Pastoring The Suicide Problem
In this article, Jon Sterns, Pastor of the Franklin Vineyard Church in Franklin, TN, reflects on his journey ministering to families who have lost someone to suicide.
Pastor, The Franklin Vineyard
I’m sitting down to write a piece that Vineyard USA has asked for my thoughts on. I pause. I pray. And I reflect on the recent sounds of sirens passing down our street.
The Noise Of Sirens
Several years ago, I built a pond in our backyard to help drown out the noises of the traffic sounds of the highway. But the pond does not drown out loud noises like ambulances and police sirens as they head towards the Natchez Trace Bridge.
I live just outside of Nashville in Franklin, Tennessee, and our county ranks as one of the top wealthiest counties in America. The downside to the upside of success is a pressure that is either expressed or hidden – it’s a pressure that comes from comparing ourselves to how others are doing, and it begs the question, “How in the world do I keep up with those other successful people?”
It’s a real pressure point in our county. That pressure makes people respond in different ways, and in many cases a person makes the decision to end their life. Some make their way to this iconic bridge in Franklin to deal with their pressure.
Suicide And The People We Know
In the last 15 years that our family has lived here, we’ve known of sixteen people who have died by suicide. Two were in my neighborhood; one was the band director of our children, and the other was a friend who I saw from my deck mowing his lawn in the afternoon – but who, later that night, ended his life.
Another one was a son of one of Kitty’s (my wife) prayer partners, who got caught smoking pot and had to tell his dad that night of his failure. This morning, we woke up to a text from my daughter that one of her friends had died by suicide.
As I’m listening to the sirens, to the pains of the city, I’m asking God how I can best serve this community.
So, I openly talk about the problem of suicide in this idyllic Norman Rockwell town.
I make the topic a place of uncomfortable prayer in our pastor gatherings.
I invite others to join us in our dream of seeing suicide wiped from the statistics of our city.
I actively pray for the sounds of peace to fill every heart struggling with these self-destructive thoughts.
What We’ve Done
Here are some of the things we have done to address the problem of suicide in our city:
- We sponsored a day of healing for survivors of suicide.
- We partnered with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention by hosting an “Out of Darkness” walk where together we raised awareness in our city that there’s something not right here.
- We were able to pray for some folks as they came into our church; we showed them the love of God.
What We’ve Learned
Here are a few things we have learned as we’ve pastored those who have been affected by suicide in their families.
- We’ve learned to change the language we use. We’ve substituted the phrase “died by suicide” for the phrase “committed suicide.” It’s more empathetic language for those hearing it.
- I’ve learned to speak to the pain that comes from doctrinal statements many use that say a person’s loved one is not in heaven because of their choice to end their life. Instead, I point to a God who grieves with them, and I assure them that God only knows the depth of the pain that a person was experiencing at their time of death.
- We’ve learned to sit in silence as they process the shock, then anger and then the intense guilt of not paying attention to the signs.
- We’ve learned only to go where we’ve been asked to go in prayer. Some don’t want it, and we have to be okay with the ministry of being present without words.
The One Who Imputes Value To Us
Finally, I’ve learned to communicate the cycle of life; there is seedtime and harvest, winter and spring, and God is author of our times. When the cycle is downward, and we face those horrible thoughts of the success comparison, God is the one that imputes value to us.
One of the phrases that I’ve told my church we need to memorize is from Robert McGee’s Search For Significance:
“I have great worth apart from my performance because Christ gave His life for me, and therefore imparted great value to me. I am deeply loved, totally forgiven, accepted and complete in Christ.”
I feel this call to champion this cause in our city. We must be a safe place for our community to talk about suicide. We can’t try to drown out the noises of pain with ponds.
We must be willing to step into the darkness, to come alongside those who are hurting, and to bring the light of Christ.
To learn more about the Franklin Vineyard in Franklin, TN, visit their website here.