Suicide Prevention Resources for Pastors

You may or may not know that September is Suicide Prevention month, so I want to suggest to you some good resources that may help if you consider addressing this issue from the pulpit, in Bible class, or in your newsletter.  By the way, before I start I should mention that neither I, the Basin and Towel podcast, nor Christ the King Lutheran Church have received any consideration or remuneration, financial or otherwise, from anyone regarding these recommendations and suggestions.

  1. The first set of resources comes from The Lutheran Foundation of Fort Wayne.  This is a great enterprise that is doing a lot to address mental health and illness in northeast Indiana, from a pastoral and theological perspective.  They’ve sponsored a couple of terrific conferences, and offered some good continuing education modules with excellent speakers. In cooperation with the website LookUpIndiana.org they offer these excellent resources (there are links to each of these resources in the show notes):
  1. The second link I just mentioned is a webinar recording by Dr. Karen Mason of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, who has also written an excellent book titled “Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors” (you can order it on Amazon HERE>>).  In this book Dr Mason talks about suicide myths and realities, suicide and Christian theology, current theories of suicide, and how a pastor and church can help people in crisis, survivors. helpers, and the whole Christian community.
  2. Karen Mason has a second book (with Scott M. Gibson) titled “Preaching Hope in Darkness: Help for Pastors in Addressing Suicide from the Pulpit” (HERE>> is the Amazon order link).  This one contains sermons, examples, liturgies, and more.
  3. There will be a FREE online Clinician’s Suicide Prevention Summit on September 9- and 10, 2021.  HERE>> is the page that describes the event.  It’s being offered for FREE by an organization that offers a lot of Continuing Education events for clinicians, social workers, etc.  The FREE Registration (do you get the idea that it’s FREE?) gives you access to the live webinars, plus later access to the recorded talks, power points, etc. for another 30 days.  I’ve attended several events from this group, and found them interesting, informative, and helpful.  Note: these presentations are from and geared to professional, licensed clinicians in mental health, social work, and other non-theological areas, so you’ll have to supply your own theological / pastoral understanding.  Nevertheless, the presentations should help you to get some grasp on current clinical theory regarding suicide causes and prevention.

A Devotion on “Our Father”

This episode is a transcript of a devotion on the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer I did for the Board of Directors of the SELC DIstrict of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod on June 28, 2021.

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place.  When He finished, one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”  Luke 11:1

I’ve been hanging out with the evangelicals again.  I did this twenty years ago when I started working on my Doctor of Ministry degree at Ashland Theological Seminary, which is only about a half-hour drive from my home.  Since then I’ve done quite a lot of continuing education, mostly in counseling-related areas, but it’s all been in random one-or-two day workshops that come along in the community – none of it has been as structured as the Ashland program. So I was intrigued when I saw a Facebook ad for the CS Lewis Institute of Northeast Ohio.  The ad was offering participation in a one-year, structured program of reading, reflection, and monthly events, so I applied and was accepted. I thought, well, I haven’t read much CS Lewis in a while, and there are still some of his writings that I’ve never read, so this would be a good chance to catch up.

Turns out that the CS Lewis Institute is a national organization that was started by some folks living near Washington DC who wanted to equip Christians who live and work in that area to talk about their faith in a deeper way while working in the political, intellectual, and social stratosphere that surrounds DC.  So, the Institute is not so much about CS Lewis as it is about apologetics after the manner of CS Lewis who, after all, taught at Oxford University for many years.

In northeast Ohio, this year’s group includes Christians from a variety of evangelical denominations, and some who are non-denominational.  There are a couple of pastors, including me; at least one physician; some college students; an automobile mechanic; a couple of “soccer moms”; and others.  So I realized that this is not a seminary-level program – it might be a college-level program – but that’s OK, too.

Anyway, I’m back to hanging out with the evangelicals again.  And just in time, the third edition of Gene Veith’s book “The Spirituality of the Cross” was released by Concordia Publishing House, so I read that right away to lubricate my Lutheran thought processes. Then I started on some of the Institute reading assignments, and discovered something kind of interesting: There seems to be somewhat of a dualism in current evangelicalism when it comes to thinking and writing about God. 

On the one hand, there is a strain of thought that focuses on “the sovereignty of God.”  Some of the writers from the mid-20th century, bemoaning the sorry state of the current religious scene in Western countries, take the position that “what we really need to do” is to bring ourselves back into a position of awe in the presence of the sovereign God.  For A.W. Tozer, for instance, this means that we should focus our devotion and life on the attributes of God (you know, like His omnipotence, His holiness, and so forth); for another, this time Martin Lloyd-Jones, this means that we should think about the Sermon on the Mount as a blueprint for the way Christians SHOULD live.

