Pastoral Suicide & the Lamenting Church

November 13, 2014 at 8:14 pm
“To enter a broken heart means that our hearts will be broken as well.”
– Paul Miller
     It was close to a year ago that I sat at my computer writing a reflection on the suicide of a fellow pastor named Stephen Hightower. Today, I find myself compelled to memorialize the life of Mickey Sheally. Mickey was one of Stephen’s mentors who took his own life while sitting in the parking lot of his church at the close of last month. My denomination specifically, and the Church at large, has lost two pastors in the span of a single year by way of the evil torment of depression, human suffering and desperation. It should cause us all to stop and pause.
     I first heard the news of Mickey’s death by way of a phone call that came late in the evening. As I stood stunned in my frigid driveway, the question that clogged my mind more than any other was not merely the obvious question of why? But more specifically, why the finality?  Why was an answer that was so utterly terminal, permanent and unalterable the only one he could seem to find?
     If we can withhold the temptation for a moment to suggest an over-spiritualized chastisement that pastors should find their escape in ”just turning to Jesus,” could we not, at least, wonder why some pastors can’t seem to find even temporary relief in a drink, in a movie, or sex with their wife? I ask this honestly as a man who has been open about his inability to fully grasp the depth of darkness that the suicidal endure and with the realistic expectation that the endless night which some pastors face can’t be shaken by a couple beers or a decent flick.
In fact, could it be that perhaps attempting to escape the pain at all is actually part of the problem?
     I have been slowly working my way through the book A Loving Life by Paul Miller in which he traces the gospel through the book of Ruth. In it he writes, “The church has not been particularly good at hearing laments from its broken people…We’ve not been taught that to love someone means we enter their suffering.” Dr. Soong-Chan Rah agrees, noting that few churches include lament in their weekly liturgy.
“How we worship reveals what we prioritize. The American church avoids lament. Consequently the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost in lieu of a triumphalistic, victorious narrative. We forget the necessity of lament over suffering and pain. Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes the heart forget. The absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in the loss of memory.”
     Could the great irony of pastoral life be that in an attempt to meet the perceived needs of communities bent on experiencing “their best life now” many pastors have created emotional prisons for themselves where even they are not free to cry? In such an environment, the sermons preached and the songs sung each week become a constant ringing in the ear of leaders who are confronted in potent ways that they are living anything but the life abundant. Who does a pastor tell when the gospel is not sounding so good anymore?
     Might our recent experiences with these pastoral deaths point us back to practices like confession, lament and songs that can give voice to death as well as life, to despair as much as hope. Might we create churches in which people gather together as much to cry as to laugh; churches where we remind each other that sinfulness is a prerequisite for salvation, and sacred spaces where people are not projects but brothers and sisters; homes where prodigals and orphans find a family and communities when, on any given Sunday, the pastor might find themselves at the center of a group of outstretched hands praying for their sobbing hearts. Temples of lament where our tears serve as constant reminders that while we wait together for the new world, the one we live in now is only bearable when we are not asked to face it alone.