By now we have all heard the news of the tragic suicide of the youngest son of Pastor Rick Warren, Matthew. He was just 27 years old. (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/04/06/son-of-pastor-rick-warren-commits-suicide/?hpt=hp_t2)
Suicide committed by anyone is tragic and sad …and unbelievably painful…but I imagine that when it’s the preacher’s kid, the pain for the family is even greater. People have expectations of preachers and their families that are too often unrealistic. The kids are under tremendous pressure, and their lives are often more scrutinized, with more criticism leveled at them with less empathy, sympathy and/or understanding that one might expect religious people to dole out.
It is a fact that preachers’ kids often feel more isolated, more alone …and many times, more angry than other kids. They are held to a higher standard, and they grow sensitive to what “the saints” say about them, to them, or say around them. They often, but by no means always, grow up with a bitter taste in their mouths about “church folk” and organized religion. Families of the preacher often tread in deep water with swift and unrelenting undercurrents …and nobody seems to care. One of the most powerful moments for me came several years ago when a member said to me that she wanted to embrace my children, that they had “lent” me out to people for years and nobody had really embraced them. That was the first and only time anyone had said anything like that to me. I appreciated it, and so did my children.
But that kind of sensitivity to preachers, their families and their children is only too rare. We can only imagine the pain of Rick and Kay Warren. Unfortunately, however, there are sure to be people who are whispering about the Warren family and their troubled son. Some will say that while Pastor Rick was ministering to people all over the world, he “couldn’t even” deal with his own son. That is the reality, too often, of church culture.
What people do not realize, or care to realize, is that the preacher is a human being, as are his/her children. The expectations on both are unrealistic, and people who are “with you” on one day are “against you” on yet another. There are only a very few who embrace the preacher and his/her family sincerely, with no agenda.
The attitude of people toward mental illness is poor in general; nobody wants to identify or share that he or she is mentally ill – and yet, so many of us are! Ironically, the church, where it should be “safe” to talk about and share one’s struggles, including debilitating depression, multiple personalities, bi-polar disease, schizophrenia – has no monopoly for doling out kindness and/or legitimate help and compassion.
And if the one with the mental illness is the preacher’s son or daughter, chances are the compassion is even less.
Of course, I am not saying that that is or was the case with Matthew. Perhaps Saddleback Church was very compassionate and helpful and supportive, but churches in general are not known to be that way. Unfortunately, too many churches are known to be unkind, exclusive and judgmental, and the children of the preachers know that very well.
Add to the already painful situation that many individuals consider suicide to be cowardly. I had only one person in my congregation commit suicide while I was pastor, and I tried my best to draw the attention of people to her gifts, and to an acknowledgement of her pain. I suggested that she, who was one to express her love for God in praise and movement, was dancing in heaven, comforted by God. While some in attendance at her funeral received what I said, others were so angry that when I reached out to them to hug them, they turned away. People in general are not so forgiving and understanding when it comes to suicide.
I am praying that at Saddleback, the love will outweigh any criticism or judgment that may be there. I am praying that the suicide of the preacher’s son will be an opportunity for people to show the love of God for that family and for the young man who was so unhappy that he chose to be with God on his time, not God’s. I am sure God understands, but I’m not sure about the people.
A candid observation …