On the other hand, there is a different strain of thought that focuses on “the Fatherhood of God.”  This strain seems to originate in Henri Nouwen’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (which is curious, considering that Nouwen was a Catholic priest), continues in “The Prodigal God” by Timothy Keller, and others.  These folks focus on the tender mercy and love of God the Father that He showed when He sent His Son into the world to save us from sin and death, and they can be quite passionate about the joys and blessings that are attached to a relationship to the God whose Son instructed us to call Him “Our Father.”

I’m not sure that these two strains have come to blows yet, but Lutherans have a familiar way to keep these in balance:  it’s a phrase Martin Luther wrote into every explanation of every one of the Ten Commandments in His Small Catechism:  “we should fear and love God.”  

People have often asked me how that’s even possible. How can we fear God AND love God at the same time?  After all, there do appear to be some folks who lean more toward the “fear God” side, even Christians who are certain that have been redeemed by the love of God, and there are others who lean more toward the “love God” side.


But for a long time I’ve thought about it this way, in my own life:  my dad’s vocation at home was father to three kids, and husband to my mom; but his vocation in the world was secondary school principal.  I think that probably sometimes the way he thought and behaved in his “at-home” vocation leaked over into his “at-school” vocation (I suspect that sometimes at school he acted more like a dad than a principal) because I know from experience that there were times when his “at-school” vocation was pretty evident at home (when he acted more like a principal than a father.  So growing up, I had a certain amount of fear when it came to my dad (though I have to say, he was never abusive) mixed in with a certain amount of love.  Over the years, as I grew up, went to college, got married and raised my own family, my relationship with my father changed.  The level of my fear grew less and less over time, and as both my dad and I grew older I eventually realized that I really wasn’t afraid of my father at all any more, so there was only room for love.  I hope he realized that.


I’m pretty sure that I’ve been at that point with God for some time.  I can’t explain in detail how I came to this understanding, but I have this sense that I have a whole lot more love for God than I do fear.  That doesn’t mean to say I don’t respect and honor Him; it does mean that I’m more aware of the love we have for each other than I’ve ever been.  This has caused me to think more and more about what Luther also said in the Small Catechism, that when we pray “Our Father,” we should keep in mind that God is “tenderly urging us to believe that He is our true Father, and that we are His true children, so that we may ask Him confidently with all assurance, as dear children ask their dear Father.”


I don’t really want to go any further with this here; I’ll leave you to sort out what this might mean in your own life.  Instead I’ll recommend the books I mentioned by Henri Nouwen and Timothy Keller – and I’ve put links in the notes below, just in case you’re curious.  For now, I think it’s best just to invite you to pray with me:


Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name.  Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever.  Amen.

  1. Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version (NIV), Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.  Accessed through www.biblegateway.com
  2. Find out more about the CS Lewis Institute here:  https://www.cslewisinstitute.org/
  3. Books mentioned in this episode:
    1. Gene Edward Veith, The Spirituality of the Cross
    2. A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of God
    3. Martin Lloyd-Jones, The Sermon on the Mount
    4. Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son
    5. Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God
    6. Martin Luther, The Small Catechism

Coming Back

I don’t know if you’ve missed me, but I’m posting this episode after an absence of more than two months.  I’m not going to go into gory details, but I thought I’d take this episode to tell you what’s been going on, and how I hope to go from here.

Before today, the second-last episode of The Basin and Towel Podcast that I posted was on March 24, and I titled it “Five Unexpected Ideas to Help You Prepare for Holy Week.”  As I was writing that episode, I did not expect that I would be heading to the Emergency Room on the evening of Holy Thursday and wheeled into surgery in the early afternoon on Good Friday!  Turns out I had a perforated diverticulitis, but the surgeon discovered that the perforation had already started to heal over by the time she got to it.  So apparently after a couple of quick stitches and a look around, she closed up the laparoscopy and called it a day.  Instead of leading worship on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, I spent the weekend healing in the hospital and went home on Tuesday of the next week. 

Meanwhile, the scheduled Good Friday event was cancelled, and one of our Elders, retired pastor Wayne Giesler, stepped up to volunteer to do the Easter Sunday worship schedule.  Although everyone at church was surprised at this turn of events (none more than me!), Easter Sunday at Christ the King Lutheran Church went off without a hitch.

