Pastoral Suicide & the Lamenting Church

“To enter a broken heart means that our hearts will be broken as well.” - Paul Miller

     It was close to a year ago that I sat at my computer writing a reflection on the suicide of a fellow pastor named Stephen Hightower. Today, I find myself compelled to memorialize the life of Mickey Sheally. Mickey was one of Stephen’s mentors who took his own life while sitting in the parking lot of his church at the close of last month. My denomination specifically, and the Church at large, has lost two pastors in the span of a single year by way of the evil torment of depression, human suffering and desperation. It should cause us all to stop and pause. 

     I first heard the news of Mickey’s death by way of a phone call that came late in the evening. As I stood stunned in my frigid driveway, the question that clogged my mind more than any other was not merely the obvious question of why? But more specifically, why the finality?  Why was an answer that was so utterly terminal, permanent and unalterable the only one he could seem to find?

     If we can withhold the temptation for a moment to suggest an over-spiritualized chastisement that pastors should find their escape in ”just turning to Jesus,” could we not, at least, wonder why some pastors can’t seem to find even temporary relief in a drink, in a movie, or sex with their wife? I ask this honestly as a man who has been open about his inability to fully grasp the depth of darkness that the suicidal endure and with the realistic expectation that the endless night which some pastors face can’t be shaken by a couple beers or a decent flick.

In fact, could it be that perhaps attempting to escape the pain at all is actually part of the problem?

     I have been slowly working my way through the book A Loving Life by Paul Miller in which he traces the gospel through the book of Ruth. In it he writes, “The church has not been particularly good at hearing laments from its broken people…We’ve not been taught that to love someone means we enter their suffering.” Dr. Soong-Chan Rah agrees, noting that few churches include lament in their weekly liturgy.

How we worship reveals what we prioritize. The American church avoids lament. Consequently the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost in lieu of a triumphalistic, victorious narrative. We forget the necessity of lament over suffering and pain. Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes the heart forget. The absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in the loss of memory.

     Could the great irony of pastoral life be that in an attempt to meet the perceived needs of communities bent on experiencing “their best life now” many pastors have created emotional prisons for themselves where even they are not free to cry? In such an environment, the sermons preached and the songs sung each week become a constant ringing in the ear of leaders who are confronted in potent ways that they are living anything but the life abundant. Who does a pastor tell when the gospel is not sounding so good anymore?

     Might our recent experiences with these pastoral deaths point us back to practices like confession, lament and songs that can give voice to death as well as life, to despair as much as hope. Might we create churches in which people gather together as much to cry as to laugh; churches where we remind each other that sinfulness is a prerequisite for salvation, and sacred spaces where people are not projects but brothers and sisters; homes where prodigals and orphans find a family and communities when, on any given Sunday, the pastor might find themselves at the center of a group of outstretched hands praying for their sobbing hearts. Temples of lament where our tears serve as constant reminders that while we wait together for the new world, the one we live in now is only bearable when we are not asked to face it alone.    

Pastoral Lessons from Bansky

Be very careful what you wish for.

In the world of pastoral ministry (especially the evangelical variety) what seems to be wished for with an increasing frequency is fame. Despite the fact that it is often shrouded in more spiritual terms like “influence” or "maximizing capacity," there is but a razors edge difference between them all. In recent months we have watched our culture develop a healthy unease with "celebrity pastors," and yet, all this discussion has done little to stem the flow of those who continue to follow a predictable script on their path to stardom while simultaneously creating pastoral prisons they are desperately trying escape. 

...Pastor a small but quickly growing church (preferably in an urban setting), write a blog, publish a book, produce a podcast, speak at conferences, get invited to more speaking engagements, start a new church campus, speak at more conferences, develop another church campus, or two, and then…. burn-out, quit, or disqualify.

So common is this refrain in our modern era that the full list of names who serve as exceptions to the rule will most likely run through ones mind before they finish this very blog. Perhaps before they finished that last sentence. Which is not to suggest that there is only a small number, just that they are not known.

And therein we catch a hint of the problem, as well as the solution.

