This article was originally published on February 13,2014 in response to the suicide death of Pastor Tommy Rucker of Dunkerton. Following the suicide death of DB Antrom, Family Pastor of Westwind Church in Waukee this past week I was reminded of Dave Miller’s earlier article.
Although this was not written about DB Antrom, many of the thoughts still hold true.
We need to address the issue of suicide in the church. A good starting resource is Melissa: A Father’s Lessons from a Daughter’s Suicide by Frank Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee.
Jon “Ole” Olsen
by Dave Miller
I got a call today, one I would have never expected. My good friend, a pastor in my state and someone I’d spent a lot of time with, one of the nicest men you could ever possibly meet, decided to end his own life. I was reluctant to say anything on this blog, but Facebook is full of the story, he is on the news and a pastor friend from North Carolina even contacted me about it. With social media, there are no secrets anymore. So, I guess it doesn’t hurt for me to reflect on it a little bit and to draw a conclusion from the tragedy. That’s how I process things. I write about them. I hope you will excuse me while I emote here tonight.
I know I’m not the first person to say it in a time like this, but he was about the last person in the world I thought would die this way. I’m a brash guy, opinionated. I ruffle feathers. Lots of people don’t like me. Not him. Ask anyone who knew him and they’d say, “One of the nicest men I’d ever met.” Deep. Thoughtful. Caring. Encouraging. For a smaller Iowa church, he was just about the ideal pastor.
Here’s what bothers me. I never saw it coming. I had no idea he was struggling, that his life hung in the balance. Neither did anyone else, evidently. He was supposed to be at our Administrative committee meeting a couple of weeks ago, but he had some scheduling conflicts and couldn’t come. But was there more to it than that? Were things already brewing in his mind at that point? If he had come, would we have noticed that something was wrong? Maybe he would have opened up to me at lunch and I could have helped him. Would he have shared his pain? I don’t know. When a friend dies of his own volition, all you are left with is unanswered questions and guilty memories.
Pardon my french, but it sucks. I don’t normally use that word, but at this point, I beg no pardon. If you’ve ever been through this, that is the mildest word one can possibly use. I lost a friend today in the most horrible way and I didn’t even have a chance to minister to him. If he had said, “Dave, I’m hurting,” I’d have done anything I could for him. I wouldn’t have had to though, because guys from his end of the state would have poured out of the woodwork to pray with him, help him, encourage him. He was loved. He was loved by a lot of people. I’d have driven across Iowa to spend time with him if I’d known what was at stake.
And now, there is a wife bereaved. There are children and grandchildren bewildered. There is a shattered church and a community in shock. And pastors all over the state of Iowa (and the US from what I understand) are shaking our heads asking why on earth he didn’t say something. I am telling you, we LOVED that man and we would have helped him. We would have!
But it is too late now.
Here’s my question. What can we do about the next pastor in pain? Somewhere tonight there is a pastor considering the same tragic decision my friend made. Maybe his marriage is struggling. Maybe there are problems at the church. Maybe he is bipolar or clinically depressed or has some other issue. Maybe there are hurts from the past that have not been dealt with. Maybe there is some sin in his life that is getting the best of him and leaving him awash in guilt. Maybe he is struggling with feelings of failure, insecurity or frustration about his work. Maybe he is looking at that big church down the street and wondering why his church can’t be like that church. Maybe it is a combination of a hundred different pressures from life driving him to the brink.
How do we let him know that he is not alone? How do we assure him that there is another way? I wish I had an answer. At this point, I don’t.
The fact is that when I have been depressed, I didn’t want to talk about it. I became a spiritual recluse. I performed in public but retreated within myself. I have dealt with huge issues that were cratering me professionally and sapping my strength spiritually and yet I never shared that burden with a single soul in all the world. I walked alone. Would there have been people I could have gone to? Yes. Did I go to them? No. By God’s grace, I did not end up where my friend did today, but I have walked his solitary path.
Pastor friends, we have to do something. I don’t know if a program is going to help. Maybe it would. But I think there are some things that we can do.
- Let’s stop bragging about how well our churches are doing. When a group of preachers get together it can tend to become a brag-fest. Our insecurities drive us to trumpet how well things are going in our churches. But remember this – there may be a pastor sitting quietly on the fringes of the group and your bragging is like a dagger in his soul.
- Maybe, instead, we could start sharing our struggles and hurts. Maybe we could admit our failures.
- I’m a sinner. You’re a sinner. Let’s stop pretending to one another.
- I am terrible at calling people. I get busy and I just don’t do it. I remember a story my dad told. One day, as he went through his day, a friend of his (seminary prof) was on his mind. He just couldn’t get that man out of his head. He realized that maybe God’s Spirit was prompting him to call. He did. The man’s wife had died that day and a call from an old friend was welcome medicine. Make the call. Check up on one another. “How are you doing, buddy?” “Things going okay?” Share your own struggles so that maybe he will share his.
- For the love of all that is holy, if you are down, hurting, discouraged or depressed TALK TO SOMEONE. A friend. A counselor. A fell0w-pastor. Don’t be like me. Don’t be an ecclesiastical Lone Ranger. Even he needed Tonto. Yes, you need God and he is your ultimate source of strength in pain. but you need friends as well. You need support.
I’m still in shock about this. I saw a picture of my friend, smiling like he always was. It made me want to cry. But it also makes me angry. Guys, we cannot let this happen and then grieve. We need each other and we need to find a way to help one another. We need to see one another as comrades in arms, not competitors for a prize. Other pastors need you and you need them.
I’m going to end with this. I’m here. I have my cell phone with me most of the day and I keep it by my bed at night. I normally wouldn’t give it out, but its 712-389-4833. I’m no counselor. But I’m a pastor. I’ve been depressed and I’ve gotten through it. I have two ears, both work reasonably well. If you are on the edge, call me. I’d love to talk with you and pray with you. If you are one of those guys that has expressed dislike for me on social media – call me anyway. Your life is more important than whatever squabble we might have had. Call me. Call a friend. Call your DOM. Before you do something drastic, before you do something stupid, before you break a lot of peoples’ hearts as my friend did today, make a call.
God, you are always there. Thank you. May we too always be there for one another.
Dave Miller serves as senior pastor of Southern Hills Baptist Church in Sioux City, Iowa.
This article originally appeared on his blog at sbcvoices.com.