Wayne also stepped up further, and volunteered to do the worship services himself the following week.  I told him that I thought I might get back into action the week after that (the third weekend in April), but he kindly persuaded me to let him lead the service and I would just preach.  He was right about that, because I was more tired after that than I thought I’d be.  We did the same partnership on the fourth weekend in April, and by the first Sunday in May I was able to do the services by myself again.

In the meantime I was healing gradually, getting strength back day by day, and slowly easing back into the schedule.  Some meetings got cancelled; some events got postponed; some items on my To-Do list just dropped off for a while.  This podcast was one of those. 

By the time May rolled around things were almost back to normal, but my wife and I began to plan for a vacation that we had scheduled for the end of May and early June.  It was only going to be a ten-day vacation, and the church council was very good about encouraging us to take it “especially” they said “after the April that we’ve just had!”  Once again Wayne stepped up lead the worship services, and our organist JoAnne Zurell re-arranged her playing schedule so she could play those two weekends.  The vacation was very relaxing and turned out well not only for me and my wife, but for the church as well.

I don’t know about you, but through the years my wife and I have had conversations and even arguments about vacations.  Not that we don’t like going on them; it’s just that I don’t like getting ready for them.  I’ve always felt that during the two weeks prior to the vacation I have to do double work – not so much the travel and housing arrangements, and the packing – but making sure that the church work that needs to be done for the vacation time, gets done before we go – and that’s on top of the usual church work for the weeks before we go.  My wife never quite understood the tension that brings until she became a teacher – then she realized that if she wanted to take time off she had to come up with lesson plans for the substitute!  In those times, other things go by the wayside; and this podcast was one of them.

So here we are in mid-June, and I’m finally turning on microphone at the Basin and Towel Podcast again.  Besides the opportunity to learn directly about the mercies of God as He used a whole bunch of hospital workers to take care of me in April, and the relaxing reminder of His power and love as my wife and I rode the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls in May, He reminded me of the tender love that flows through the people of God in the community of saints that is called Christ the King Lutheran Church in Lodi, Ohio.  I don’t really know what the next several months will bring, but I’m eager to see what God has in store for us.  

Meanwhile, I hope the future of this podcast will include some book reviews, some recordings from a pastors’ conference that took place at Christ the King in June, and more reflections and thoughts that may encourage both of us in our ministry, wherever that might be.

What can I do for you?

On the Sunday just past, one of the Scripture readings assigned for the day was  Mark 10:32-45, and it reads like this in the New International Version:

[Jesus and His disciples] were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. 

“We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Like most pastors, I’m familiar with being in meetings when I thought I was being clear about something, only to have somebody else immediately come up with some question or issue out of left field that I was totally not expecting, and completely unprepared to answer.  Like most pastors, I’ve preached a sermon or two that included what I considered a throw-away example or illustration, only to discover afterward that everyone was gushing with enthusiasm about the example and seemed to have totally missed the point I was trying to get across.  Like most pastors, and maybe like Jesus in this section from Saint Mark’s Gospel, I have been caught responding to somebody’s seemingly innocent question or request with a deer-in-the-headlights look on my face and a rush of brain cells trying to figure out how to choke out an answer that might make some sense.

I don’t want go down any of those rabbit holes today, though.  Instead, I’d like take you in a completely different direction.

Today this section from Mark’s Gospel reminded me of something I read a few years back in William Willimon’s book “Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry” in which he says that his ‘colleague Stanley Hauerwas has accused the contemporary pastor of being little more than “a quivering mass of availability.”’  Willimon goes on to say that ‘Practicing what I have called “promiscuous ministry”—ministry with no internal, critical judgment about what care is worth giving—we become victims of a culture of insatiable need. We live in a capitalist, consumptive culture where there is no purpose to our society other than “meeting our needs.”’

How often have you pastors walked blindly into a conversation that started, “Pastor, can you do me a favor?”  Of course, when it happens often enough red flags start to wave madly in your imagination, but you still kindly and courteously answer “I don’t know.  Please tell me what’s on your mind.”  Then comes the ask, and you have to decide how you’re going to answer. 

You might decide that you are certainly capable and willing, and have the time and resources, to do what they ask, and so you gladly agree.  But how do you decide whether their request is something that you should turn down?  You could be up front and tell them directly that you don’t want to do it, or you could fish around for some kind of excuse.  Jesus gives a hint to a much better approach in this Gospel lesson:  remember what God has called you to do.