While there is certainly no shortage of reasons given for the current crisis in pastoral leadership, the fact remains that many pastors are, quite simply, bringing these troubles upon themselves. Contrary to popular belief, pastors have considerable control over their celebrity status. Publishing, speaking at conferences, broadcasting their sermons online, or projecting their faces on multiple LED screens across a city are decisions that are not typically being demanded, much less even expected, from average parishioners. Most people just want a pastor.

If pastors are walking away from their pulpits because of increasing “demands and pressures” or the sense that they have somehow “lost themselves” or have "drifted from their calling" many only have themselves to blame. If a great number increasingly recognize that becoming a celebrity is not working out so well for the health of the church, why are more pastors not intentionally protecting themselves?

Maybe more of us in ministry could be taking a cue from the famed artist Bansky whose worldwide acclaim can only be attached to his finished work. No one, outside of a small band of fellow street artists, knows who the real Bansky is. The only thing associated with the artist is the work he has produced. What is highlighted is the product, not the producer

What if pastors were as intentional about hiding themselves as Bansky? What if more of them strategically and intentionally refused to speak at conferences, publish their sermons, or grow their congregations beyond the number of names they could remember. What if?

And what if the people who normally sat in conferences and streamed podcasts of their favorite preacher were confronted, in the startling absence of both, with the fact that their local pastor was their pastor. Maybe they would find their pastor is good at preaching or maybe they would discover they are mediocre. Maybe the music would prove to be fantastic or very, very, average. However, people would not know because they would have nothing to compare it to. Congregations would have no other pastor than the pastor God gave them, and pastors would not be pastoring anyone else but the people God called them to. How refreshing and freeing that might prove to be for both parishioner and pastor alike. 

If you are able to imagine a world like that, could you also articulate what it is the church might actually lose if pastors were to shun the pursuit of fame? Fame does not guarantee moral failure or professional burnout, but it undeniably increases the odds. Would God’s great mission to reach the world be hindered in any way if pastors declared universally that theirs was a profession, perhaps one of only a handful of professions perhaps, in which increasing popularity was shunned and fought against at all cost.

As a pastor myself, I wonder what the church may look like if we shepherded souls like Bansky painted? What if faithfulness in our calling could only be gauged by the transformed lives of those who sat under our care. And what if pastors chased solely after the satisfaction of being completely known by just a handful of brothers and sisters who referred to them only in simple and profoundly intimate ways like, "my pastor."

I believe that nearly every pastor who has gathered a fledging church in a living room, a borrowed theatre, or a local gym began with this very vision, to see their own lives diminish while the God of the universe was lifted up and unleashed into their communities.

That dream doesn't need to die. Work in the shadows and let the spotlight fall on the only One who is truly worthy to stand in it.  


Yik-Yak and the Christian Community

The following is a guest post by my friend and colleague, Dr. Don Shepson. Don is the Chair of the Ministry and Leadership Department at Toccoa Falls College and an ordained Priest in the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA).  

Recently I have been thinking a great deal about a trend I have witnessed sweeping through college campuses the last few months, Yik Yak. It is a smartphone app that allows users to “chat,” or more honestly, post or comment on anything with others who are close to them physically. In other words, only users within about 2 miles of one another are able to see what is posted and comment.

The trick?

It’s completely anonymous.

To understand this new app I viewed a student’s phone (mine isn’t smart enough yet for this app) to see what kind of “yak’s” were taking place near me on campus, and what I saw was alarming. In the interest in saving digits (after all, this is a blog with a 650 word limit), here are two examples:

“[So and so, with a specific name]” looks really hot today, I can’t wait to see him in the gym without his shirt.” This had seven “upvotes” from anonymous people who apparently agreed.

“I wonder what [so and so, with a specific name] slept in last night? Any ideas?” This one came with a handful of responses that included “I don’t know, but I wish I was there” and “nothing!”

As you might imagine, these leave the specifically named individuals wondering what on earth each did to warrant these kinds of awkward, uncomfortable, or even threatening comments. They made me wonder too, about the idea of anonymity within a Christian community. I have worked with Steve for years in college ministry on two campuses and one thing we have always been impressed by (not necessarily a good thing, we get easily impressed) is the willingness of students to say and do things that they think are anonymous. Anonymity seems to me to cut across the grain of Christianity.

