By the Rev. Benjamin Kevin Smalls
EDITOR'S NOTE: This viewpoint deals with the topic of suicide.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. There is also a Crisis Text Line: 741741 that provides free crisis intervention via SMS message. The organization’s services are available 24 hours a day every day throughout the US by texting 741741. If you are concerned about your safety or the safety of others, we encourage you to call 911 or visit the nearest emergency room.
I am actually up early wrestling with the stress and challenge of ministry and while doing so, I've been thinking about mental health and pastoral ministry, particularly surrounding the 56th suicide of a pastor since 2013, that of Jarrid Wilson of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif.
Pastors bear such heavy loads, especially in these post-Christian and post-denominational ages. Everybody wants the pastor to be a priest, an administrator, a building/facilities repair person, a psychiatrist, the best preacher in the world, the teacher of Bible Study, the worship innovator, the congregational growth expert, the ethicist of our day, the political voice of these times, the millennial whisperer, HR specialist, Economist, missionary, fund raiser, the model father/mother/spouse and, in some cases, just a plain ole’ savior.
I am praying for colleagues that are under this type stress. Here's a few things I'd like to offer:
- You have a right to your personal challenges. This doesn't make you less of a pastor or a Christian for that matter. The IRS, student loans, difficult family dynamics and health struggles do not exempt clergy. Be gentle with yourself as you engage your own personhood and humanity.
- While a few — a very few — have grown churches to thousands, you cannot do any more than what a congregation allows. I repeat, a congregation must be grounded in its own mission, vision and purpose. You can't create that drive, determination and change. A congregation's resistance has NOTHING to do with you, even if that's what they tell you. Be gentle with yourself as you lead in difficult scenarios.
- You do not have to put up with abusive, bullying and disruptive congregants. I repeat, you do not. Love them, but don't let them send you to depression and self-doubt. Find good colleagues to bounce this stuff off with because chances are you will quickly find that you're not alone in this type struggle. Be gentle with yourself as you protect your own sanity and mental health from not-so-nice congregants. Be slow to anger, don't retaliate and let love win!
- The answer to burnout and fatigue is good worship (Dr. Rodney Smothers told me this years ago). Do it every day! Be gentle with yourself as you are being led beside the still waters.
- TRUST GOD!!!! God is not without solutions. Be gentle with yourself in knowing you are not alone.
- Get the following resources; a therapist, a physician, a physical trainer, a spiritual director, a mentor(s), a coach, a good friend and TWO DAYS OFF! Be gentle with yourself as you GET the same care you often give to others.
- This may seem strange to hear in our field but put yourself first! Put your health, your family, your own sanity FIRST or you'll have NOTHING to give anyone. My eldest son told me just tonight that "you're 49 and it's time to start living! I've been with you in every church and it's your turn Dad." Take care of you on purpose so your children won't have to get after you! Be gentle with yourself as you let go and let God.
- Be defiant and rest, relax and be recreational in the face of evil as to say, "I'm not worried... God's got this!" Be gentle with yourself and allow rest to be your companion.
- Know that you're not perfect AND be okay with that!! Be gentle with yourself as you accept your limitations and shortcomings.
In the meantime, my prayers ascend for Jarrid Wilson's family and to that grieving congregation.
Very important disclaimer: This post in no way intends to imply or suggest that congregations or anyone else are responsible for deaths as a result of suicide. This is a word on self-care.
The Rev. Benjamin Kevin Smalls is an Elder in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, serving as pastor of Hope UMC in Southfield, Mich. This post is republished with permission from his Facebook page.
The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, in Leawood, Kansas, has many resources about the topic of suicide.