Jesus reminds James and John, and the others, too, that He did not come to be served, but to serve.  He reminds them that being His disciples should be about learning how this applies to them, too, if they’re really going to be His disciples.  (By the way, it’s possible Peter learned that lesson a little TOO well, since he refused Jesus’ offer to wash his feet in the upper room; but that story is in John’s Gospel, not Mark’s).  And maybe a pastor also learns the lesson a little TOO well, when they translate the “call to serve” as “granting every request everyone asks” and so ultimately becoming that “quivering mass of availability.”  

Some years back our church took delivery of a farm tractor with a mower deck for our 4-acre lawn at the church.  As a couple of us were watching the delivery guys rolling the tractor off the trailor one of our members said to me “So, pastor, are you going to learn to drive this tractor?”  I said that I didn’t think so.  He said, “That’s good! If somebody tries to get you on it you should ask them if they pay you to preach and teach or do they pay you to mow the grass.”  I took that message to heart, and in the years since then I’ve never once mowed the grass at church (even during a few lean summers, when we had trouble getting volunteeers to do it).


That’s the point I want to bring out about this Gospel lesson today.  As a pastor, I do want to be available in ministry to our members, even when it’s inconvenient to my schedule or sometimes to my family’s expectations of me.  But as Jesus hinted to James and John that day, and to us too, the fact that I am here to serve does not mean I am called to grant every favor, and neither are you.  As pastors and church workers, you and I don’t have to be “quivering masses of availability” to people expecting us to meet needs they think they have.  You and I are called to the ministry of sharing the Gospel of Jesus, whether that’s from the pulpit or in the classroom, in the sick room or in a counseling conversation.  The sharing of the Gospel that Jesus did took different forms on different days, too – preaching and teaching one day, healing and casting out demons another day, apologetics against the Pharisees a third day – but Jesus always kept His mission clear in His mind and heart.  He came to serve us by dying on the cross, trading His life for ours to give us the forgiveness of our sins and the promise of heaven.

  
People sometimes ask if there’s anything Jesus couldn’t do, and in this Gospel lesson it’s this:  He couldn’t grant James and John’s request, because it was outside the bounds of His call and His mission.  That’s something for us to keep in mind:  If Jesus the Son of God could say, “I can’t do that,” then with some honest thought and prayer you and I might feel free to say the same.

Reclaiming the Joy of Ministry

Transcript of the episode “Reclaiming the Joy of Ministry” from The Basin and Towel podcast, January 28 2021

It’s no secret that this year-long pandemic has taken a toll on all sorts of people and vocations.   With the shut-downs of restaurants, food service workers have faced unemployment by the tens of thousands.  Some folks can work from home, and even supervise their children’s online education at the same time, but that’s stressful for parents and children alike.  Then there are others whose work can’t be done from home, like grocery store employees, bus drivers, and sanitation workers.  They’re out in the public, often facing resentment and challenges that have nothing to do with them personally but are not what they signed up for.  First responders and medical personal are under incredible stress; funeral directors and their staff in some areas are exhausted and at the brink of burn-out with the inability to keep up with the mounting death toll.

And then there are pastors and church workers.  They face unique challenges in their vocations, too, and like lots of other folks a lot of them are taking things one step at a time.  But the emergency needs that come out of left field, the desire to minister with prayer and Word and Sacrament to people who have long relied on the comforting presence of a pastor, the adjustments to progamming and conducting everything from a worship service to a church board meeting – all of these things are enough to make a pastor’s head spin and his stomach to clench.

And now I seem to come along to say, “But you’re no use to anybody else if you don’t take care of yourself first.”  I know how that sounds, because others have said it to me and I kind of growl at them (internally, at least).  They’re right, of course – it’s like the flight attendant who says “when the oxygen mask falls out of the ceiling, put your own on first before you offer to help someone else with theirs.”  But where and how do we find the time and energy to do that?

For years Grace Place Wellness Ministries of Saint Louis, a Recognized Service Organization of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, has provided a ministry to pastors, workers, and their wives to give them opportunities to care for themselves retreat settings.  Hundreds of ministry couples have participated in Grace Place retreats, and come away from them refreshed, renewed, and with hope-filled plans to continue to address their own well-being in a variety of ways.  Many others have seen the Grace Place promotional material, or seen one of their one-hour, bare-bones video, or even attended a one-day or weekend mini-retreat – but either could not make the time or didn’t have the money to attend a full-out, week-long retreat.  With the pandemic upon us, Grace Place Wellness Ministries realized that, for the time being at least, the retreat format is not an option.  So they reformatted their model, retooled their offerings, and are once again doing what they do best – teaching pastors how to think about their own well-being.