In his book To Know As We Are Known Parker Palmer observed: 

“The goal of a knowledge arising from love is the reunification and reconstruction of broken selves and worlds. A knowledge born of compassion aims not at exploiting and manipulating creation but at reconciling the world to itself. The mind motivated by compassion reaches out to know as the heart reaches out to love. Here, the act of knowing is an act of love, the act of entering and embracing the reality of the other, of allowing the other to enter and embrace our own. In such knowing we know and are known as members of one community, and our knowing becomes a way of reweaving that community’s bonds."

Anonymity however contains a number of dangers that prohibit a Christian community (like college campuses or churches) from knowing or becoming known more fully as Palmer describes. When we separate our selves from Christian community, as anonymity permits and promotes, we privatize our lives and what happens is that we loose healthy and Godly accountability, we make room for misunderstanding, and we hide our true selves that need the gentle shaping and love that a meaningful community offer. In effect, we make space for darkness and separation to become dominant factors in life, which are the antithesis of Christianity, where honesty, integrity, compassion, love, hope, charity, and peace are to reign in our hearts and minds.

The whole of 1 Peter 3 is instructive on these matters (read, memorize, and live it), and the key verses to highlight are 8-9, “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”

It is my prayer that in Christian communities and campuses our response to apps like Yik-Yak would reflect our calling to be a people who are known to one another as those who are full of love and grace, even as we make ourselves known in the careful and Godly words we chose to speak about each other, and our own selves.

Lessons from Chris M. Blow

Charles M. Blow shared a bold piece of literature this week in a New York Times op-ed. The article drew from Blow’s new memoir Fire Shut Up in My Bones in which he processes the weighty issues of his past and present including sexual abuse, the bonds of family, stereotypes, and human sexuality. Regular readers of this blog should know that many of my own values and convictions take a departure from those held by Mr. Blow, and yet, there is a substantial amount of truth to be gleaned from his writing.

In particular, Blow provides a powerful model and illustration for what it means to truly forgive. So often our definitions of forgiveness fall short of the biblical meaning of the term. We tell people that the act of forgiveness is more for the victim then the perpetrator, or that forgiveness must include the associated act of forgetting. Both of which are inadequate, and incomplete. 

In his book Reason for God Tim Keller offers a much fuller picture of forgiveness that centers on the reality that for every violation enacted, a debt is incurred that must be paid. We recognize this instinctively which is why we speak of “getting even” or “paying someone back” when we have been wronged. Keller proposes another path that neither ignores the offence nor dismisses the debt - absorb the debt yourself.    

“There is another option” Keller writes, “You can forgive. Forgiveness means refusing to make them pay for what they did. However, to refrain from lashing out at someone when you want to do so with all your being is agony. It is a form of suffering. You not only suffer the original loss of happiness, reputation, and opportunity, but now you forgo the consolation of inflicting the same on them. You are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out of the other person. It hurts terribly. Many people would say it feels like a kind of death. Yes, but it is a death that leads to resurrection instead of the lifelong living death of bitterness and cynicism.”

This is the forgiveness Blow introduces and illustrates for us in his memoir. Having been sexually abused by an older cousin, Blow is tempted later in life to murder him. With a gun in his car, racing towards his mother's house to confront his offender, Blow has a life-altering epiphany. He writes,

“Then I thought about who I was now, and who I could be. Seeing him in a pool of his own blood might finally liberate me from my past, but it would also destroy my future. I had to make a choice: drive forward on the broad road toward the unspeakable or take the narrow highway exit. I don’t know which chose, my head or my hand, but I exited and drove through my college campus, thinking about all that I had accomplished. Me. With my own mind and grit. I had reinvented and improved myself. I was a man — a man with a future. I couldn’t continue to live my life through the eyes of a 7-year-old boy.”
This is far deeper than mere “forgive and forget” theology; this is debt absorption, this is forgiveness. Blow does not minimize his pain, nor does he ignore the fact that injustice has occurred. His way forward is not through some Pollyanna vision of the past but a heroic willingness to the pay the penalty himself. The offender is off the hook, but only because the victim is willing to die in their place.
The rest of Blow’s story spells out the implications of his actions including his ongoing struggle with male attraction and his stigmatized existence as a black bi-sexual.[1] Through his act of forgiveness, Blow absorbed a debt that in many ways, he will never fully pay off.

