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Pastor & wife buoyed by church, community after son takes his life

FRIENDSHIP, Tenn. (BP)–The fact it was Good Friday when it happened was even more difficult for Mike and Sandra Melton. Their only child, Jeff, 22, took his life on the day when God allowed his own son to die.
The couple doesn’t think Jeff chose the day. In fact, they realize now Jeff was so depressed he wasn’t aware of the date and its significance.
But they are sure he was a good son, although he didn’t believe it according to his farewell note and conversations just prior to his death. And they believe they will be reunited with him in heaven because he was a Christian.
Like many young adults, Jeff was trying to find his place in the world, said his father, Mike Melton, pastor of Friendship (Tenn .) Church.
After several years of trying to find his niche in college, he moved to Dyersburg, Tenn., and began working. In early 1998, he lost his job. Then Jeff started working for a company in sales work. He became discouraged when potential clients canceled appointments and sales were slow, Melton said.
Jeff also had some personal problems he had discussed several times with his father, including the evening prior to his death. Melton left their last encounter encouraged, with the impression Jeff had reached a turning point in his life.
Unfortunately, Jeff either didn’t feel that way or changed his mind. His parents will never know.
Learning about Jeff’s death and the fact he took his own life was the hardest thing Mike and Sandra Melton ever endured, they said.
“It was all a blur,” Mike Melton said. But he remembers some things. He recalled when his friend, the town’s mayor and member of the church, told him Jeff had committed suicide. The man prefaced his report with the warning that Melton was about to hear the toughest fact he would ever hear.
That level of understanding was found in every interaction the Meltons had during the next couple of months, they said.
And people were not only sensitive, they were available, the Meltons added.
“Within a matter of minutes [of when they learned about Jeff’s death], the whole town was here,” said Sandra.
Part of the reason for the amount of support they received was their long tenure, they explained. Melton has served as pastor of Friendship Baptist Church for 12 years. And the town is close-knit, with a population of about 600.
That evening, the deacons met with Melton and told him they understood Jeff didn’t have insurance to cover funeral expenses. The church would cover those expenses, they assured him.
The next morning, people returned, Sandra added. They arrived with food, their prayers and offers of help in preparation for the funeral. And the couple got many phone calls from friends, some who live in other areas and even other states.
Another reason for the response was that people knew Jeff, who had grown up in the community. He was known for his love of children, they said.
The next day, Easter, was Jeff’s funeral. And people came again. The sanctuary was filled with one of the largest crowds it had held in 12 years. All of the pastors in Crockett Baptist Association attended along with others from the area and from out of state. And another crowd attended the graveside service.
The couple received more than 300 cards and gifts. And they continued to receive other contacts, some following an announcement which appeared in the Baptist and Reflector state paper. A few of the contacts were eerie in terms of their relevance to their situation, the pastor said.
For example, a friend who had lost a son by suicide traveled some distance to attend the graveside service. And he came despite the fact Melton didn’t contact him. Friends who had lost their children through accidents also comforted the couple.
Sandra recalled several contacts from people who had relationships with Jeff. One woman wrote to tell the couple how much Jeff’s friendship had meant to her son, a fellow classmate who had endured ostracism because of the family’s poverty. And a friend called to say he was thankful for Jeff’s witness to him.
The Meltons realize they may be rare among ministers, whose job is to minister, because they have been the recipients of ministry.
They realize they are a living example of what they have known throughout their ministry — that pastors and their families are human despite the expectations by others and themselves to be superhuman. In fact, the expectations of pastors and their families concerning themselves may sabotage their efforts, Mike Melton said.
They feel guilt over Jeff’s death, but they have come to realize guilt is associated with suicide and it doesn’t mean they were failures as parents. Melton added he is comforted by people “who don’t look at me in any different way.”
Church members have modeled that acceptance, they said.
The deacons gave Melton time off, as much as he felt he needed, in addition to providing the funeral. And on Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, the deacons held a prayer
time for Melton to strengthen him during those sensitive days.
The congregation was assisted in its ministry to the Meltons by Conroy Ryan of Madison-Chester and Crockett Baptist associations. Ryan, who was a staff member at a church where the pastor committed suicide, spoke at the church and conducted a question-and-answer period for members.
The Meltons have resumed their ministries different people.
Mike reported he is a better pastor having experienced this loss. And Mike and Sandra have learned how many friends they have and how great God is.
“If God can help us through this, then God can lead us through anything,” the pastor said.

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  • Connie Davis