A few years ago, when I was a pastor of a church in Chicago, I received a call from one of our deacons who said that the son of a church leader had committed suicide. I called the grieving family immediately and made arrangements to go to their house and offer words of comfort and assurance. After all, these are the things that pastors do.
But, what happens when it is the pastor who commits suicide? Who comforts his family? And who will offer words of assurance to a grieving church?
The topic of suicide of pastors came when my niece told me about a pastor who committed suicide. According to the news report, the pastor committed suicide by hanging himself inside the house in which he and his two children lived. The pastor and his wife had just returned home from a prayer meeting and a few minutes later he was dead. According to his wife, the pastor was going through a time of severe depression.
This report brought to mind three cases of suicides involving pastors of local churches. In each case, the three pastors were facing problems which led them to conclude that the only way to solve their problems was by taking their own lives.
The first case was the suicide of Teddy Parker, pastor of the Bibb Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia. According to friends, Parker struggled with manic depression and came to a point in his life where he believed he could not feel God in his life.
Parker killed himself on a Sunday afternoon after having preached to his congregation in the morning. He was scheduled to preach again that night, but he never made it. Parker was only 41 years old. He was married and had two children. According to a news report, he did not leave a note behind to explain the reason he took his own life. He died from a gunshot wound.
The irony in Parker’s suicide is that shortly before his death, he was able to convince a young man contemplating suicide not to kill himself. Parker counseled the young man for several weeks, up to a month before his own death.
The second case was the suicide of Ed Montgomery, one of the pastors at the Full Gospel Christian Assemblies International Church in Hazel Crest, Illinois. At the time of his death, pastor Montgomery was grieving the death of his wife, Prophetess Jackie Montgomery.
Montgomery’s wife died December 2012 and one year later, pastor Montgomery was still despondent about the death of his wife. Before his death he told members of his congregation that he was hearing her voice and footsteps. He died from a gunshot wound.
According to a news report, Montgomery shot himself in front of his mother and his son, inside his home in Matteson, Illinois. Both Montgomery and his wife served as marriage counselors in their church.
The third case was the suicide of Isaac Hunter, the founding pastor of the Summit Church, a megachurch in Orlando, Florida.
According to a news report, Hunter, who was 36 years old, resigned from his church on November 26, 2012, after he told church leaders that he had an affair with a member of his staff. According to the report, his wife filed a petition against Hunter, accusing him of domestic violence and describing him as being unstable and suicidal.
Isaac Hunter was the son of Joel Hunter, the pastor of the Northland Church in Longwood, Florida. Joel Hunter has been called a spiritual adviser to President Obama.
Why do pastors kill themselves? There are many possible answers to this question, but in the end, I believe, none of them fully explain why pastors take their lives.
One reason why pastors commit suicide is because of the demands of the ministry. It is true that when church members need the pastor, he or she is always there for them. However, pastors find it very difficult to confide their problems to members of the church for fear of recrimination.
Another reason pastors kill themselves may be due to the lack of reward or recognition they receive in the ministry. Many pastors are poorly paid and the lack of money imposes a severe financial burden on the family. This also requires personal sacrifice, humble living, and the depravation of some luxuries in life.
In some churches, the work of the pastor is not properly recognized. Some members are critical of the pastor and his family. Some members refuse to participate in the life of the church, leaving the pastor to do work that members should do. Some churches impose heavy demands upon the pastor’s wife without proper compensation.
These problems and a few others cause burnout and depression. A recent study by the Schaeffer Institute reveals the oppressive conditions pastors face in discharging their ministerial responsibility:
According to the Schaeffer Institute, 70 percent of pastors constantly fight depression, and 71 percent are burned out. Meanwhile, 72 percent of pastors say they only study the Bible when they are preparing for sermons; 80 percent believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families; and 70 percent say they don’t have a close friend.
As a result, the same study reports “that 80 percent of seminary and Bible school graduates will leave the ministry within five years.” The stressful situation in which most pastors exercise their ministry can contribute to suicidal thoughts. Anyone who takes his or her life has planned to do so even before the act is committed. Thinking about suicide is the first step toward suicide, but not always.
There are several cases in the Bible where people thought about dying, whether by taking their own life or by other means is not clear.
When the people of Israel were in the wilderness and approached Moses complaining and weeping, asking for meat to eat, Moses lost his temper and prayed to God: “I am not able to bear this entire people alone, because it is too heavy for me! But if you are going to deal with me like this, then kill me immediately. If I have found favor in your sight then do not let me see my trouble” (Numbers 11:14-15 NET).
When Elijah was threatened by Jezebel, he fled to the desert, dejected because of the situation in Israel. In his despair, Elijah prayed: “I’ve had enough! Now, O LORD, take my life” (1 Kings 19:4 NET).
A similar situation confronted the prophet Jonah. After Jonah preached his sermon to the Ninevites, they repented and the Lord revoked the punishment he promised to bring against the citizens of Nineveh. Jonah was so angry that he prayed to the Lord: “So now, LORD, kill me instead, because I would rather die than live!” (Jonah 4:3 NET).
None of these people killed themselves, but there are six cases of suicide in the Old Testament and one in the New Testament. There are also three other cases of suicide in the Apocrypha. In none of these cases, with the exception of Judas, does the Bible condemn or reprove suicide.
Suicide raises an important question: What are the moral issues associated with suicide? Another question that Christians ask is whether a person who commits suicide will be saved or will be lost.
When Samson committed suicide by killing himself and the Philistines with him, Samson prayed: “O Master, LORD, remember me! Strengthen me just one more time, O God, so I can get swift revenge against the Philistines for my two eyes” (Judges 16:28 NET).
The Lord answered Samson’s prayer. Samson’s strength was restored and he brought down the Philistines who were worshiping in the temple of their god. As a result, Samson “killed many more people in his death than he had killed during his life” (Judges 16:30 NET).
What is so ironic about Samson’s suicide is that he was able to kill himself and the Philistines with the help of God. If God had not answered his prayer and restored his strength, Samson would be unable to bring down the pillars of the temple and kill himself and his enemies.
It is this event with Samson and the suicide of these four pastors that has prompted me to study the six cases of suicide in the Old Testament. In the next few weeks I will be looking at each case of suicide in the Old Testament in order to learn what the Bible has to say about what some people have called “the impossible possibility.”
At the end of my study I will return to the issue presented at the beginning of this essay, about pastors who kill themselves. At that time I will seek to present a rationale for a Christian perspective on suicide.
A Personal Note: I have been in the ministry and theological education for more than fifty years. Over the years I have seen the struggles pastors face in being faithful to their call. However, most church members are not aware of the personal sacrifices pastors make in their work in the Kingdom of God. They need to be educated. If you feel that this essay is a good beginning, then share it with others. Put a link on your web page, share it on Facebook or Twitter. Churches need to learn to take better care of their pastors.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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