Suicide, Church Folk and Spiritual Leaders

DepressionAfter hearing the news of a pastor, Teddy Parker, whom I do not know, it was clear to me that I should wait to post anything about it in this forum – first, out of respect for his family and those who knew and loved him; second, because of what it triggered for me on a personal level, I needed a minute.

Hearing stories such as this one, hits way too close to home. I not only ache internally, but it hurts so deeply that the pain becomes physical. As I sat weeping and sorrowful a few thoughts came to mind as I thought about not only this tragedy, but many more people who struggle to keep living – people for whom deciding to live or die is a daily decision; hell, never mind “daily,” but a moment by moment, hour by hour decision.

Relating to Parker, I did not want to assume mental illness played a role, yet I am not surprised as it is now being reported that he perhaps endured years of struggle with mental illness.

As an African American with a historical association and rearing in predominantly African American communities of faith, I was disappointed (not surprised) by a few of the reactions I read.

Most of the responses/reactions I read said things like:

Pray for pastors, they have a hard job

The devil is busy

Congregations/church folks need to take it easy on pastors

Pastors are human just like everybody else.

The above statements are not only lacking, they are also a bit. Let me explain.

“Pray for pastors.” It is easier to say “pastors have a hard job,” and we need to support them, not be a burden them than it is to address issues of mental health care. It is easier to spiritualize issues than to address practical needs. But easier doesn’t equal helpful. As a fellow struggler, many faith filled people sincerely believe that the way healing and wholeness happens is for me to go to church, pray, call on Jesus and trust God to make a way – period! I am not opposed to praying and such, but when that’s where it stops, first it make me want to cuss, then it moves me to educate and enlighten in hopes of dispelling ignorance.

Should we pray for pastors? YES! Should we pray for those who battle, and I do mean battle mental health challenges? Also yes! Is that all we need to do? NO. Will prayer alone keep pastors or anyone else from ending their lives? Not at all!

“The devil is busy.” OK, and the point is what? That’s my first reaction. But beyond that, I am not convinced that the devil had anything to do with this suicide. I believe we need to take a deeper look at reasons why people end their lives. As one who has walked through depressive episodes, I find that there are a host of “spiritual” people who take the easy way out by being hyper spiritual and glossing over real issues – somehow unable to open their minds to the realness of mental illness and mood disorders – medical conditions that need treatment, not statements like “the devil being busy.” Once it is discovered that such phraseologies are impotent, some walk away, abandon the struggler and just stand aloof.

“People need to take it easy on their pastors.” What the hell?! The first problem is that this statement is an indictment on congregations and to say such things in the context of this young pastor’s death is to accuse and make assumptions regarding how his congregation treated him. Second, though I have been in church all my life and have awareness that church folks are a bit trifling and downright cruel and unreasonable at times, there are some things that we as spiritual leaders have to take ownership of – our self care, utilization of the word “no,” refusal to play into being put on pedestals and the like. Perhaps ego won’t let us destroy that beast? Perhaps our passion and drive for ministry and serving God won’t let us quit or take regular breaks? Who really knows?

Pastors are human just like everyone else. This is true – very true, but the fact that there is such a big deal being made over the fact that a “pastor” completed suicide suggests we don’t really believe that. Perhaps a shift in thinking is necessary – the position does not make one less human nor super human.

So in thinking not only about Parker, but about how we relate to each other, more specifically those who endure mental illness, I offer these alternative responses:

1Give people permission and space to say “I’m not ok.”

2. Be a “safe person.” Meaning, when someone musters up courage to bare their souls and expose their hearts, be trustworthy, be loving and nonjudgmental and if you can, resourceful.

3. See pastors as “people who pastor” rather than “pastors who are people.” There is a difference. If pastor was no longer the profession, she/he would still be a person. Experientially I have been a staff minister (paid & volunteer) and in a few instances what I did/my work was important but my person/who I am did not. That’s enough to send anyone over the edge. Value people not simply positions.

4. Don’t assume the worst about people who end their lives. Ending their lives does not make them bad people. They are not selfish people. They are not weak people. They are not crazy people, they are not demon possessed. They are not Hell bound. They are people whose hope ran out, people who tried until they could try no longer. They are people who live with an illness, yes it is an illness, some illness is physical & some illness is mental.  They are people who would have continued to live if they could. And most likely, it hurt them deeply to have to leave those they love.

5. Check in on people. It’s not enough to be aware of a person’s struggle and distance yourself from them, waiting for the next time they reach out to you or if it’s a leader just wait for their faith to kick in. Check in from time to time, ask how they are doing, be a friend.

6. Remember that it is not necessary nor appropriate for you to fill every space or moment with your words. Presence is a priceless gift to offer, just be there.

