Tag Archives: suicide

Pastoral Care & Suicide (CEU)


May 24, 2011


First United Methodist Church,

Reynoldsville, PA

As pastors and ambassadors of Christ Himself, we regularly are faced with questions of life and death day in and day out. But how do you begin to share the hope of Christ for an abundant life when the person you want to help just wants to die?

Topics will include suicide prevention, warning signs, clinical assessment, and ministering to families who have been impacted by suicide.

Gay is a Nationally Board Certified Counselor with an M.A. in Community Counseling from Indiana University of PA. Dayton is pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Reynoldsville, having earned his M.Div. from United Theological Seminary.

$10.00 will cover handouts and lunch.

In order to provide lunch for participants, reservations are needed by calling 814-653-8593 by Thursday, May 19th.

(NOTE: This was originally scheduled for March 2nd, but had to be rescheduled)

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What I Learned In Junior High

When I was a kid in junior high, I joined the library club. I liked being around all those thousands of books. I didn’t really read them all, but I would peruse their pages when I had a free moment.

Our librarian, Miss Beverley Volkar, made working in the library fun. She taught us how to catalog and shelve books, how to properly care for them, and the importance of having access to important resources.

I had a chance to connect with Miss Volkar (now Ms. Stotera) again a few years ago. That time of remembering and reconnecting helped me realize that there were at least two core values I learned back then that have helped me become the person I am today (some three decades later).

FIRST, remembering those early years and the library reminded me of what it meant to be a steward. Miss Volkar may have been the librarian and had thousands of books and resources in her care, but they weren’t hers. She had complete power and authority over what books to purchase, where to keep them, how to arrange them, and what books to discard, but she didn’t own them. She simply was a steward who cared for someone else’s property. In the Bible, we are told how we are given the ability to work and earn money, but that it ALL belongs to God. We have the power and authority over what we purchase with that money, how to care for those purchases and that money, where to keep the resources we purchase and the money that remains, how to arrange them, and even what to discard. But like Miss Volkar, we are simply stewards who are entrusted to care for someone else’s property… in this case, God’s property… HIS money and HIS property. The only things that are really ours, are the ones we brought with us from the womb and take with us to the tomb. Everything else is on loan from Him, whether we like to admit it or not.

SECONDLY, I remembered how Miss Volkar did more than run an efficient library. She made the library a safe place to come and talk (quietly, of course). We could ask her just about anything, and she would talk with us and help us find our answers. And it was there in the library, every morning before school, our little group of Christians would get together to pray and to have a devotional time before heading off to homeroom. Later on, when I was facing intense personal crisis, at times even considering suicide, she was the friend who was willing to listen.

Miss Volkar was a MENTOR to me. She listened without judgment, she prayed with me and for me, she trusted me, she believed in me… when I was so swallowed up by depression that I was pretty convinced that no one else in the whole world did. (Years later, I would learn how much my parents, grandparents, my church, and others were also ‘there for me’ but as a freshman in high school I still had teenage-blinders on and just couldn’t see it.) We all need someone like Miss Volkar… especially our youth and young adults. And it can’t just be our parents.

Has God put you into a situation where you can be a mentor to someone? Maybe they’re no longer a teen, but you can “take them under your wing” anyways. Even now, three decades later, I still have mentors I look to when facing trying times… not necessarily to fix my problems, but to hear me, care for me, to pray with and for me.

Stewardship & mentoring. Good reminders from my childhood that I need as I walk the Christian walk of faith as an adult… and as I face a new year.

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The Missing Door

In the introduction of Michael Card’s book The Hidden Face of God, there is a revealing story of Vincent van Gogh, the famous artist of the 19th Century.
Van Gogh had once felt called to the ministry, but had never been able to pass the theological entrance exams. Instead, van Gogh opted for a more incarnational ministry… among the coal miners in a small town in Belgium.
Bit by bit, over a three-month period, Card writes, van Gogh served God by reaching out to these poorest of the poor. In fact, he followed Jesus’ admonition to the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. Paycheck by paycheck, as van Gogh saw more and more need, he gave away just about everything.
Card then writes “So completely did he reflect the sacrificial simplicity of Jesus that he became known as ‘the Christ of the coal mines.’”
“But those in the church who had authority over him did not feel this extravagance was appropriate, and he was eventually dismissed. It was a failure that hounded him for the rest of his life,” Card writes.
Throughout the rest of his life, even as he discovered a ‘ministry’ of expressing himself through art, van Gogh struggled with a sense of failure… even though we now recognize he was a genius! He felt like a reject… and felt the church was the one who had rejected him. He no longer felt he could turn to the church for strength or support… and became estranged from the Lord of the Church as well… Jesus Himself becomes a stranger to this one who had once emulated him so completely.
Card then draws attention to the last church painting van Gogh ever made, not long before his death: the Church at Auvers. Card writes:

“What many art critics have commented on is not the swimming colors but the ominous lack of a doorway leading into the church. Vincent painted a church that no one could get into. Having tried all his life to work hard enough to ‘get in,’ it appears that he could not imagine, in this last image of the church, a door that might allow him, with his enormous load of pain, to enter in…. Together with the scarcity of references to Jesus in his last letters, the absence of the door in the painting reveals his most fundamental fear: that there is no way into the church and, even more agonizing, that there is no One waiting on the other side of the missing door.” (pp. 12-13)

Vincent van Gogh died on July 27, 1890, as a result of self-inflicted gunshot wounds from a suicide attempt two days earlier. His brother, Theo, was with him when he died, and reported Vincent’s last words were, translated: “the sadness will last forever.”

How many times do we, today’s church, share our opinions and our thoughts about the way someone else is doing their job in serving Christ? How many of those times are we alienating those very ones who love Christ and are trying to serve him? How many end up like Vincent van Gogh… carrying an overwhelming load of pain and feeling abandoned by Christ and the Church?
No small wonder that the author of Hebrews writes: “…encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” (Hebrews 3:13, NIV)
Not everyone will agree with the way everyone else does stuff… not even in the church. But we can make sure that constantly show God’s love and compassion by encouraging one another… so that no one ever sees us as a church without a door.
Who can you encourage today?
(This was my pastor’s letter for the August 2008 edition of our church’s newsletter: The Sound of the Trumpet)

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Just a couple of weeks ago, a man in our community committed suicide in his early 30’s. He had ongoing concerns with his health and also, largely because of the health issues, had a growing problem with finances. Several members of his family are involved in my congregation and I spent quite a bit of time in the immediate aftermath with them. Ultimately, I officiated the memorial service.


The father of the deceased, within his first five steps of coming home where the rest of us were gathered, asked me: “Is he in Hell for killing himself?”

You know, I grew up believing that suicide was murder (of yourself) and thus was a sin. And of course, like any sin, if you sinned you were absolutely, without question going to Hell UNLESS you repented before you died. And since you couldn’t repent before you died when you’ve just killed yourself, then it just made sense that committing suicide was an automatic one-way ticket to eternal damnation. Right?

In fact, as a pretty mixed-up teen, it was that belief that made me NOT give in to the whispers of the enemy that quite often suggested suicide as a way for me to escape from my painful situations in life.

My answer to this grieving dad, however, was ‘no.’

My reasoning is based on four things…

First, a mentor as I became a pastor had explained to me once that his own father had committed suicide. It was a comfort to him to know that God held people responsible for their decisions and behaviors based on their ability and understanding. For instance, if a severely mentally retarded person dies without having said the official sinner’s prayer, but knew they loved Jesus, would they go to Hell? No, the reasoning went, because God deals with you on the level where you are. This mentor shared that self-harm and suicide were behaviors acted out by someone who is suffering from such pain and turmoil that they are, in essence, extremely sick. In that moment of pain, when the suffering is so great, he believed that the suicidal person CANNOT properly reason out the choices anymore. Therefore, God, who deals with them in that moment like the mentally disabled person who knows no better, treats them as a sick person who just needs help.

Secondly, I took a one credit course at seminary on “Pastoral Care and Suicide” and I review my notes every so often… My answer is consistent with the teaching I received in that course.

Thirdly, I once got my hands on a audiotape teaching by Jack Hayford, a well-respected pastor and teacher in the charismatic and PromiseKeepers movements, called “The Sin Of Suicide.” In that teaching, following several suicides in the extended family of his own church, Hayford taught a similar idea. The ‘sin’ is the self-focus of suicide… the lack of considering what your action would do to those around you. Essentially: selfishness.

Lastly, my wife acted like a research assistant for me during this past couple of weeks and found an absolutely awesome webpage fashioned from a brochure put out by the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches entitled: “What should we think about suicide?” I have never read anything quite so succinct and Biblically faithful on suicide.

I’m really interested in having some other folks read through the pamphlet and share their thoughts. I would loan the Hayford tapes, as well. I want to have some conversation, online or offline, on this subject. I want to hear of others who have walked through similar situations and how you’ve ministered.

Any takers?

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Feeling Indigo… (AKA Not Quite Feeling Blue)

OK I guess I need to give an explanation about my last post.

After the shock of receiving the news of a fellow pastor’s death from suicide, I spent a lot of time thinking about what leads people to make that decision. For many, depression is a cause. Because of my time with depression, I realized that it has been the grace of God that has helped me through these darker times… because I’ve never considered suicide and cannot ever imagine any reason to consider it. And now that I am well on my way to healing… and very seldom experience the despair I once lived with… I believe I have even less chance of risk in this area.

