Suicide Prevention: It’s Time For The Church To Get Serious

Suicide Prevention: It’s Time For The Church To Get Serious September 24, 2014

Helping HandI wear a lot of labels in life– or perhaps from a different vantage point, I could say that people call me a lot of things.

Whatever these labels I wear, whatever these words assigned to me, there is one label among them which I hate with every fiber of my being: suicide survivor.

I hate it, because it’s the one label that I didn’t have a hand in choosing. I get to wear the Anabaptist label because that’s my faith tradition– I chose that label, and can take it off any time I want.

But suicide survivor? I didn’t pick that one, and no matter what I do, there’s nothing I can do to run away from it other than denying my own life experience. I’ve briefly referenced it in the past without details– and don’t feel emotionally up to telling my story– but in short, I lost my paternal grandfather to suicide when I was 17 (he had just turned 70). I had lived on our family farm with he and my grandmother for many years as a child after my parents divorced, and he and I were close. It still ranks #1 on my “most painful experiences” list, even after all these years. (I later struggled with suicidal behavior myself, a story I told here on the blog).

As such, I’ve always been passionate about suicide prevention having lived the painful aftermath of suicide myself, as well as someone who has come close to taking my own life. For something so painful, so tragic, something that wounds so deeply, it is actually something that is often quite preventable– if we have the right tools.

For all the talk we Anabaptist do on peacemaking and nonviolence, I think we’re missing an opportunity to expand what peacemaking (and teaching others how to make peace) can look like in a tangible way. Suicide remains a leading cause of death in the United States– more than killed by homicide, more than killed by war, and is not some distant issue. Real people are dying right around us, and we have an opportunity to be peacemakers in order to prevent more deaths from occurring.

And so, make peace we must.

Churches today are too often ill-equipped to prevent suicide or guide a faith community in a healing process after a suicide has occurred– and I say that as both a pastor and seminarian. In seven years of seminary, I’ve had a total of one conversation with a faculty member on the issue of suicide. As a pastor and former lay leader, I’ve also seen churches completely undereducated and oblivious to the real opportunity to prevent death and help people find peace. As a faith community (meaning big “C” church) we simply haven’t valued making suicide prevention a priority.

We have failed to be peacemakers in one of the areas where we can actually have a real, tangible, and immediate impact for peace within the lives of people we know and love. This, along with 82,934 other things I’ve compiled, must change. But this first– this is priority. Lives are actually at stake, and lives can actually be saved.

This week I’m participating in the Patheos Book Club, and have been reading Dr. Karen Mason’s new book, Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains, and Pastoral Counselors. In the book, Dr. Mason notes that 1/3rd of all pastors will experience a suicide in their congregation– a serious number to consider, along with the many other helpful statistics found in the book. As I read the book, my heart broke as I realized how many lives could potentially be saved if we would make this a priority in the Church.

Beyond geographic lines, beyond denominational lines, we must make this a priority– and we must do it together.

Dr. Mason’s book is the most comprehensive book I’ve read on this subject (and I have actually read quite a few), and she handles a difficult subject in a way that compliments both faith and psychology instead of a one-or-the-other approach. She covers everything from suicide warning signs to dispelling myths about suicide, to a survey of different Christian theological stances on the issue. This is a book that should be mandatory reading for anyone working not just in a church, but anyone working with people.

What I found most practical however, was her call for us to train our church leaders. There are many different suicide prevention training programs that are readily available for your congregation (many are listed in the book), and we must capitalize on this opportunity to equip ourselves to save lives. And we must do it quickly.

If we’ll throw thousands of dollars into a sound system, and millions into a building, but set aside no time or money to train people to save lives, well, I think that would mean we stopped being the people of Jesus.

This is an issue where those of us from across the spectrum should be united (and repentant): we Anabaptists will quickly protest the latest death from war or execution, Evangelicals are quick to protest any relaxing of abortion laws citing “sanctity of life”, and everyone in between has their own issues around death that they’re quick to protest.

