Each Sunday most ministers have several people in their congregations who are high risks to commit suicide. On casual acquaintance these people seem little different from non-suicidal people. But a sensitive pastor may be able to discover them and prevent a blow-up.

A pastor in the midwest took seriously the rumors he heard of high school students who were talking of suicide. He made it a point to befriend these youths individually, but without mentioning suicide. Eventually each brought up the subject, and one day to his complete surprise all four showed up at his office. They had compared notes and wanted to discuss it together. After several sessions the two who weren’t Christians accepted Christ into their lives.

We all read startling statistics on suicide. We should remember that the number is probably double, since many suicides are not recorded as such. Possibly half a million people in the United States attempt suicide each year. Probably 90 percent of the population will consider it as a possibility sometime in their lives. If we count the number of relatives and friends who are affected by completed and attempted suicides, the figure of people touched by suicide is close to the number of miles to Mars. The problem is so serious that HEW regularly publishes “Bulletin of Suicidology.”

Since Jesus Christ addressed himself to such pressures of life as sickness, prejudice, widowhood, and debts, it is safe to assume that he would hardly ignore the tragedy of suicide. Although it may be important to discuss the colors of the walls in the New Jerusalem, we must preach to bind the broken heart.

The Christian pastor remains the key counselor in America; he gets the first chance to help. Some ministers may be afraid to broach the subject for fear that people might think more about it, and a rash of suicides might result. Other pastors realize that to heal they must openly deal with any problem smoldering inside people. Here are some suggestions.

1. Demonstrate an interest. Many troubled people will not approach their pastor easily on such a deep and mysterious subject. He must take the first step by proving that he cares and is willing to discuss the subject. But you should not announce that all of those thinking of suicide should meet in room 304.

However, the minister is in an ideal position to break the ice. Possibly a sermon on the subject would provide a good bridge. Certainly, occasional references from the pulpit will let people know that you are thinking about the problem. A great deal could be accomplished in the church’s newspaper. A line or two in the bulletin will also let people know of a pastor’s concern and availability.

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Be sure to balance your approach. Avoid a blitz. If for three months you inundate your congregation with information on suicide and then drop the subject, or ease off on it, people will assume your interest was just a fad. A limited and carefully paced sprinkling of material may prove far wiser and more productive.

2. Demonstrate understanding. Ministers have not always been a likely port for the potential suicide. Since Augustine in the fifth century the act has been so vigorously condemned that its victims were immediately labelled insane and pronounced damned forever. There are churches and clergy that still refuse to bury suicide victims.

A Methodist minister, confident of his resources in Christ, said of a suicide, “I know I could have helped, if only I had known.” The attitude may be changing, but the fact is that many people are afraid to discuss their thoughts with their minister. Consequently, the burden to develop rapport rests on the pastor. First, he must educate himself. If he merely rehearses the old myths it is unlikely he will gain anyone’s confidence. He needs to know that most suicides do talk about it; that very few are technically insane; that many die with enormous faith; and that suicides are increasing among women and youth (Theory of Suicide by Farber).

In order to do this, the minister must wrestle with his own feelings. How does he feel toward those who attempt it? Can a Christian commit suicide? Is the subject so threatening to him that he must back off? Anyone who handles this phase of death must answer painful questions.

It will be easier for the troubled person to confide in a minister if he shows genuine empathy. If the person views a minister’s interest as purely academic, he may feel hesitant. (For feeling read The Savage God by Alvarez and The Psychology of Suicide by Shneidman.)

3. Teach a biblical perspective. It would be much simpler if all we had to do was pick up a topical Bible or a Bible dictionary and quickly sum up the subject. However, the minister has a difficult task ahead of him. There are several illustrations of suicide (Samson, Judges 16:30; Saul and his armor-bearer, 1 Sam. 31:4, 5; Ahithophel, 2 Sam. 17:23; Zimri, 1 Kings 16:18; and Judas, Matt. 27:5) that serve as interesting stories but really contribute little to the actual theology of the matter.