But I also realized that there are many others (pastors and non-clergy alike) who do struggle with depression and are at risk. And I hoped that by sharing my story of how God has led me to sources of help and hope in the lifting of my depression, that perhaps someone might also have a chance to see that there IS hope! Because there IS help!

Unfortunately, some who read my post thought I was trying to give a ‘cry for help.’ I am honored and awed by the folks who’ve read my post and then have called to see if I’m OK. One even called my district superintendent to see if they should be worried about me. (Truthfully, I hadn’t even realized that so many read my blog!)
So, to summarize: I’m not feeling as blue as I used to. I’m a shade or two away from blue nowadays (thus the ‘indigo’ in my title of this posting!!) And you’ve proven my point that God really has surrounded me with some GREAT people who DO care. THANKS!!!

On the way home from the funeral today, I was in an accident. I think it was my fault… but I don’t know. Either I fell asleep for a moment or I blacked out for a moment, but I crossed the center line and struck another car head-on, nicking the headlight of a parked truck while I was at it. I can remember the ‘crash’ part of it as the airbag deployed. NOTHING before that (other than driving down the road). For several minutes I just sort of sat there dazed… unable to think of what I was supposed to do next. Then, with help from someone outside, we got my door open and I got out.

We all walked away from the experience and, other than seat belt strain and bruising, I think I’m physically fine. Much better than the cars I’m afraid. My van (the one I just got after I was rear-ended by someone else in October, just a few months ago) is probably totaled. I’m certain the little red car I hit is a loss as well. The parked truck should be ok… with a bit of help.

Mostly, I feel embarrassed. And grateful that no one was hurt.

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Feeling Blue…

News of an area pastor committing suicide has reached us and it feels like my world has been rocked… again.

While I knew this particular pastor, I didn’t really know his situation, nor his struggles… whatever they might have been. I simply knew who he was and appreciated his smile and laughter on the few times he and his wife would join our breakfast group a couple of churches ago. But then I moved, and he retired, and, like so many other pastors, I sort of lost touch.

And I have spent the past eight hours since I heard the news just thinking and meditating, praying and just feeling down… sad… depressed.

While I don’t know his issues, I know mine. And, as the saying goes, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

I was diagnosed a couple of years ago with a severe depression. The therapist I went to called me “high functioning” which I guess meant that you couldn’t really tell from the outside just how depressed I really was. He talked about how people with scores like mine on the Beck Depression Inventory usually find themselves in the hospital ward just to make sure they don’t commit suicide.

I haven’t considered suicide as an option, not back then and not now. There were times when I hurt inside enough that I could understand Jonah’s words when he said, “Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than live!” I wouldn’t kill myself… but thought how nice it would be if God decreed that it was my time to go and ‘poof’ I didn’t have to deal with the ‘stuff’ anymore.

There were issues from my childhood, relationships that had never been healed, decisions (and lack of decisions) from college times that have followed me, and then, change and loss… and as a pastor I experience A LOT of change (after all, we move for a living, right!) and there have been A LOT of losses. Loss of financial stability, loss of hope, loss of dreams, loss of friends, loss of stability. And a lot of funerals. Mostly for parishioners, but there have been some family members in there… my Grandpa Mix, Gay’s dad Max, and her Grandma Beryl. And a miscarriage just a year before our son was born. And now-a-days, I understand much better the grief experienced with loss of health as I have gotten my first couple of tastes of arthritis, kidney stones, high blood pressure, gout, and recently, the cancer scare.

There are times when I feel SO alone out here in the hinterlands of rural America. I miss the comraderie and fellowship of having a group of us pastors that got together every week for breakfast. Sometimes it was more of a complaint session, but we could laugh about the messups and discuss what we might be able to do differently in this or that situation. And we weren’t “Rev. This” or “Pastor That.”

That’s why it’s been so important to deliberately seek out friends. People who aren’t reliant on me for their spiritual care. Even when I don’t feel like it, I know that there are times that I need to go to some activity just so that I don’t become too introverted and inward focused. Especially in times when things seem to go wrong with the other Christians one finds in the church… when it’s Christians who seem to be attacking or condemning or complaining. In the same way that our parishioners need to have encouragement, so do us pastors.

Part of my thinking and meditating this afternoon and evening is how far have I come? I feel better (as in better than I used to feel… not that I feel ‘all better’). How have I gotten there? Because I suspect that I’m not the only pastor out there to experience the ‘blues’ or outright depression.

I think the number one thing I did that helped me begin to heal was to find someone who took me seriously that maybe I had something going on. Out of fairness, my wife had said I was depressed and needed to see a counselor for several years, but the defense mechanisms were well oiled that I couldn’t hear her. It wasn’t until my physician, my medical doctor, gave me a prescription for an anti-depressant that I was finally able to start the process.

