I am on my way home from the funeral of a fellow Baptist pastor who committed suicide. I got the news on Thursday morning (which explains why my usual Thursday or Friday blog post is absent; I was too deeply affected to do anything). The news came as a shock to me—and indeed to everyone else who knew the pastor. He had been an intern at Kabwata Baptist Church for a few months over ten years ago. He was a very fine man and slightly younger than me. I last met him two months ago when I was preaching at a pastors’ annual retreat. He has left behind a wife and three young children, plus a devastated congregation.
When a pastor commits suicide, apart from the emotion of shock there is also a lot of disappointment and dismay. As one member lamented, “Pastor was the one who always encouraged us to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ when overwhelmed by the challenges and difficulties that confronted us. How could he fail to handle whatever it is that made him take his life?” Some people who heard were even questioning his salvation: “Can a Christian commit suicide?” Others found in this the proof that the pastor was a hypocrite all along.
Moral failure and shame
So, what made this pastor take his own life? It was serious moral failure coupled with a high sense of the dignity of the pastoral office. His suicide note read something like, “I know what I have done is wrong, but I cannot face the shame.” He had gone into a depression but due to the nature of what took him into the depression, he failed to open up to anyone until the night before he killed himself. He shared with a visiting fellow pastor who counselled him and his wife. However, the next morning he went and took his own life out of a sense of shame.
Shame. That is a very powerful word. As pastors, we are moral pillars in society. We know that and our church members know that. Hence, it is the height of infamy when they discover that we were doing in secret what we denounced in public. The community also knows us as men who want them to abandon their ways of sin and so it is disgraceful for them to learn that we were secretly eating the very food we were telling them not to eat. It is embarrassing to be found in this moral contradiction. The enemies of truth and morality rejoice and want the world to know that all the holier-than-thou men of the cloth are hypocrites.
The sense of shame grows the higher you go up in the estimation of people. The pastor who committed suicide was in the leadership of the fellowship of evangelical pastors in his town. He was also a denominational leader in the whole province. Since he had been pastoring in the same community for over ten years, he had also become very well known among the common people in that town. Therefore, the height from which he had fallen was quite high.
Every pastor needs to know that when there is moral failure that is the beginning of the end of one’s ministry. Even when the hypocrisy is not discovered, the conscience receives a mortal wound and so the preaching loses its cutting edge. Certain topics are avoided or dwelt on too much in the preaching, and so the church gets a lopsided ministry. Sadly, appetite grows with feeding and sin is cultured in darkness. So, hidden moral failure tends to repeat itself until God says, “Enough is enough”: He opens the wardrobe and the skeletons fall out.
The mixed reaction of people
I must admit that I was surprised by the positive comments from people about their pastor despite the way in which he ended his life. In private and informal conversations many people—including his wife—spoke highly of his prayer life, his hard work, his ministry of encouragement, his selflessness and generosity, his love for his wife and children, etc. At the burial, the incoming principal at the college where the pastor was trained assured the church that the college would be willing to help them find a replacement. A shout was heard from the congregation, saying, “But he will never be like this man!” No doubt they felt robbed of a very rare asset from heaven.
When one pastor falls, life becomes next to impossible for other pastors. It takes a very long time for the church to recover from the trauma and feel that they can trust another pastor. All pastors become guilty until proved innocent. For a while you do not want to be identified as a pastor in the streets of town. The glances from the people seem to say, “Oh, so he is another one of those hypocrites.” Pastors’ wives also start seeing mortal danger whenever they see a young lady laughing with their husbands on the church grounds. Consequently, many pastors’ master bedrooms become scenes of intense fellowship for a few months. The wives mean well but this phobia makes them see feminine suicide bombers behind every skirt.
As usual, when a thing like this happens, everyone knows exactly what the pastor was or did which led to his fall (which they themselves are not or will never do). They become self-appointed spiritual pathologists and diagnose with the skill of a specialist: “The pastor must have stopped praying long ago.” “These pastors are all just hypocrites”. “The pastor must have had marriage problems”. “You must never counsel single women alone.” “A pastor must only counsel a woman once and then hand her over to another woman to continue the counselling.” “He was just careless”. “When counselling a woman you must always involve your wife.” “Pastors are too proud to be open with one another.” Ad infinitum. Ad nauseam.
Pray for your pastors
During the funeral service, the preacher pleaded with all Christians and especially pastors to have bosom friends in whom they can confide. He emphasised the fact that we all need real friends—friends before whom we can afford to be vulnerable. There is no doubt that this is part of the problem. The higher you go in ministry the more admirers you have but the fewer real friends. A very close friend to the pastor who committed suicide asked, “Was I so bad that my friend would prefer to kill himself than to confide in me about his spiritual struggles?” I am sure he is not the only one doing some heart-searching during this period. There is no doubt that the late pastor’s wife must also be searching her heart like this.
I have only one appeal: Pray for your pastors. The devil is real and there is only one that is stronger than him—not your pastor but God. Satan knows that if he can strike the shepherd, the sheep will scatter. Hence, he targets pastors with his most potent missiles. Many Christians are oblivious to this fact. They tend to simply admire their pastors as if they were super humans. They project their childhood invincible comic heroes (Spider Man, Mr America, etc.) upon their pastors and simply watch them as they fight sin with heroic energy in the community and in the church. They forget that pastors are also fallen creatures.
I will be the first one to confess that there are times when my struggle with my own fallen nature is so vicious that I wish I were still a private unknown Christian plying out my trade as a mining engineer in the Zambian copper mines. I would be less overwhelmed by my failures and would not carry so many people down with me. So, I end this blog post with an impassioned plea that all those who know me (and especially the Christians in my own church) should pray for me to run my race well to the very end. As Paul pleaded with the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 5:25), I say, “Brethren, pray for us!” One song kept ringing in my heart as we drove more than 900 kilometres back home today,
“O to grace how great a debtor,
Daily I am constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.”