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Lessons in My Life

Date: September 17, 2016   By: Fe Anam Avis

At a rate of 13 deaths per 100,000, most pastors would consider suicide a tragic but infrequent pastoral situation for them to deal with.  That’s what I thought.

Then, over a seven month period of time beginning at the end of 1997, three students in a high school of only 300 killed themselves in the community where I was the pastor.  That was lesson number one:  the suicide of a single young person can set off a chain reaction among other young persons that can be difficult to stop.  Like most pastors, I was unprepared for the explosive impact that a single suicide can have upon others.

The pastoral need in response to suicide is different from other deaths.  The pastoral response to a cancer death requires attention to feelings of loss and disorientation.  A suicide adds another layer of pastoral need; it ramps up the risk of further suicides both in the family and in the larger community which require an additional ministry of prevention.

This was driven home to me when I spoke at a suicide prevention dinner a number of years ago.  At the end, a woman came privately to tell me the story of her two sons, the first who had taken his life three years before.  Now, her second son had just gone to his brother’s grave and taken his life on his brother’s birthday.  She had lost both her children to suicide.

The second lesson came in the form of raw statistics.  Six percent of any adult population is currently considering suicide.  Seventeen percent of high school students are considering suicide.  To put human faces on these numbers, it means that even in a small congregation of 100 persons and 10 high school students, six adults and two of the youth are considering suicide.  These constitute profound spiritual needs among a group of people who are likely isolated in their thinking with a desperation that will almost never be addressed in a sermon, prayer, or meaningful pastoral conversation.  Here is the deeper point:  even if none of these 8 persons ever harm themselves they are worthy of the church’s ministry, a ministry they are likely not receiving.

Pastors are not exempt from the threat of suicide and suicidal thinking which occurs more often than we would like to believe.  More than once when I have spoken to community groups, a person from a congregation that lost a pastor to suicide has shared the long term, devastating effect of that tragedy upon the community, a devastation that is prolonged by the taboo against open conversation about suicide.  The number of pastors who have confidentially shared with me their own suicidal thinking urges me on in the mission of equipping churches to care for those impacted by suicidal desperation, including their own pastors.

The third lesson is obvious, once we are invited to stop and think about it.  For every adult or high school student who is considering suicide there are parents, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and friends, who are worried about them.  Unfortunately, the stigma around suicide makes it shameful for them to admit they have someone in their family who may be suicidal.  After all, they think, how bad must a family be that a person living in their home would rather die than live?  Suicidal desperation isolates family members and loved ones in faith communities just as powerfully as it isolates those who are suicidal themselves.  Many people do not realize that suicidal thinking can happen to anyone, in any role, at nearly any age, and in any family.

Add it all up, and about half of every faith community is being impacted by suicidal desperation, and, with rare exception, that suffering is not being addressed.  That’s why I created Soul Shop™, a one-day training for the leaders of faith communities to equip them to minister to all these impacts of suicidal desperation.

There is one other reason I created Soul Shop™. (www.soulshopmovement.org) I was one of those pastors who seriously considered suicide.  In 2003 I found myself at a gun counter of a department store to purchase the means to take my life.  I checked into a hospital emergency department instead.  It was long journey out of suicidal thinking but I can say with immense gratitude that I am no longer hopeless and I no longer feel alone.  My driving passion in life is to bring others out of that seemingly impenetrable darkness and into the light of a new day.

Image: “Congregation” by dallscar1.  License: CC BY 2.0.

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