And even then, I was looking at the need to lose weight, and recognized that I probably needed help to step away from the comfort-food/stress-eating times. He prescibed a low dose of prozac as a way of ‘taking the edge off’ in order to allow me the chance to walk through some of the issues.

It helped… some. It helped me enough to let me see that I was dealing with A LOT of unresolved issues that were weighing heavily on me… not because any of them were super-huge dilemmas, but rather because there was such a vast array of undealt with emotions and unresolved concerns that the sheer volume of them threatened to drown me in a sea of grief.

And it took ALL of my defense mechanisms to ‘stay afloat.’ Thus the comfort foods, etc. (and A LOT of extra weight gain).

That low dose of anti-depressant allowed me to realize that I needed to deal with the ‘stuff’ so I began seeing a counselor, mine happens to be a Christian psychologist, but there are many fine counselors who aren’t Christian and many who come from a community counseling or sociology background rather than the psychology end.

With his help to unpack all the stuff in the closet of my mind and emotional storage center, I have been able to rethink through things that I hadn’t dealt with since I was a kid, or a teen, or a mixed up (often inebriated) college kid… only this time to think them through with an adult perspective and adult coping skills. Those events and feelings and stuff are still there… and always will be… It’s just that before I started this process, it was like they were haunting me and waiting for me from behind some hidden closet door in my mind. Now, after working through this process with medication and a counselor, those thoughts and feelings and memories are being sorted and rearranged and reevaluated and stored in a more orderly, understandable way… Rather than vague memories that haunt and hinder my growth, these rearranged and ordered thoughts and feelings can now serve as tools that help me find strength of character as I face the still unknown future.

Somewhere in the process, with the help of the counselor and the medicine, I began to be able to focus mentally enough again to be able to return to reading. And that, at least for me, has made a world of difference.

Some of the most helpful books have been:

  • Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal With Destructive Conflict, Kenneth C. Haugk, Augsburg Fortress Publishers: 1988
  • Becoming a Healthier Pastor: Family Systems Theory and the Pastor’s Own Family (Creative Pastoral Care and Counseling Series), Ronald W. Richardson, Augsburg Fortress Publishers: 2004
  • Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations Under Attack, G. Lloyd Rediger, Westminster John Knox Press: 1997
  • Coping With Depression, Siang-Yang Tan & John Ortberg, Baker Books: 2004
  • Pastors in Pain, Gary D. Preston, Baker Books: 2005
  • The Wounded Minister: Healing from and Preventing Personal Attacks, Guy Greenfield, Baker Books: 2001
  • The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, Henri Nouwen, Image (reissue): 1979
  • The Other Side of Love: Handling Anger in a Godly Way, Gary Chapman, Moody: 1999
  • They Smell Like Sheep: Spiritual Leadership for the 21st Century, Lynn Anderson, Howard Books: 2002
  • Walking Through The Valley: Understanding and Emerging from Clergy Depression, Robert L. Randall, Abingdon Press: 1998.

Of course, there have been other books… some light easy to read books and some theological wonders… along with some C.S. Lewis and some J.R.R. Tolkein. But these were the biggies.

I have had to have my medication increased several times… I’m a big guy and it took a lot. I had to see my counselor pretty often there for awhile. But now, two and a half years later, along with some other healthier choices and a very understanding district superintendent that I’ve been able to be very honest with, I see my counselor only once in a while and am on the very lowest possible medicine dosage again.

Ultimately, it’s my wife that’s probably helped me the most… despite the times when I have all of the defenses going, thinking I’m being self-protective, it’s usually my wife that alerts me when I’m starting to bottle things up and keep my feelings inside… and that’s when I start to get ‘sicker’ with this depression. When she says she doesn’t know what’s going on inside of me, it’s a red flag that I’ve been keeping it all in too much.

I am not completely healed. I still need a lot of healing and help. But as long as I don’t isolate and allow myself to try and be some kind of a lone ranger, there’s hope ahead for me.

And I don’t believe I’m alone in the pastoral ranks in this realm either. Catch the words of Charles Wesley’s song from 1749 about the Methodist pastors who would come together in conference once a year…

1. And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face? Glory and thanks to Jesus give for his almighty grace!
2. Preserved by power divine to full salvation here, again in Jesus’ praise we join, and in his sight appear.
3. What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past, fightings without, and fears within,since we assembled last!
4. Yet out of all the Lord hath brought us by his love; and still he doth his help afford, and hides our life above.
5. Then let us make our boast of his redeeming power, which saves us to the uttermost, till we can sin no more.
6. Let us take up the cross till we the crown obtain, and gladly reckon all things loss so we may Jesus gain.

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