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Suicide: Churches awaken to persistent crisis

EDITOR’S NOTE: September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.

HUSTONVILLE, Ky. (BP) — Pastor Andrew McGinnis still remembers his “solemn drive” home on June 25, 1995.

Then 4 years old, McGinnis had been attending a family reunion in Tennessee with his mother and two older brothers while his father Dan, pastor of Double Springs Baptist Church in Waynesburg, Ky., carried out his normal weekend duties at the church. But Dan McGinnis never arrived at church that Sunday morning. Members found him dead in the parsonage — a victim of suicide. Evidence suggested ministerial stress and undiagnosed mental illness may have been contributing factors.

Confused and angry, McGinnis told himself as a child, “I won’t be a pastor because I don’t want to end up like my dad.” But 23 years later, McGinnis has answered God’s call to ministry and is in his third year as pastor of Hustonville (Ky.) Baptist Church.

As he deals with his own ministerial stress and mental illness — a mild form of depression called dysthymia — he is among a generation of pastors determined to shine light on the nation’s suicide epidemic and make the church a haven for those at risk.

“All throughout Scripture, there are people that got to that place” of deep depression, McGinnis told Baptist Press. “And God hadn’t abandoned them. There’s always new purpose.”

Suicide prevention increasing

For well over a thousand years, many Christians believed suicide to be an unpardonable sin that automatically condemned a person to hell. But opinions have shifted over the past century, and ministers are focusing more on mental health and suicide prevention.

With nearly 45,000 suicides reported among Americans in 2016, suicide is the nation’s 10th leading cause of death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Over the past 17 years, 25 states had suicide rate increases of more than 30 percent.

Suicide “is rarely caused by a single factor,” the CDC stated in a June 7 release, and more than half of people who committed suicide from 1999-2016 “did not have a known diagnosed mental health condition at the time of death.”

To confront suicide, LifeWay Research reported, 41 percent of Protestant pastors say they have received formal training in suicide prevention. Forty-six percent have a procedure to follow when they learn someone poses a suicide risk, while 50 percent have posted the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255, where staff can find it.

American culture also is confronting the reality of suicide, with media reports of celebrity suicides, including designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain, as well as the Sept. 26 debut of ABC’s suicide-themed drama “A Million Little Things.”

For McGinnis, ministering to individuals at risk of suicide requires being open from the pulpit about medical and spiritual ways he’s dealing with his dysthymia. He also encourages the church body to build relationships, be vulnerable and seek professional help when they think they may be suffering from mental illness.

When speaking theologically about suicide, McGinnis seeks to strike a balance between denouncing sin and extolling God’s grace.

Suicide is “taking life into our own hands” and wrongly “putting ourself in the place of God,” he said. But it’s “not helpful or good theology” to say suicide victims automatically go to hell because of the way they died. Mental illness and suicide “cannot take away my new birth” or “rip away the Holy Spirit.”

Suicide in church history

Pastors have not always felt that way.

In the fifth century, African bishop Augustine of Hippo claimed suicide was “a damning piece of wickedness,” said Michael Haykin, professor of church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “For Augustine, a person who commits suicide enters into eternity with a mortal sin upon their conscience, from which they cannot repent.”

That view “shaped the thinking of the West down to the 20th century” and is still the Roman Catholic Church’s official position, Haykin said. So taboo was suicide that churches in the Middle Ages buried suicide victims in separate “unconsecrated” areas of their cemeteries.

Some Protestants, including Martin Luther, believed suicide victims were not automatically damned to hell. However, Luther said in one of his Table Talk discourses that “this ought not be taught to the common people, lest Satan be given an opportunity” to tempt them toward suicide.

Puritan pastor Richard Baxter wrote in his “Christian Directory” that it is “exceedingly likely” suicide victims “send [their] souls to endless torments.” English Baptist John Bunyan expressed a similar view in his allegory “Pilgrim’s Progress.”

A hint of change came in the 18th century, when some Anglican clergy like John Berridge and John Newton began to think “that Augustine was just not right” about suicide, Haykin said. Newton, author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” ministered to fellow hymn writer William Cowper (“There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood”) after Cowper attempted suicide at least three times.

Attacking the causes

A compassionate approach has become the norm today in evangelical ministry. Clinical psychologist Chuck Hannaford told BP churches and pastors should actively combat several factors contributing to suicide: stress, anxiety, depression, burnout and loneliness.

“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” said Hannaford, who served on the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee’s Mental Health Advisory Group. “So the problem needs to be addressed.”

Among Hannaford’s specific recommendations for reducing stress, anxiety and depression, particularly among pastors:

— Set personal boundaries to allow “time for self-care” and family.

— Eliminate unrealistic expectations for work and ministry.

— Avoid social isolation because all believers “need outlets and support.”

— Note any family history of mental illness. A person with family history of mental illness “is seven times more likely to experience a mental health issue, especially … under chronic stress.”

“Distress occurs,” Hannaford said, “when the demands in my life are greater than my ability to meet the demands. When this condition becomes chronic, it will eventually lead to some form of mental or physical illness.”

The SBC addressed suicide in a 2013 resolution “on mental health concerns and the heart of God.” The resolution noted, “Suicide is a tragedy, leaving heartache, pain, and unanswered questions in its wake.” The statement expressed a commitment to “affirm, support, and share God’s love and redemption with those with mental health concerns” and “oppose all stigmatization and prejudice against those who are suffering from mental health concerns.”

McGinnis, the Kentucky pastor, said life’s proliferation of stress and trials ensures a continuation of mental distress that churches must confront before it eventuates in suicide.

“The conversation isn’t going away anytime soon,” he said.