Updated: Oct 26, 2020
A Note About the Series: The month of September was Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and I believe many of us have been affected by suicide one way or another. Throughout my life, I have seen the detrimental effects of it on individuals, families, and whole communities. I believe it’s time the church addresses the heartbreaking reality that suicide has left its mark on many, if not on everyone in our pews. This is my attempt to start that conversation in my own context. This is a three-part series about suicide and the church. I hope that this will allow others to tell their story. The fact is too many wonderful, beautiful, and precious people have left this world much too soon. It’s time that we share our story so that those dwelling in darkness know that they are not alone. “Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalm 139:12).
Now, here’s the church’s story…
Seminary: The Email
It was the fall semester of my senior year in seminary. I still didn’t know where I was headed after graduation, which is not unusual in late October, but May was coming sooner rather than later. I opened my computer on the dining room table in our small on-campus apartment in Alexandria, Virginia. For the past year, the dining room table had also become my work desk with piles of books and papers scattered over every inch of the tabletop. As you can imagine, my wife and I ate most of our dinners on the couch.
In my inbox was the weekly email from the Diocese of Tennessee, my home diocese. It had all the typical items in it: upcoming events, pictures of where the bishop recently visited, and other news around the diocese.
It had become my custom over that senior year to scroll past all of that and go straight to the bottom of the email which showed the latest job openings. There at the bottom were the announcements of clergy who were retiring or moving. These job transitions typically aren’t thrilling news, but for me, it was a possible ministry opportunity.
But something that morning stuck out to me. Rather than an announcement about someone retiring or moving, the top bulletin point read, “Father Rob Courtney, priest at St. James the Less in Madison has died.”
I leaned back in my chair and just stared at the wall. I knew Rob, I had met him ten years ago through a family friend, and our paths crossed a couple of times since I had gone to seminary. From my experience with Rob, it seemed he was a little quirky but sweet and easy to talk to at the same time. I was shocked by this news. I had known that he battled depression, but never thought it was that serious. Clearly, I was wrong because soon after that email I learned that Rob had killed himself.
For the next few days, I wondered what would happen to Rob’s little church. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to lose a priest and especially one that had been there for a decade. Rob had just started at St. James the Less when I first met him, and I remember talking to him about what it was like. His loss was a tragedy, and shocking to everyone who knew him.
But my mind kept going back to that church. How were they coping? How do you move on after something like that?
About a month later I got a call from the diocese. They wanted to talk to me about being the priest at St. James the Less. I realized I had been thinking about them for a particular reason. Somehow by God’s grace when I graduated from seminary that May, Megan and I headed to Madison, Tennessee. I realized that this was not a “job opportunity”, this was, in fact, a calling.
St. James the Less: What Happened
Fast forward a bit. I have now been the priest at St. James the Less for a year and a half. I’ll admit that’s not a very long time, but I have started to reflect on everything that happened in that first year and a half. Looking back, I truly believe everything that has happened is a testament to God’s faithfulness. Here are just a few glimpses of what we’ve been through. I hope this can help those churches and individuals who have lost a pastor or priest in the same way.
By the time I arrived in Madison it had been seven months since Rob had passed. During that time a retired priest named Father Randy, who had been worshiping there stepped in and did a wonderful job caring for the congregation. Randy was the right man for the job, and everyone knew that. He was able to be the caring, pastoral presence they needed at that time.
By the time I arrived, it felt like the parish wanted to move on from the subject of Rob. I got that sense pretty clear when people just didn’t want to talk about what happened. I was the one that had to bring up Father Rob, and the second I did, people’s faces usually changed. Some would get tears in their eyes, some would stare blankly at the floor, or have a glazed look in their eye as they replayed something in their mind. I knew then that the church still needed to process Rob’s death, and how his death had affected them. They had gone through a traumatic experience, but they didn’t want to talk about it.
I knew that everyone works through their grief in very different ways, but almost always they do it in private. I wanted to respect that fact, but this had also affected the whole congregation. I wanted there to be a space for us to talk about it together.
That point was proven at one of our early vestry (board of elders) meetings when I just stopped our conversation about light bulbs or something, and bluntly asked them how they thought the congregation was coping with Rob’s death. Silence. I then asked them how they were coping, and we then spent the next 40 minutes hearing from each of them what Rob had meant to them, and how his death had affected them and their faith.
That was a holy moment, and a game-changer for me and the vestry. I felt like we grew closer from that experience, and I was starting to gain their trust. I had been hoping all along to allot a week or two during Sunday school hour for a similar conversation with the entire parish, and I for some reason I couldn’t get anyone on board. Every time I asked someone, they would say that wasn’t necessary. But then the vestry opened up in such a powerful way in this small group setting. It finally clicked in my mind. I was going to have to drop the large group discussion idea, and instead focus on individuals and small groups.