This is the kind of forgiveness Jesus speaks of when he teaches us to pray, Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” or more bluntly just two verse later, For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matt. 6:12, 14-16)

When we teach that forgiveness is a gift given to us freely we skew the deeper truth that forgiveness always comes at a tremendous cost. When we forgive “as we have been forgiven” victims are crucified for the sins of the criminals, the innocent bear the wrath intended for the guilty, and the abused steer their cars off of the highway and take the bullet their abuser deserves.

When we dare to engage in this kind of Kingdom-defined forgiveness, we will find that in the great paradox-ridden economy of God, this kind of death leads to life, new life, a resurrected life. Life that is able to finally move on from the nightmares of a seven-year-old boy into the glorious potential for a new chapter, written by the Father who endured the full weight of the penalty of all of our sin, all of my sin, all of Charles Blow’s sin, so that we too might have the painful joy of taking up our own crosses, and following him.   

[1] Studies have shown that boys who are sexually abused are four to seven times more likely to develop same sex attraction. Bolton,  F. G., Morris, L. A., and MacEachron, A. E. Males at Risk: The Other Side of Child Sexual Abuse, Sage Publications, Newbury Park, CA, 1989, p. 86 and “Victimization of Boys,” Journal of Adolescent Health Care, vol. 6, pp. 372–376.

"Abort, and try again."

Richard Dawkins inspired, yet again, a firestorm of controversy with his twitter account. Responding to a women asking for ethical guidance after discovering her unborn child has Down Syndrome (DS), Dawkins offered the following advice, “Abort it and try again, it would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

Admittedly, while Dawkins' line of reasoning could be shot-thru by my second grade son, here are some reflections worth noting on the low-hanging fruit:

1    1.  Dawkins is a refreshingly honest atheist. In contrast to the number of other atheists I have spent time with who refuse, against all odds, to head down this line of thinking, Dawkins is, to say nothing else, (fairly) consistent in his beliefs. If life has emerged from seeds planted on our planets by aliens (as Dawkins actually explained at the close of the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed: skip to the 1:30:45 mark), than why would he, or anyone else, feel the slightest tinge of doubt about taking a life.

2    2. I said “fairly consistent” because his belief system makes it absolutely ludicrous for Dawkins to also suggest something is “immoral.” For Dawkins to use this very term there needs to be a standard by which he measures the action he is evaluating. Keeping the child is “immoral” on what grounds? Morality, by definition, is a code of conduct, a set of expected behaviors, or law(s) that call humanity to certain actions or demand that they refrain from others. Hence, as the argument goes, if there is a law, there needs to be a lawgiver. When Dawkins suggests something is “immoral” it begs the question, whose law would I be breaking? Certainly not any law of nature. If there is no measuring rod, Dawkins cannot suggest that any action (or inaction) is ever immoral. 

3    3. Dawkins responded later in the day to the backlash by suggesting that since abortion is what happens to the “great majority” of DS fetuses, his tweet cannot be construed to be either illogical or heartless. The majority argument is a particularly embarrassing one if you are an atheists and your view of the world is in stark disagreement with over 90% of the rest of us who are religious. Apparently, the fact that the overwhelming majority of the human race throughout history have held to some form of religious belief is not enough evidence for Dawkins to change his worldview. Nor can it let him off the hook for bad behavior.    

4    4. Finally, Dawkins apologized this morning in his personal blog. The act of saying "I am sorry," experiencing remorse, grappling with one’s own conscious, and concern for human relationships opens a Pandora’s box full of questions and comments related to the metaphysical world of the inner life, as well as the exploration of the origins and existence of guilt. Added to this is the above-mentioned analysis of how an atheist might determine what is moral or immoral in the first place, and Dawkins’ simple 140 tweet looks more and more like a window in the morally bankrupt world of atheism.

But far more important than these philosophical arguments is the fact that there are many parents around the world today who are finding out this week that the tiny fetus growing in their womb also has DS. While I think Dawkins would like us all to pretend that we are brains disconnected from hearts, choosing logic over emotion, I prefer to live more holistically. Our emotions are not an aspect of our humanity that simply "gets in the way" of making wise choices, they are always the means. Every decision we make is emotional. In regards to abortion, those effected by our decision are voiceless, we are left to make the decision for them. 