But what about the people dying in our own churches? How are we actually peacemakers if we’re not actively, proactively, helping these seemingly invisible people make peace and choose life?

Here’s what I think we can do immediately:

1. Preventing Suicide is a must-read. If you’re a church leader, please get this book and carefully read it.

2. Consider purchasing this book as a gift for your pastor, and use it as an opportunity to discuss the seriousness of this issue with them.

3. At your next church business meeting, take a stand on this issue. Demand that your church set aside funds to train and equip the congregation (not just the pastor) to prevent suicide. Don’t take no for an answer– if a church isn’t interested in potentially saving lives in the congregation but is interested in building campaigns, I can say this with confidence: move the heck on.

4. Use this as an opportunity to show unity with other churches in your area– host the training, and invite other congregations/denominations to come and participate in the training.

5. Finally, don’t just ignore this issue/post because you don’t think it applies to you: trust me, suicide knows no boundaries. You don’t need to be a church leader to get educated on preventing suicide– this is something that everyone should do. Get educated. Read up. Dispel some myths. Be committed to being a peacemaker in the lives around you.

We can do better than we’ve done in the past. The Church has historically failed on this issue, but it doesn’t always have to be this way– you and I can usher in a new era where we take suicide seriously, where we educate ourselves, and where we commit to being peacemakers right here, right now.

* I was generously given a copy of Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors free of charge from the publisher, and was under no obligation to favorably review or endorse the book.


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  • Ruaidrí Ó Domhnaill

    “Demand that your church set aside funds to train and equip the congregation…”

    Yeah, good luck with that.

  • John A. C. Kelley

    How do they expect to save people’s souls if they can’t even save their lives.

  • Cindy Thompson

    I am also a pastor and suicide survivor. Thanks for pointing to what looks like a great resource for a ministry every church should be taking seriously.

  • Ruaidrí Ó Domhnaill

    The average institutional church (small c) cares neither for souls nor lives. Their interest is solely in asset accumulation.

  • Ebook

    Thank you for this post. I am starting the book as soon as I finish this sentence.

  • gimpi1

    Is there something those of us not affiliated with a church can do?

    I agree, focusing on war or abortion while ignoring suicide is not only hypocritical, it’s a poor use of resources. We can accomplish more focusing on those that are in need of our help than by trying to press our own agendas on the unwilling.

  • louismoreaugottschalk

    I’m a survivor of multiple attempts at suicide. The practical side of staying alive when I’ve turned vicious on myself is to call a suicide crisis line. I have survived & am willing to reach out to those still suffering as a means to make sense of my survival. Suffering could have made me more bitter and stuck in my bitterness. Why didn’t it? I think b/c I found strength in empathizeing w/ someone else struggling w/ their suicide crisis. It was the first time I was sure of god helping me be really present for another human being in friendship.

  • Donna

    Thank you so much for the recommendation. I am a survivor of the suicide of my brother and my husband is the survivor of the suicide of a close family member. I sometimes wonder if God is leading us somewhere with this, but it’s kind of too soon to act on this. I hope the book also has some recommendations to the church on how to help survivors of suicide within the congregation as well. On the whole, I think Christians are very afraid of the whole topic. Suicide looks like the ultimate fail to a Christian, and it has to be explained away quickly and sometimes harshly, put in a box, and shoved far away, which adds to the grief of the survivor. I’m looking forward to reading the book, because Christians (including lay people like myself) just need to do better in this area.

  • Von Runkle

    Benjamin, suicide is an issue that effects everyone. If you live long enough, you will eventually know, or know of a family member, friend, co-worker, neighbor, or what have you, who killed him/herself. Especially to those closest to the deceased, it can be and usually is devastating. But that said, it is still a relatively minor pastoral concern for churches, compared to death from cancers and heart diseases, and the tragedy of divorce. Suicide also has less than half the rate of sexual assault in the U.S. – something the church is certainly dealing with. There are so many issues competing for a pastor’s time. Suicide, while important, is rare, and infrequent, and as you point out, something that 2/3rds of pastors will never have to deal with in their congregations.

