the accumulation of vocational pain that left to itself will grow into something that can’t be ignored.
Only if we first Disconnect, then Distract will we be able to finally De-Stress! To use a familiar acronym with a different meaning, we need TOT. In the entrepreneurial world it means Time On Task. With Time On Task, we’re told, we can accomplish almost anything. However, in this instance, I am talking about Time OFF Task. We need enough Time OFF Task to be able to De-
Stress. If we get antsy, and fidgety in our Distractions, we will not stay there long enough to De-Stress. How long do we need? It really depends on the individual and how much trauma or stress you’ve allowed to pile up. In all honesty, your body and mind will tell you when you’ve had enough to be able to re-engage the gear-box. You will feel invigorated. That is what life-giving distractions do for you. You don’t have to hide life-giving distractions. They’ll help you love more and preach better!
The Bonus is the Best!
The bonus is that after you have correctly executed the discipline of, what I call my 3-“D” Pastoral Legacy Framework, you will eventually get to execute the greatest “D” of all and that is Dismount. I can’t think of a better thing to be able to do, after a life-time of serving others than, at the right time, and on your terms, being able to Dismount your ministerial career! We’ve seen and heard of too many in stressful careers of serving others who dismounted their careers in shame and defeat. We hear of far too many PASTORS taking their own lives. It hurts us all. Why are there more and more pastors taking their own lives? I “hypothesize” that it is the result of not knowing how to process or deal with the inevitable vocational pain that is part and parcel of a life in pastoral ministry, theirs and yours. The pain you were never told that you and your family would have to endure. The pain your Seminary or Bible school never told you about, but should have! Jesus will certainly help us with our pain, but we have to cooperate with Him as He works to heal us from the inside out. It just may take a 3-D approach as well.
I implore you, if you are in the ministry to do all you can to master the 3 “D’s” early in your career. Then, pass them on to the one you’ll be passing the baton to, because, truthfully, every pastor is an “interim” pastor!
Pastor John Adams has been pastoring New Life Church in Sandusky, Ohio for over 23 years. For more information on Emotional Survival for Pastors and the 3 “D” Pastoral Legacy Framework, visit: PastorJohn.net