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 the shape of leadership

Ministry to Suicidal People

How to pastor those in crisis

Jared Pingleton on March 3, 2021

Suicide. It is among the most chilling and ominous words in the English language. Few terms evoke more intense visceral reactions or painful human emotions. It represents a scourge of broken hearts, wasted potential, overwhelming helplessness, and prematurely extinguished lives.

But what does this have to do with church leaders? Aren’t Christians — particularly pastors — immune from such temptation, turmoil and tragedy?

Suicide is a widespread, complex and controversial topic spiritually, socially and psychologically. If people are honest with themselves, most would admit they have, in a vulnerable moment, entertained fantasies or fleeting thoughts of what it might be like to escape their painful circumstances. All of us experience desperation, hopelessness, and despondency at times to some degree.

So how do we effectively minister to those struggling with suicidal thoughts, feelings and impulses? As with most things, first we must acknowledge the reality and magnitude of the issues.

For too long, many sectors of the Church have been in denial about mental illness. People everywhere are hurting, conflicted and oppressed — in epidemic numbers and in unprecedented ways. Churches are made up of real people who have real needs and need real help.

Christians, even pastors, contemplate and commit suicide. The Church must end the silence, expose the secrets, eliminate the shame, and erase the stigma surrounding mental and relational health issues.

God’s Word is not silent, secretive, shame-inducing, or stigmatizing about human problems, not even when it comes to the disturbing topic of suicide. The Bible doesn’t whitewash its characters or gloss over their struggles.

In fact, Scripture lists seven people who took their own lives: Abimelech (Judges 9:52–54); Samson (Judges 16:23–31); Saul and his armor bearer (1 Samuel 31:1–5); Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23); Zimri (1 Kings 16:18); and most notoriously, Judas Iscariot (Matthew 27:3–5). Furthermore, several of God’s chosen leaders — including Elijah, David and Jonah — grappled with suicidal thoughts and feelings.

Many biblical passages poignantly describe sorrowful lament, intense loneliness, confusing meaninglessness, extreme desperation, excruciating agony, and abject hopelessness.

The question for the contemporary Church is: How can we minister effectively to those struggling with suicidality?

Prevent

It is certainly true that prevention is easier, and more effective, than cure. Although it is not always possible to get upstream from a person’s suicidal struggles, there are ways to minister preventatively. Here are four important ones:

1. Practice self-care. We need to become healthy ourselves and model that health to our families and congregations. As with most things in life and ministry, we simply cannot give what we do not possess.

During an in-flight emergency, airline passengers are supposed to put on their own oxygen masks before helping others get theirs in place. Similarly, we’ll be unable to teach and serve effectively if we neglect ourselves.

Yet many Christians, especially pastors, feel guilty about caring for their personal needs. They endeavor to somehow love their neighbor better than they love themselves, which is functionally impossible.

Healthy and appropriate self-care is indispensable. Ministry is fraught with unique stressors, endemic loneliness, and frequent discouragement. Above all, we must guard and care for our hearts and teach our flocks to do the same (Proverbs 4:23).

2. End the shame and stigma. We need to make ourselves and our churches emotionally safe places for hurting people to share their pain and struggles. For many people, that large room where congregations have traditionally met has been anything but a true sanctuary. Fears of criticism, judgment and rejection have kept hurting people from being open and transparent about their suffering and struggles.

We all need to internalize and appropriate the love, grace, mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Silence, secrecy, shame and stigma often keep churches from becoming safe havens or refuges for hurting people and broken relationships.

3. Teach others. We must courageously and compassionately shine light, speak truth, and spread salt into our darkened, deluded and decaying world.

In a 2014 LifeWay Research survey, 23% of Protestant senior pastors reported personally struggling with mental illness. Yet 66% of pastors said they seldom preach or teach about mental illness.

We need church leaders to address suicidality and other mental and relational health issues. This means learning about these topics so we can speak knowledgeably. It may also mean sharing lessons from our own experiences.

4. Reach out to the hurting. Finally, we need pragmatic strategies for ministering to people in their sorrow, whether they are wrestling with mental illness, experiencing a relational problem, or grieving the loss of a loved one.

The suffering, wounded and traumatized are vulnerable to isolation and despair, but they are also often receptive to the gospel.

Let’s not miss opportunities to walk alongside the brokenhearted, demonstrate the compassion of Christ, and point people to the One who offers hope and healing.

Look and Listen

Suicidality exists along a progressively escalating continuum of human angst — from painful emotions (suicidal despair), to obsessive thoughts (suicidal ideation), to destructive actions (suicidal attempts). Carefully and wisely observe these dynamics among the members of your flock.

Not everyone who talks about suicide will attempt suicide, and not everyone who attempts suicide talks openly about it beforehand. Thus, it is imperative to take seriously every threat of suicide, however implicit or vague. Even if you suspect someone is just pleading for help or dramatically seeking attention, don’t underestimate the danger.

Silence, secrecy, shame and stigma often keep churches from becoming safe havens or refuges for hurting people and broken relationships.

There is a significant difference between various types of suicidal threats, gestures, and even attempts. For example, studies show teenage girls express suicidality the most frequently but with the lowest lethality. Conversely, older males talk about it and threaten it the least, but have the highest rate of completed suicide.