No life is a mistake, every person is unique gift to the world. Dawkins is emphatically wrong to suggest that there is ever an opportunity to simply "try again."No human being is merely replaceable, especially the child you have created. Let them live, let them show you.        

Thank You Sean: A Tribute to Robin Williams

   No movie has touched my life more dramatically than Good Will Hunting. It appeared on the screen in a season of my life in which alcohol and anger were seeping from my own father wounds, and during a time when the direction of my life and the purpose of my story were clouded in self-doubt, insecurity and confusion. Today, I mourn with the rest of the world as we contemplate the legacy of Robin Williams, who despite assuring us all that "It is not your fault," has taken his own life. As is often the case in suicide, the true rationale for such a final, and drastic measure, passes on with the victim. Even when a reason is given, it fails to tell the entire story. In fact, my first months of ministry found me picking up the pieces with a family in the wake of suicide. Their own questions mirrored the same “why?” that seems to just hang in the air like a thick smoke inside my mind to this day.
   Statistically, my work with college students places me in direct contact with a demographic that is more likely to end their lives prematurely than nearly any other. I say “nearly”, because the reality is that suicides that occur among those 18-24 is actually eclipsed by only one other age group, those above 65. Of this shocking trend M. Robert Mullholland, Jr. writes:

“I believe one of the underlying realities behind the epidemic of suicide among adolescents and senior citizens is that we are a culture that values people primarily for what they do.” 

   Teenagers and the retired are most vulnerable to despair and lack of identity in such a culture, he argues. Robin Williams, at age 63, could certainly fit into this demographic. And while this may very well be a legitimate diagnosis of the problem, it is certainly not the only one. My contact with those who have attempted suicide leads me to believe that many considered suicide because, quite frankly, life has become unbearable. I see the connection in the two age groups to be more along the lines of their place in history. Those older than 65 have fought long enough and are ready to move on. The young adults simply look at the potential of another 60+ years of hell in front of them and opt out early. When I look at the world outside my window and the one unfolding on the screen in front of me, I sympathize with their conclusion. This is not cynical, nihilistic surrender, it is empathy instead of judgment, and it is refusing to call it daytime when it is night.

   My personal conviction is that those who are considering suicide do not need sermons (formal or informal) exhorting them to cheer up, look on the bright-side, or reminders that things are not so bad after all, or be told one more time how much they are loved and appreciated…no matter how well intentioned. What I want to suggest instead is that, especially as followers of Jesus Christ, we need to be willing to sit in the darkness with others and refuse to call it anything less. A girl who is rapped by her uncle, a boy who has struggled his whole life with homosexual urges, the child who grows up in the foster care system, the man whose drunk father beat him daily and the women whose parents were killed by a drunk driver. Their pain is real and their tragedy has marked every aspect of their story. 

   What I often fear drives some to take their lives is that the world around them doesn’t want to hear their story. Our culture is unkind to those who are broken messes. Those who feel all alone in their struggle often wake to find one day that the world around them really has moved on without them. Theirs is not a winning story of overcoming and unstoppable victory against all odds. To all of you who are considering suicide today I want to remind you that Jesus came for the sick who know they needed a doctor (Matt. 9:12). He had little patience for those who thought they were already healthy.

   Your stories of pain and abandonment and crushing loss are all living reminders that the world we live in is broken and in need of the rescue that only Jesus can give. And we need you. We need your bravery and your honesty. We need truth tellers who have stared at the darkness of their own lives and are not afraid of the darkness lurking in the stories of everyone they meet. Truly, if this can’t start among those who know they are unconditionally loved, things may be truly worse than any of us imagine. That is why we need you to stay among us. Not because things are not as bad as you think, but because you know how bad they really are. We need people who are not afraid to take off their masks and let the world know, as Frederick Beuchner suggests, that our secrets are what we share most in common. Robin, I wish we all still had time for you to talk to Sean. You will be greatly missed.


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I am a father and I am a son. I am adopted and rescued...a friend of Jesus. I am Carrie's husband and dad to Luke, Andrew and Zachary. I am the Director of Spiritual Formation at Toccoa Falls College and an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). I am a teacher who loves to engage the world with words and I am a Christian who aims to be the Good News in speech in deed. I am an artist attempting to create good art that glorifies the Creator and encourages his creation to seek him.