By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
A 15-year-old boy in the church took his own life. “It was baptism by fire,” Bontrager recalled, noting that he was 28 years old and in his first pastorate. “It was really difficult but God gave me the words to say,” he said. “I was amazed at how the Holy Spirit directed me and walked with me during that time.”
Decades and two other churches later, Bontrager has walked down the road of suicide on nine other occasions and they never get easier to deal with, he acknowledged.
Reflecting on his ministry, Bontrager, now pastor of Tulip Grove Baptist Church in Old Hickory, said he doubted any seminary class could have prepared him to minister during such a tragedy. “Until you walk through that fire, you just have textbook knowledge. It’s not the same as experience.”
In dealing with a suicide, it’s imperative to operate out of a shepherd motif and to remember “you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Bontrager said.
“The chief role of the shepherd in a crisis is to guide and care for the sheep, not to teach or instruct the sheep,” he added.
Bontrager said suicide is the most demanding of all deaths to deal with as a minister. “It is devastating to the family and to the church. The sting of death is painful enough but the sting of suicide is far more painful and confusing.”
Suicide also is no respector of persons, he continued, noting he has dealt with suicides from the 15-year-old to an 88-year-old. It can happen to the young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, and single and married persons, he observed.
He acknowledged, however, it is especially hard when the person who commits suicide is a teenager. His second suicide also occurred at his first church and was a 19-year-old girl.
“Teenage suicides need to be handled with extra care and attention,” he affirmed.
Bontrager said he brings the teens in the church together as a group to speak and minister to them. In addition, parents are welcome to sit in on those sessions, he added.
“I want teenagers (and everyone else) to know that suicide is a bad choice. It is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
He added that he works hard to let teenagers “know they are not alone” and that he and others will walk with them through any problems they might face.
In dealing with suicide, Bontrager suggested that ministers and Christians develop a “theology of death” that includes suicide.
It’s important to know what you believe about death, suicide, and salvation, he stressed.
“Addressing suicide (at the funeral service or during the funeral) boldly, lovingly, and prophetically will help guide the family and church towards healing,” he observed.
Funerals are hard on everyone including the officiating minister, he acknowledged. Instead of lamenting that you have been asked to lead a funeral of someone who committed suicide, embrace an “opportune time to declare the wonderful truth of the gospel and the love and mercy of God.”
Most importantly, Bontrager continued, “Always point people to Jesus.”
The Tulip Grove pastor offered suggestions for “do’s” and “don’ts” as they relate to suicide (see separate story). The most important “do” is to just “show up and let them see you care,” he suggested.
Bontrager tells families who have lost someone to suicide that though it seems impossible, “you will get through this but it will leave a permanent scar.”
The scar will heal and one of two things will occur, he said. “You will become better or bitter.”
Though the scar heals, it will be ugly, he warned. A person can hide the scars or “tell others how God brought you through it,” Bontrager said.
DEALING WITH SUICIDE: DO’S & DON’TS
OLD HICKORY – Pastor Gerald Bontrager of Tulip Grove Baptist Church has dealt with the aftermath of suicide many times during his ministry. He suggests the following do’s and don’ts.
(1) The best advice to anyone who wants to comfort a family member is: show up. “Let them see you care and respect the griever’s right to feel bad for awhile (guilt, anger, sadness, etc.).
(2) Pray silently. Pray privately. Pray openly.
(3) While it is always appropriate to read Scripture, be sensitive to how and when you offer to read. Some passages that are helpful are: Psalm 34:15,18; Psalm 46:1-11; Psalm 61:1-4; and Psalm 106:6-14.
(4) Listen. Active listening is so important, Bontrager stressed.
(5) Stay connected. “Community is so important,” the Tulip Grove pastor observed. “It’s hard for the stricken family and it is hard for the church family, but stay connected.”
(1) Don’t pry by asking questions. He observed that it’s natural to ask “what happened?” but it’s not appropriate immediately after the suicide. “Let the survivors take the lead in offering information.”
(2) Don’t offer trite comments. They include: “It was his time.” “God wanted him more than you did.” “God never gives us more than we can handle.”
Bontrager said his favorite response is: “I am so sorry for your loss. Words fail.”
Most of all, he stressed, just be there for the family who needs comfort.