    You are right to point out that the phenomenon cuts across all denominations That’s why I was a little dismayed to see that you set up some kind of cause and effect relationship between your religiously and socially conservative upbringing and your suicidal ideation as a younger man (Which you linked to in this essay). As I’m sure you know, people who don’t believe in a loving or an angry God at all, have a significantly higher suicide rates than “angry Tea Partiers” who are religiously affiliated.

    I wonder if this leftist OWS’er believes in a loving God?

    And of course, there is a groundswell of people, mostly, but not entirely on the Left, who are pushing for the legalization of suicide. Perhaps they might try to talk you out of killing yourself if you are temporarily depressed, but if you have a chronic medical condition that you don’t want to endure, like say, oh . . .depression, they want you to be allowed to kill yourself. And if you can’t do it yourself, then they want to empower your doctor to do it.

    I wonder where it’s all going to end up. Thank you for sharing your personal story.

  • paganheart

    True, unfortunately. As Ben pointed out above, churches are more than willing to blow millions of dollars on state-of-the-art sound systems and buildings; heck a megachurch where I live recently opened its own coffee shop in an upscale, high-rent shopping center and has plans to open its own health club. But these same churches won’t spend a dime to train their pastors on suicide prevention, or how to counsel victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse survivors, drug addicts, or people suffering from anxiety and/or depression. That training could actually save not just souls, but lives. Instead the thought process seems to be “just lure them in the door with shiny, pretty things, get them to come up during the altar call and give their lives over to Jesus, and He will take care of the rest.” Not that easy, sorry.

    Too bad the priorities of churches are just as twisted as the priorities of the rest of our society.

  • Brandon Roberts

    i contemplated suicide a lot. and those thoughts still remain sometimes to this day. and i think there’s nothing more useful than just being a friendly non judgemental sympathetic ear to talk too and help. i remember one night (not too long ago) when i wanted to end it all and somebody reaching out to me and being there for me helped me out a lot

  • Don Lowery

    Thank you for sharing this. Just like yourself…I carry a lot of this baggage from my own life. For instance…at the end of my marriage almost 25 years ago…was going to commit suicide the weekend my ex walked out over lack of money…severe depression and all the other things that depression can lead to. Even today…the stress of my job (working with handicapped children-love this part-and one of the parents doing everything they can do to find a lawsuit for a paycheck-constantly worried about this one)…means I don’t sleep well…am always tired and just life itself seems almost impossible with everything seeming to pile on…the one thing I look forward to every week is going to church and leaving all this BS behind for several hours. It’s not much…but at least someone tries to make sure I’m there….even with a roommate who doesn’t want to move his car for me to drive there with the HOA not wanting us to park on the street overnight.

    With all of these stressors working with me…I did have an experience which seemed to release (at least for a short time) the stress/depression I’ve been feeling lately. I know it sounds morbid (was actually crying and ended up exhausted from doing it…this in a good way after a long time of being numb to just get make it through the day)…but I found a website where I planned out much of my own funeral. I picked the pictures…songs and the other stuff which goes with it. This way…I can let people know this is what my life was about and even with all the heartache and hurt…it’s a celebration since all of these hurts and heartache will no longer be there…so don’t you dare cry for me.

  • I’m a “suicide survivor” myself. And I praise God that he had other things in mind. And yes the church has to get it’s act together. There are so many hurting and helpless people out there. The whole concept behind suicide is “hopelessness” and isn’t that the church’s job to give hope to the hopeless? I for one, since my past experiences want to be ,more involved giving hope. Christ is our hope!

  • WilmRoget

    There are churches that now finance ministries and services for people who are facing the kinds of life challenges that can lead to suicide.

  • WilmRoget

    Your derogatory fantasies reveal your character, while saying little that is consistently applicable to the ‘average institutional church’.

  • Ruaidrí Ó Domhnaill

    It was only two sentences and both were more applicable to the institutional church than your ad hominem attack on me was.

  • WilmRoget

    There was no ad hominem, and your two sentences were a derogatory and false assertion about a hugely diverse set of individuals.