The Grace Place wellness model centers around a simple diagram called the Lutheran Wellness Wheel (you can Google that for a picture – it’s also called a Wholeness Wheel).  The hub of the Wellness Wheel is Holy Baptism, where you and I received our new identity as a New Creation in Christ.  The rim of the Wellness Wheel is our Spiritual Wellbeing, that holds the whole thing together.  It’s also at the rim because as Christians, that’s where “the rubber hits the road” for our lives – we live our lives the way we do because we are children of God through faith in Jesus Christ – not because we’re intellectuals, financial wizards, fitness junkies, or something else – but because the Holy Spirit is daily and richly at work in us all our lives.

Between the hub and the rim the wheel has six segments, for the other six aspects of our well-being.  There’s one for Intellectual well-being – that’s what are you learning?  How are you learning it?  What keeps your mind sharp and active and aware?

Another one is for Vocational well-being – how are you doing in your various vocations?  As a pastor?  As a father?  As a son?  As a spouse?  As a man?

A third is for Relational well-being – how are your relationships with other people?  How are things between you and your wife and family?  How do you get along with the people you serve?  How about the people you do business with?  Other people in the community?

Then there’s Financial well-being – do you have “enough” money – and what does “enough money” mean, anyway?  Are there some aspects of your finances that you don’t have to worry about?  Are there some that you are worried about?  Do you have a plan to address the worries?

There’s also Physical well-being – this one is about diet, exercise, whether you walk the dog every day (even if you don’t have a dog!), what kinds of medications and supplements you’re on, what underlying health conditions you have.  Whether you go to the doctor when appropriate, or say (like my grandfather would have said), “Aww!  What does he know, anyway!”

And there’s one about Emotional well-being.  Are you aware of the effects the stresses and strains of the current crisis are having on you, or do you just tell everybody, including yourself, “I’m doing fine”?  What do you do to keep yourself emotionally balanced and upright, if you couldn’t take a vacation this year and are isolated from the people you love to serve?

These aspects of wellness are just the beginning – they’re just a framework for what comes next.  In Grace Place wellness retreats, each segment of the wheel gets it’s own segment of the retreat for learning, contemplating, planning, and practicing.  The learning and contemplating are correlated with several aspects of the story of Elijah the prophet as he was running from Queen Jezebel and King Ahab in 1 Kings 19; the planning and practicing are correlated with the fruit of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23.  And in the retreat setting there are plenty of opportunities to relax and unwind.

But as I said before, the folks at Grace PLace Wellness MInistries realized that the retreat format would not be a viable option for them right now, so they reformatted their offerings.  Now Executive Director Darrell Zimmerman has pulled the retreat teaching segments, the story of Elijah, and the correlations with the Fruits of the Spirit that Grace Place has been focusing on into one book, titled “Reclaiming the Joy of MInistry:  The Grace Place Way to Church Worker Wellness.”  Pastor Zimmermann not only gives the reader the didactic content of a retreat in convenient and well-written book format, he also pauses periodically to ask “How well does (or doesn’t) this section describe your current circumstances,” and asks some reflection questions at the end of each chapter to help you explore a little deeper.  

By the way, if you read the chapter titles together in sequence, leaving out the numbers, you get a pretty clear expression of the theme of the book:  “Ministry is great, but hard, because ministry is the way of the cross and overwhelmed is a way of life.  So don’t try this alone.  Joy is fuel for ministry, but ministry threatens the joy of life with God, and ministry threatens the joy of life in community, and ministry threatens the joy of ministry, which makes daily healing essential.  Therefore, self-care has to be intentional.”

This book is just the first step for Grace Place.  There is also a new online community for training and support, which you can access from their website.  You can also order a copy of the book there, too. Next to come will be several “Reclaiming the Joy of Ministry” Workbooks, each one to focus on a different aspect of well-being.  And finally, when things begin to look a little more like they used to, maybe, there will be time for Grace Place conferences and retreats once again.

To learn more about Grace Place Wellness Ministries, go to their website here at https://graceplacewellness.org/.  You can order a copy of Darrell Zimmerman’s book here, read articles from his blog in the “Health and Joy” section, subscribe for updates, and find out more about the Grace Place online community.  You can also follow Grace Place on Facebook @www.graceplacewellness.org.