But make no mistake: Suicide does not discriminate. People of any age, gender or ethnicity can be at risk for attempting suicide — which can be destructive even when it is not fatal. Some who survive a suicide attempt end up with brain damage or other life-altering injuries.

Suicidal behavior is complex, and there is no single or universal cause. Although many different factors can contribute to a person’s suicidal struggles, there are a number of shared characteristics.

Suicidal ideation often occurs when a person feels unable to cope with an overwhelming situation. This could stem from financial problems, the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or a debilitating illness or serious health condition.

Ask

What should you do if you think someone is depressed or suicidal? As uncomfortable as it may be, start by kindly and compassionately asking how the person is doing emotionally.

Of course, this is easier if you have a relationship with the individual. An old adage suggests the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the second best time is now.

The same principle applies here. The best time to build a relationship with a person in crisis is before the crisis, but the second best time is today.

Many pastors are understandably hesitant to inquire about a parishioner’s mental health. Leaders may worry about embarrassment or hurt feelings, but navigating an awkward moment is far easier than preaching the funeral of someone who died tragically, prematurely and unnecessarily.

Asking in a loving, non-judgmental way if a person has entertained thoughts of suicide can not only yield valuable and essential information, but it can also make a fearful, anxious, depressed and overwhelmed person feel accepted, understood and valued. Being sensitive to the hearts of people is Christlike.

Keep in mind that temptation is not a sin — not even the temptation to end one’s life. However, a person who acknowledges suicidal thoughts needs help.

Intervene

If someone is suspected of being even slightly suicidal, assess the crisis by considering three key questions:

1. Is there a plan? Fleeting or even obsessive suicidal thoughts are of significantly less concern than having a clearly developed method for suicide.

2. Are there available means? Look for what is realistically accessible (e.g., weapons, medications, etc.).

3. How immediate is the threat? Someone talking about purchasing a gun is in less immediate danger than a person holding a loaded firearm.

When someone cannot or will not assure you, family members, and loved ones he or she will not act on suicidal thoughts and feelings, you must take appropriate and immediate action. If the individual will not agree to seek help, call 911. In many cases, a suicidal person must be hospitalized involuntarily.

Understand

One key to ministering effectively to those struggling with suicidal ideation is to understand their distorted thought processes. Research reveals that suicidal people almost universally hold the irrational belief that committing suicide is the best or even the only way out of their predicament. Additionally, most believe no one will miss them if they are gone.

Thus, emotionally overwhelmed people often erroneously conclude there is no hope and no help, no one cares, and nothing can change their dire situation.

People need to realize suicide never resolves anything. They need someone to lovingly guide them into the truth that ending their life is never the best, much less only, option.

Suicidal people need both pastoral care and mental health care. Personally shepherd them as they obtain the level of professional treatment they need, from outpatient psychotherapy to inpatient stabilization.

Seek education on how to respond effectively to a suicidal crisis. Just as EMTs practice CPR and other emergency interventions regularly so they do not panic in a dire situation, you should develop a plan and regularly review it.

Build trusted therapeutic referral relationships in your community. Familiarize yourself with national referral hotlines. Know the procedures in your local hospital community for both voluntarily and involuntarily placing someone for treatment.

Be there for hurting people, keep them safe, and stay connected with them.

Lead

Tragically, suicide is not always prevented. When a suicide happens, grieving family members and friends, and the community as a whole, may be receptive to the loving care, concern and compassion of your congregation.

People are often most open to the love of Jesus when they are experiencing brokenness. Yet the tremendous shame and stigma of suicide can make ministry challenging.

Suicide is devastating for those who are left behind. In addition to the grief immediate family members experience, suicide shocks and saddens churches, schools, and entire communities. A young person’s suicide may lead to a citywide copycat deluge of more adolescent suicides.

What can pastors and ministry leaders do? Suicide is a crisis of enormous proportions, with traumatic ramifications that will eventually impact even the smallest churches. How do we lovingly lead with compassion, care and comfort in such times? How do we help those we serve come to grips with the anguish, turmoil, guilt, outrage, confusion and heartache suicide leaves behind?

In Mandarin, there is no discreet word picture for the word “crisis.” Rather, there is a fusion of two different word pictures: the one for “danger” (we get that one) and the one for “opportunity” (which is typically less readily apparent in a crisis situation). When people in the congregation are in crisis, look for opportunities to love and serve them at the point of their pain, agony, and often abject suffering.

Many times, there are perplexing and haunting questions regarding the eternal destination of the deceased following a suicide. This is an extremely sensitive and valid concern. Yet this is not a time for arrogantly splitting theological hairs or coldly pronouncing legalistic judgment.

This is a time to defer to the loving Father and assure the family and friends of His unfailing comfort, kindness, love, understanding, grace, mercy and forgiveness. The apostle Paul said we currently see things imperfectly, and what we know is incomplete (1 Corinthians 13:12).

As with other traumatic grief situations, diligently, intentionally exercise best practices of pastoral care and ministry to the distraught loved ones. Bear in mind they are likely experiencing an overwhelming roller coaster of painful emotions, including, guilt, shame, outrage, futility, helplessness, and unrelenting sorrow. Reach out, support, encourage, listen, empathize, and pray for and with them. And keep on doing it. They will need it.

This article appears in the January–March 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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