Remembering The Day I Broke (A Pastor's Struggle with Suicide)
Two years ago, could have been my last October. I remember the day vividly, Monday, October 2nd, 2017. Like most pastors, Monday is my “Sabbath” and if it’s fall you’ll likely find me in a tree stand. This day was no different. As I sat in the dark, awaiting the first rays of the sun to illuminate the trees around me and the corn field in front of me, a weight came over me that I had grown all too accustomed to. Anger. I was mad at the Church. I was mad over the ways I had seen people I loved mistreated, abused, and driven out. Most of all, and most selfishly, it was the views and ideas people had developed towards me that pushed me over the edge.
My anger reached a climax. After returning home from an unsuccessful hunt I flew into, what I can only call, a blind rage. The trigger was some political comment made by a friend of my wife before leaving the house. Yet, this comment, which wasn’t even directed at me or anyone I cared about, was the final crack in the levy that had been straining to hold back all the anger that I had built up to that moment. I don’t remember everything that happened next. Only that my emotions began to escalate and my mind blacked-out and destruction lay before me. One moment my phone was in my hand, the next it lay on the floor, a small cloud of broken glass settling on its demolished screen. I walked into our kitchen and awoke to myself ripping the large island in our kitchen from the floor. I walked toward my bedroom and found a perfectly round doorknob shaped hole in the wall.
Then came the thought I had said I would never have. The one thing that my years of battling depression and anxiety had never brought me to. “If you really want to destroy something, why don’t you take the 20-gauge shotgun out of your closet, and shoot yourself in the head.” The horrifying reality of what I was thinking began to come over me. Not the thought and fear of suicide, but the thought of how good it sounded. It was appealing, like the sound of the ancient Greek sirens beckoning sailors to their death. I was so angry, so mad, so desiring an outlet for all of this pent-up rage, that this seemed like the perfect fix. I needed help.
My wife had no idea any of this was going on. It may surprise you, but when I finally lost it, I didn’t yell, scream or make a scene. My wife, who was in one of the other rooms of the house, had no idea my phone lay in a broken pile, the kitchen island had just been broken free from the floor, nor that there was a new hole in our bedroom wall. She especially didn’t know that at any moment she could have been startled by the blast of a shotgun, and find the mangled remains of her husband slumped on the floor.
I don’t remember exactly how this part went down, but by God’s grace the allure of ending my life passed and I knew I needed help and fast! I found my wife, told her everything that I had just done and was considering doing. I was desperate, afraid and I knew my wife needed to know clearly the dangerous state of mind I was in. I told her I was suicidal, and considering it at that very moment. I was so emphatic, because I needed her to do something, anything! Whether it be call the cops, get an ambulance, anything! She went to go get help, and I slunk my way down to my office in the basement, laid on my blue & white flower print couch, squeezed a pillow tightly over my head, and lay there. Too afraid of what might happen if I left that spot. Until, the silence of my office was broken by a knock on the door.
This began a new journey for me and my wife. I wish I could say things got instantly better, but they didn’t. People we thought we could trust at Church proved to be incapable of handling the dark realities of our pain, and tried to wash over them with Christian platitudes and errant doctrines. Relationships between people in the Church continued to be strained, people were still ugly towards each other, and beyond a few lights that shimmered here and there things at Church were mostly dark.
Outside our Church we did find help. Around this time a pastor and his wife in Massachusetts, whom we had never met, but only knew through a mutual friend, began sending us encouraging letters. A couple of pastors from the area started meeting with me on a regular basis, and were very brave in sharing with me similar struggles and seasons they’d had in their lives and ministry. The knock on my office door, came from one of these men. Multiple times I felt like packing up and leaving the area, and even had the most random opportunity to do so come up. A church leader, I had never met nor heard of, sent me an email offering me the chance to interview for a church in southern Illinois. Yet, God kept making clear it wasn’t time to go.
Almost a year had passed since I ‘broke’. I was better, but certainly not over it. Church was going ok, maybe better, but it certainly didn’t seem that way to us. Anxiety attacks, sleepless nights, and the occasional thought of suicide still lingered. Around this same time, posts and articles began circulating all over social media of a young pastor who had given way to suicide, leaving his wife and children without a husband or father. Then one fateful night, after being in a ministry meeting that left my wife and I feeling utterly disgusted, we decided it was time for a real change. The Lord confirmed this in both of us. We couldn’t keep going about things as usual. It was time to quit, leave Park Grove, find something else-anything else, or try something different, something neither of us had considered an option.
Not being one to make a sudden rash decision, I messaged our new friend in Massachusetts, and told him the current state we were in. Below is part of our exchange:
Me: “Honestly, I'm in the middle of a very big personal struggle. I'm coming up on one year since I collapsed emotionally and spiritually. The criticisms, false accusations and spiritual immaturity got so heavy I snapped, and for the first time in my life I seriously considered grabbing a gun and ending it. Thank God I didn't, but I've never fully recovered since then. I've discussed it openly with other pastors, and I've gotten support, but spiritually I still feel so dead. I've witnessed conversions, baptized new believers, and have even seen God miraculously heal a close pastor buddy, but inside I just feel numb most of the time. I don't feel like abandoning my call to be a pastor, but I do feel strongly about taking a step back from the ministry and taking time to heal and grow before jumping back in again. Those deep dark times still flood me now and then, and I'm just not sure what’s the best way to handle things and move forward in a healthy way. This church has a long history of burning pastors out, which I now understand, and I wanted to be the guy who could stick it out, but I just don't know if I can. How do you know when it’s time to take a step back for a while?”