7. Some situations don’t need a bible verse. Nuff said.

8. The absence of a smile does not equate to the absence of faith, but often an indicator of pain.

9. The presence of a smile does not equate joy and the absence of depressive conditions. Some of us are skilled at putting our smile on like we put on clothing. Not every smiling face is content and at peace, sometimes if appropriate it is good to gently go a little deeper [with a person’s permission of course].

10. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Some will appreciate that because it opens the door for them to share their story, open their hearts and help you with “knowing” more deeply.

11. Never ever never, under any circumstances be trite or offer empty platitudes or clichés. Mental illness for some people, at given points in the struggle, is a matter of life and death.

Well, that’s a long list but not at all extensive, so if you have other things you would add please do so in the comments section. Gone are the days when we can just keep the stigma going regarding mental illness and think it’s ok. Lives are lost because of our silence and refusal to engage the topic. People give up because they feel the need to suffer in silence and hide their truth rather than let people in. We can do better.

Here are just a few resources that might help:

Talking Mental Health in the Black Community (Huff Post Live recording)

Wrestling with God and Depression

Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression – Monica A. Coleman

Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting – Terrie Williams

Hyperbole blog post – Part 1 & Part 2

Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression and Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes – Therese Borchard

Beyond Blue (the blog)

Say Yes to Grace: How to Burn Bright without Burning Out – Kirk Byron Jones

Rest in the Storm: Self-Care Strategies for Clergy and Other Caregivers – Kirk Byron Jones

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Posted on 2013/11, in Faith & Spirituality, Mental Health, Pain, Random, Self Care/Health and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I totally agree with what you have written and it needed to be said. Pastors are put on a pedestal and are looked at as though they can just ‘pray’ whatever ails them away. That is not the case, like you stated. Mental illness should get the same attention as a physical illness, but sadly, it does not. If a person says that they have a heart condition, they are treated accordingly, both by the medical profession and by those who are sympathetic to their condition, not so with the mentally ill. They are still being told to “pull themselves together.” It is not as simple as that, obviously. Because if they could ‘pull themselves together’ I am quite sure that they would.

    “The devil is busy,” mess is just plain ludicrous. It is almost as if they are saying that the devil in hell caused the pastor to go over the edge and take his own life. His problems became to great a burden for him to bear and he saw only one way out. He may have indicated in a thousand ways, that he was dealing with unbearable and untenable problems of such a magnitude that he knew no other way out. It is extremely sad that people, because having a mental illness is such a stigma, are committing to suicide because they dare not admit to such a taboo illness. Suicide is more and more prevalent and you would think that with this prevalence, the stereotyping of the mentally ill would be almost non-existent, not so, unfortunately.

    Thank you for posting this. I can only hope that many will read it and understand that mental illness needs treatment and can result in death if not treated.

    • Shelby, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. This was a challenging post to write. Whenever I hear from people like yourself who realize that mental illness is a real health issue, I am encouraged by it because it means that stigma is becoming less powerful and prevalent. Thanks for reading and commenting too.

  2. A very compelling and compassionate piece. As a former pastor who once attempted suicide, I greatly appreciate your thoughtful, Christ-like perspective.

    I have featured this in my weekly “Mental Health Monday” post. Keep up the great writing.

    • tonyroberts64, thank you for reading and I am not only glad that it helped you, but even more thrilled that you are still here after your suicide attempt. Blessings to you for sharing the post with others too.

  3. TonyRoberts, I second what Darlene posted. I am so very glad that you are here to tell us about it. And may you remain healthy, both mentally and physically!

    Darlene, you are truly a wonderful person and I am so glad that I clicked the ‘follow’ button because if not, I would have missed out on this most informative and heartfelt blog post. Thank you so much again for posting this.

    God bless you!!

  4. Wonderful and sobering reflections Darlene! I found that this line resonated deeply with my experiences: “Once it is discovered that such phraseologies are impotent, some walk away, abandon the struggler and just stand aloof.” Spiritual platitudes such as “the devil is busy” do turn shallow quickly if they turn out to not match up with reality. I wonder, though, if your suggestions about presence and being resourceful are foundational to the rest? This is especially the case considering that even the most attentive and thoughtful folks I know can still violate some of the best practices (including the ones you’ve named) in these scenarios. But even in their screw-ups their presence and helpfulness can cover a multitude of sins, if you will. Thoughts?

    • Brandon, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. I would agree that having presence/resourcefulness undergird our interactions can go a long way – especially in situations where we are faced with issues beyond our individual areas of expertise.

      Also, you raise an important point regarding our ability to mess up even though our intentions are good. What I have found is that, particularly when we have a personal relationship with people and have cultivated the practice of being supportive, meaning our norm is that of love, compassion and practical help, then the mess ups can and often are forgiven. But I think the most important things are to think before we speak, let the person who is struggling lead the way as you talk to them, ask them what they need and lose the “need” to say something. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  1. Pingback: Miracles, Broken Strings, Suicide and Hemorrhoids: Mental Health Monday | A Way With Words

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