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The minister will have to use the skills, tools, and faith to shed biblical light on the subject. How longsuffering do we see God? How broad is his forgiveness? What are the grounds for his acceptance? What is Christ’s attitude toward the needy and the oppressed when things start to fall in on them? How does suicide fit into our concept of the preservation of the believer? The parishioner needs to have his minister evaluate and apply these principles as far as he is able.

A pastor told me about a highly successful recovery of a man whose wife committed suicide. The minister discussed the circumstances of the death at the funeral. The family appreciated this far more than a whispering, pretend-it-didn’t-happen approach. Afterward the pastor visited the husband often and encouraged him to talk about it. The two of them dealt with his feelings and his questions. They read Scripture and prayed during their visits. Today the gentleman has adjusted well, has remarried, is an active church leader, and is happy to discuss the subject with anyone who is interested. He also has a loving attitude toward his deceased wife. This pastor played a vital role in helping the grieved husband deal with feelings that could have crushed him for the rest of his life.

4. Create an aura of hope. One thing is characteristic of every suicide: he has lost hope (End of Hope, Stotland). The minister may be in a strategic position to prevent this.

Although being realistic about the evils of society and the depravity of man, the wise pastor will paint a balanced picture. Not everything is rotten, and Christ certainly offers great assistance for a bright tomorrow. All our hope is not restricted to the next life. Christ offers practical help for facing family, friends, job, and enemies in this present life. We must consider the consequences of continuous negative preaching. The potential suicide looks at life as a hopeless mess. The pastor does the weary person a disservice by merely confirming his pessimism.

5. Stress safety valves. The Church of Jesus Christ offers excellent help in defusing the potential bomb. The typical suicide feels worthless, guilty, lonely, rejected, and angry. Usually his actions are the result of a series of set-backs that are ignited by one too many frustrations. The minister can emphasize antidotes for each of these. He can offer a strong biblical affirmation of our personal value, our total forgiveness before God, and our continued purpose in Christ. The Church can also offer friendship that is accepting, low key, and available to all classes of people.

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6. Befriendinghigh-riskgroups. Although anyone can suddenly commit suicide, statistics indicate that certain people are more vulnerable than others. Dentists and doctors are ending their lives at a rate of six or seven to one over the general population. Lawyers choose suicide five times as often as others (Public Affairs Pamphlet no. 406 and 406A). Among the medical professions, psychiatrists lead the list in self-destruction.

Suicide is also increasing among young people who face the pressures of college, and among women who are confused about their roles in life. Suicides are now on the increase among minority and poverty groups. American Indians face a serious problem among their youth; some tribes have six times more suicides than the national average (Suicide, Homicide and Alcoholism Among American Indians, National Institute of Mental Health).

7. Develop a system of referrals. The modern pastor is stretched in too many directions. But for one year he might resign from the music committee and spend that time looking into suicide prevention. Since he cannot handle every problem or person, a minister would do well to find some capable psychologists. After evaluating their acceptability, he could keep a list for referrals.

If the minister lives near a suicide prevention center, he will certainly want to take advantage of its closeness and visit with its leaders. Some churches sponsor such centers. He will also want to become familiar with the literature available. Most of it is difficult and not Christian, though there are notable exceptions, such as Suicide and Grief by Stone and Going Sideways by Pederson and Kooiman. Some books are depressing and shouldn’t reach a troubled person’s hands. Even the religious books must be weighed carefully, since some of them are strange (i.e., Suicide and the Soul, Harper & Row).

Knowledgeable professionals from local mental health clinics could be inked to lead a discussion at a monthly ministers’ meeting. Many clergymen are in excellent positions to ease tensions before they reach a crisis. Those who accept this challenge will probably never know how many tragedies they have prevented as servants of Jesus Christ. WILLIAM COLEMAN, author and lecturer, Aurora, Nebraska

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