John: “You know because your physical body tells you. And your spouse. And your kids. Oh, they may not say a word but they speak volumes anyway.
Pastoring is the hardest job I ever did. In fact, I didn’t do the hard stuff, hating confrontation and discipline. So instead, I’d enable until I had to explode. Shrapnel and body parts all over the wall.
How long has it been since you took a sabbatical? 3-6 months every 2-3 years is a healthy rhythm. If the church can’t own that and sustain that for its pastor, then there should be no church and God will set up another body. You need to minister from a point of rest. It sounds like you’re quite a way away from that right now. But don’t let the need for rest question your calling; it actually affirms it. A pastor has to BE healthy to minister health.
Do you have a way to get away? Will there be a way for the church to fund your sabbatical? If not, we’ll just pray something in. The psalmist said God grants rest to those he loves. In my insomniac life, I’ve flippantly said “well there goes his love for me then” … to which the Holy Spirit says, “wise guy!”. God wants rest for his dear servants.
Dark times and moods, suicidal thoughts and personal struggles are universal. And universally hidden. You need to have a regular meeting of other pastors to dump on and be dumped on. Some cheap but good quips– “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” and “suicide is overkill” – do offer some perspective, because “ending it all” really just begins it all (where all is really bad) for those who love you. Does Elaine know about all this? If not, find a way and a time to tell her. That lady loves you and will take care of you (and of course, vice versa).
To deal with dark thoughts and times, you need to note them, observe but don’t judge them, because it’s when you let them condemn you “what kind of a pastor am I to have thoughts like this?” (to which the answer is – a normal one). That’s when they can really dog you.”
That was all the counsel we needed. To our surprise, things went very smoothly after that. I backed out of ministries I knew I could no longer serve in. We spoke with the leadership at Park Grove and they were completely on board with supporting us, and giving us any amount of time and financial support we needed during this season. This is one place where I must brag on the men in leadership at Park Grove. Outside of a few “awkward” meetings when I first arrived at Park Grove, they’ve proven to be people who go out of their way when we tell them we need help and support. The leaders granted us three months leave from Park Grove, full pay, as well as covering the cost for us to do correspondence counseling with a trained Pastoral counselor with Cross Point. One of our deacons, offered me a job with him during this time, in which I was able to spend a good half of my sabbatical over in Kansas working construction. This ability to just get away was exactly what I needed.
Before my wife and I started our sabbatical, which began the first Sunday in October, almost one exact year after I “broke”. We had a congregational meeting to explain to the Church what we were doing, and why we were getting ready to take a step back. Being the 5th pastor since the early 2000’s, many pastors had come and gone. None having lasted much more than 5 years. I quickly discovered I was the first to stand before the congregation and be honest. Many people had the false idea that the previous pastors left only because of life and job situations. I had learned otherwise, they left because they were burnt out and opportunities to get out arose. We called out sin, coming just short of naming names, and made clear that things needed to change. Some were offended, some were shocked and unwilling to hear what we had to say, but the majority were thankful that we said what was true even if it hurt.
We took three months off from Park Grove. I was personally amazed by the healing that took place in my heart during that time. My confidence, which had long since been smothered, began to return, the ability to have joy- that fullness of joy that Jesus promised in Jn. 15:11- returned, and personal devotion time with the Lord (which I had never quit doing) became a place of intimacy with God again- It was so good just being a Christian and not a pastor. We came back refreshed after the 1st of the year. There were still some issues to deal with, but they all worked themselves out rather quickly. This is really my first time looking back and it’s amazing to consider how smoothly God handled some of those issues when we first returned. No huge blow ups, no fights, things just went their way.
During the summer I found anxiety, depression and sleepless nights starting to hit me again. Having promised my wife, I wouldn’t go down that path again, I bit the bullet, went to the doctor, and got prescribed some low side-affect anxiety medication. A choice I now wish I had made years ago. Lingering hurt and bitterness still raises its ugly head now and then. I’ve chosen to meet those pains head on, repent of my resentments, and ask God to heal the wounds in my heart, and in His time, even those relationships. Just recently, I’ve seen God do a work of healing in my wounded heart, and he has given me much freedom in this regard.
Today is October 2, 2019. Two years to the day since I “broke”. Pastoral ministry is not an easy job and I’m certainly not going to say that it’s been happily ever after. It would be naïve to ever think it will be this side of eternity, but God has shown me his love, special care and attention all along my journey. It would be a lie to say I don’t get nervous when I think about the future. I certainly do, but I can look at it with hope. Whether it be the rest of my life serving at Park Grove, or if the Lord may lead me and my family elsewhere, I know that His severe mercy will be with me and my family wherever we may go.
This blog is for everyone who’s struggled with suicide or the desire to just give up on life. BUT it’s especially for pastors. I don’t know how many of you will read this, but I want you to know, you’re not alone in this struggle. I will speak up on your behalf, because Christ the good shepherd first spoke up on my behalf. Isaiah said of Christ, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”(Is. 53:4 ESV) This is both mind and body. Christ has carried them all, and if you hold fast to Him, He’ll carry yours also.
I want to leave you with a Facebook post from this past weekend. God touched me in a very special way and I want to share with you what he shared with me:
“2 years ago, I was so broken I was ready to end it. 1 year ago, I gave up and said, ‘God I surrender.’ Today, God touched my body in a miraculous way. #convergence
If you feel alone, like God doesn’t care, listen, I know the depths of depression and anxiety, that makes one even despair of life. BUT I know a God who is greater than even the darkest pit. Our God is a God of love who can heal even the most broken man- soul and body.”