When Suicide Hits the Pulpit: Advice to Pastors and Clergy

Excerpted from ‘Hope Always’ (Tyndale)

Excerpted From
Hope Always
By Matthew Sleeth

In recent years, the church has seen several high-profile pastor suicides, and each is a tragedy. Beyond this number, there are many, many pastors who are beaten down and beleaguered by their task. Ministry is a hard job, beset by temptation, difficulty and weariness. Clergy are not immune to depression or suicidal thoughts. What follows is advice for pastors designed to help prevent the desperation that can lead to suicide.

ADDICTIONS

If a pastor is having trouble with alcohol or drugs, they should join a 12-step program. As clergy, they will know that their “higher power” isn’t a doorknob but a man of sorrows who is acquainted with their grief. It may not be a coincidence that the sources of warmth and heat in churches are often located in the basements—this includes not only the furnace, but the AA and Celebrate Recovery meetings that meet there.

If pastors are having trouble with pornography, they should consider getting rid of their computers. Ministerial life went along just fine for a couple of thousand years without them. At the very least, they should put safeguards in place to make their computer usage an open book.

I know two men who carry only a “dumb” flip phone and eschew computers. People can be successful—materially and spiritually—without the latest technology.

FELLOWSHIP

Pastors should surround themselves with others who seek the Kingdom of Heaven above all else. Birds of a feather flock together. Clergy should fly in the center of this flock.

It is all too common for pastors to report feeling isolated and lonely. A providential friendship is a thing worthy of getting on your knees and asking the Lord for. The Bible and close friends should be like sandpaper: constantly challenging and always helping to make rough places planed. When that stops being the case, the pastor has stopped growing. In this sense, being a Christian is like being a shark; when we stop moving forward, we die.

INTEGRITY

Every pastor should have thought through and discussed with a peer or supervisor the lines they won’t cross and the compromises they won’t make.

One June, I received an invitation to go to Baltimore, Maryland, and speak to high school principals the following July. The dates were clear on my calendar, and my staff accepted the invitation. A day later, I received an invitation from the Prince of Wales to meet with him and some other church leaders and stay at his castle at the exact time I was to speak to the principals.

What would you do? I debated for a day: downtown Baltimore in July versus a castle in the British countryside is hardly an even contest. The principals’ event was still over a year away, and they had plenty of time to find a replacement. It would be so easy to make an excuse and retract my acceptance. Yet knew what I had to do. I turned down the prince and kept my commitment to Baltimore. Imagine how much better the world would be if everyone’s yes was yes and no was no.

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Another piece of advice for pastors on the issue of integrity: pastors should strive to live below their means. A humbler-than-necessary lifestyle keeps options open and makes it possible for clergy to maintain their witness.

TAKING A BREAK WHEN NEEDED

Ministry is hard, and I fear it will only become more so in the future. When pastors find themselves overwhelmed, depressed, or suicidal, they should step aside. God does not love anyone because of the work they do. He loves us because he loves us.

In the long run, it is far more important for the pastor to take a break and get healthy. Both the pastor and the church will benefit. The suicide of a clergy member is not only a tragedy; it is a sermon—the worst kind that can be made.

Elijah was pushed to the point of desperation because he was hungry, angry, lonely, and tired. It is better to take a break than to do something that will harm a pastor’s reputation, witness, ministry, or congregation.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SABBATH

Lastly, of the many, many pastors I have met, those who regularly keep a Sabbath (as opposed to just a day off) are healthier and more mentally fit. While a day off is great, a Sabbath is something even more wonderful: it’s a gift from the Lord we are invited to open fifty-two times a year, a day focused on holy rest. Ministry is a marathon, not a sprint. I know scientifically, anecdotally, and from personal experience that Sabbath keeping can be one of the cornerstones of a healthy ministry. A church needs a pastor who needs God more than they need anything else—including work. Setting one day a week aside for God and holy rest is not optional; it’s one of God’s top ten commandments. Blatantly rebelling against any of the other nine commandments would get a pastor fired. Pastors, perhaps more than anyone, need to remember that God’s rest is more powerful than our work. It bears repeating: When we work, we work. When we pray, God works.

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A decade ago, a church asked me to go on retreat with thirty leaders and the pastoral staff. We spent three days in a beautiful mountain setting.

I was honored to spend the weekend with them. For the most part, my task was invigorating, with one exception. A longtime member of the church was an ardent naysayer. He loved to argue and play the part of the spoiler. Even when someone tried to agree with him, he found a way to disagree. His negativity was unrelenting.

After three days, a heretical thought crossed my mind. Would the church be better off if this man’s pastor invited him to the church basement, found an excuse to head back up the stairs, and then locked the door behind him?

I had this thought after only three days with the naysayer. Yet there was his pastor, patience personified, lovingly intervening and redirecting—and he’d been dealing with this parishioner for twenty years!

My job as an itinerant pastor is easy. If you are a local church pastor, your job is hard. Very hard.

I’ll close with a caution not from me, but from God to Ezekiel. It applies directly to every pastor responsible for shepherding a flock today:

“I have made [you] a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.” —Ezekiel 33:7–9

Beloved pastor, never lose track of what your job is about. If I did my job right in the emergency department, someone might gain a few decades of life. If you get it right, someone gains eternity. In the case of suicide, the medical world needs you to help keep people alive so that they can hear the words of eternal life.

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Excerpted from Hope Always: How to Be a Force for Life in a Culture of Suicide by Matthew Sleeth, MD. Copyright ©2021. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries. All rights reserved.