Arguably, one of the most difficult issues for a pastor to deal with is when a person takes his own life. Raise it up a notch of difficulty when it is someone in the church. Raise that level of confusion and difficulty even more when a leader in the church commits this horrible act. A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted in regard to a Senior Pastor whose associate pastor took his own life on a Sunday afternoon just after the morning service. Those who have faced the pain of suicide know many questions go unanswered and this hinders a pastor’s ability to know what to say or do for his people. The pastor must also come to terms with his own grief and sorrow that he is more certainly facing in his own heart. In light of this recent situation as well as numerous others who have previously written me about this topic, here are 5 suggestions on what a pastor can and should do if ever found in this unthinkable circumstance:
1) Prepare for disturbing news to come. When a leader in the church takes his own life there is no doubt a tormented soul that exists in anyone who would do this, but there could also be hidden struggles in that person’s life that could be shameful if exposed. The close, watching eye of many upon the pastor is simply one of many pressures pastors face and some have concluded that taking their own life instead of having to face a scandalous sin or struggle is a better option. The timing of this makes you wonder what unkind, hurtful word might have been spoken to this man after the Sunday service that stung too deeply. Fortunately, this is not always the case. Nevertheless, any pastor faced with this situation needs to prepare himself for the likelihood that something may be discovered in the investigation that arises in these situations.
2) Try to connect with those who have faced this. Pastors need pastoral care also. This is without a doubt one of those needed moments. This is the time where a pastor might need care from pastors outside his church, not affected by the situation who can help a pastor deal with his own grief and give helpful counsel as he seeks to care for his hurting flock. It is ideal to find a pastor who has walked through this before, but what should be sought is another seasoned pastor who has a heart to care for other pastors who live in the same area so they can meet face to face. I connected this pastor with a very wise and seasoned pastor in his area who agreed to meet with him. That is a more effective form of care than this pastor and I chatting over email.
3) Weep with those who weep. Because there are so many unanswered questions, this may be one of the only things a pastor can do. However, what is important to realize is that this is a very legitimate way to care for hurting people. Sit with them. Feel their pain. Weep with them. Pray with them. Do not underestimate the impact of doing what Paul exhorts us to do.
4) Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” The pastor so often is seen as the all-wise one who has all the answers. News flash…we don’t. God uses these kinds of moments to remind the pastor and those he cares for that the pastor does not have all the answers. Pastors, it is a very freeing experience to stand before your people and answer hard questions with, “I don’t know.” God knows, even though many times we don’t and that’s OK. Don’t be afraid to say that. It is quite liberating and it reminds our people that we are struggling for answers just like they are, but that God has still not changed, is still faithful, still on the throne, and worthy of our trust.
5) Make sure your grieve over this loss. Pastors can commonly side step their own need to grieve over a painful loss as they make themselves help others grieve. I encouraged this pastor to make sure he was grieving over this tragic loss himself and face those feelings of guilt that might creep in. One of the most common refrains heard in these situations is, “I never saw it coming.” And yet as details come forth the refrains change to, “Why didn’t I recognize it then, before it was too late?” There is a great potential for unwarranted guilt in these situations. We can learn from what happened and be better equipped for future situations, but we can’t fault ourselves for a lack of omniscience. As the pastor faces his own grief and guilt, it will only better equip him to care for his flock.
Be thankful if you have been spared at this point from such a painful and confusing tragedy. If you have faced it, be willing to be used by God as you now possess a unique perspective for other pastors to be served by your experience. If you find yourself in the middle of it, may God give you much grace and use it for your good, your church’s good, and God’s glory as you care for yourself and your flock.