Not long after that, I started to ask people if I could come by their home just to talk to them for a bit. While having a normal conversation in their living room I would find a way to ask them, “So, what was your relationship with Father Rob like?” That’s all I ever had to say, they would take over from there. During those conversations, there would be tears, questions, anger, and everything in between. If I wasn’t in their home, I’d try to casually ask them during a small group opportunity like Bible study or supper club. It was a holy experience every time it happened. I came to realize it was exactly what they needed to feel heard, and it was perfect for me to have the chance to hear how they were coping.
I began to get a truer sense of how the church members were doing than I ever would’ve gotten from a large group discussion for an hour on a Sunday.
Even with that said, I wanted to find something that we could do as a community to remember Rob. I had heard their stories individually, and now it was time for them to share it with their fellow church members. Again, I would have to be a little creative.
So, a few weeks before the first anniversary of Rob’s death the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention hosted a walk not far from the church. I thought this would be a good way for our group to come together and talk with one another about how they were grieving while they walked. We had about 20 people from our church that day walk in remembrance of Rob, and during the walk, some of our members not only talked with one another but also talked to other folks who were walking in honor of someone they’d lost. Our group heard their stories, and we shared ours. It was truly a powerful and healing time together.
When the first anniversary came around, I had the church open all day for prayer, and had a service in the evening. I was surprised on a couple of levels. Only one person came by during the day to pray in the sanctuary, but she was so grateful for the opportunity. The service ended up having over 50 people there, which was an amazing turnout on a Thursday night. One lady who we’d met at the walk, who had lost her son, even attended.
After that, conversations continued to happen from time to time, but it has been fairly quiet the past eight months. We just participated in the walk to remember suicide victims and survivors again a few weeks ago. Much to my surprise, only two people came compared to the 20 we had last year. I had hoped this would have been an annual tradition for our church. I was pretty disappointed with the turnout until I talked to a friend of mine who is a retired Methodist pastor. He said it may be a sign that the community has healed and is ready to take the next step. He said maybe we’ve done our job well enough that this church is ready to accept what happened and not relive it again and again. They may be at a place of peace with what happened. What I had thought was a failure may, in fact, be a sign of new health. At least, I hope that’s the case.
During my interview at St. James the Less, I told the vestry members that I had a dream for this church. I asked them to imagine, “What if we were the church in Madison that was known for caring for those who lost someone they loved to suicide, or who had suicidal thoughts themselves? What if we didn’t run away from what happened to us, but rather embraced it? What if even from Rob’s traumatic death there could be a resurrection for this church?”
We haven’t really become that grand vision for the church, and a small part of me is disappointed about that. But on the other hand, I think we have become a stronger and healthier community in the past year and a half. I have forced our members to come out of their comfort zone to talk about how this has affected them and the community that they are intimately a part of. Rob’s death did not just affect them as individuals but as a whole community.
I’ve also been forced out of my comfort zone as I’ve tried to care for a church that has gone through such a traumatic experience. It has taken a very long time to build trust with them. Even now from time to time when I walk by someone at church they’ll yell out, “Rob…I mean Wesley.” Another member told me the other day that even now, every time he walks into the sanctuary he thinks about Rob. This is still raw for some of them, and I’ve got to meet them where they are in their journey of grief.
In many ways, the fact that Rob is gone will always linger in the back of their minds. Me being there two years or ten will not change that fact. We lost a handful of members when Rob died. They just couldn’t walk back into the church without crying or becoming angry at Rob or God, and so they have never returned. I really don’t blame them. But for the handful of members that we’ve lost, we have doubled that in new members. By God’s grace, we’ve baptized more people this year than we have in several years. We continue to see growth on many levels, and I believe the only way that’s possible has to do with the fact that we are a people of the resurrection. This church has risen from the ashes and is now flourishing in so many ways. This is a gospel story if I’ve ever seen one. It is GOOD NEWS, and I’m privileged and humbled to be able to live into this good news story. From this darkness, light has sprung up in new and life-giving ways.
“Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalm 139:12).
Endnote: I cannot underscore the amazing pastoral work Father Randy did in the seven months before I got to the church. He has been an incredible help to me, and a constant rock for this parish. I also am grateful for the vestry that took a risk and called this young kid out of seminary to be their priest. The work they did to keep the church going after Rob’s death was truly incredible. It truly takes a village.