2 weeks ago I sat with a pastor in Douglas County. There are 4 high schools represented in the youth group at his church, and between those 4 schools there were 9 suicides last year.
This morning I got a call from a pastor. Over the years, we have become friends, but this was not a friendly visit. Last night he had to call the authorities to prevent the suicide of one of his congregants. This is not the first time either. This was the second time in three weeks.
I have heard more stories like this than I can count, and frankly, I’m tired of hearing them. So I’m asking, during the most trying time of year, for help.
Pastors, we desperately need your leadership. People all over your congregations are tired, worn out, stretched, isolated and alone. Depression may be sneaking up on them because they are burnt out from work, trying to deal with family over the holidays, finding out now they are going to be alone, or feeling worthless because they can’t afford the presents their loved ones asked for. Many more, like me, already have mental illness and hope they can maintain their sanity through the holiday season.
This time of year, as churches, we talk about the need to help the least of these. We highlight all of the things we have to be thankful for contrasted against the situation of Jesus in the 1st century Near-East. But we also discredit the stress and pain surrounding all of us.
The pastor mentioned above in Douglas County lives simultaneously in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, and the county with the highest suicide rate. In the words a colleague, Frank, “They have bought their isolation, and it is the end of them.” How do we make space to allow people who are suffering to experience hope? How do we allow those whom we expect to be doing well, because financially they look very good, the space to talk about how broken they are?
My friend responding to suicide calls lives in a blue-collar community 30 minutes from Douglas County. But they are not immune to depression and suffering. If anything, his story highlights that the needs are immense. How as a church do we give people permission to get help when they desperately need it?
This holiday season, we can hope that our families are going to get along, sing songs together, and exchange gifts in a civil fashion. We can hope that the bonus from work comes in so we can afford this year’s new toys. We can hope that someone is going to spend time with us over the holidays. But that is just surviving Christmas, not learning to thrive in it.
If you have people (and you do) who are not okay, is your church a safe place for them to begin to reach out? Is your church a place where people will experience challenge and hope instead of shame and hate if they confess their own mental anguish?
This year I would challenge pastors to help give your congregation permission. People in your church may need permission to get professional help. Give it to them. They may need permission to ask for help from a friend. Give it to them.
And, if you are among the 70% of pastors who struggle with depression, I would ask that you let your congregation know that this can be a hard season by sharing what you are doing to keep your head over the holidays. Nothing gives others permission to heal more than hearing the story of how someone who has to fight too.