The LifeSaving Church (Rachael A. Keefe) -- A Review

THE LIFESAVING CHURCH: Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention. By Rachael A. Keefe. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2018. X + 102 pages.

Most of us have known someone who considered, attempted, or succeed in suicide. It might have been someone close to us. You, the reader of this review, might have considered or attempted suicide (I switched to the second person as I’ve not considered or attempted suicide). Suicide and suicidality have stigmas attached to them, which creates a whole host of problems. Nowhere is this truer than in the church. It might be an issue of theology or simply an unwillingness to address the situations that lead to suicide. Just recently, a minister of a church in a nearby community used a funeral for a young man who had committed suicide to launch into a tirade about suicide, suggesting that the young man, who had taken his life, was in hell as a result. Now this minister was suspended from ministry, at least for a time, but that he not only believed that this was the teaching of his church, but that a funeral was the appropriate venue to share it, reminds us why suicide continues to be stigmatized and keeps people from seeking help that could prevent a suicide. I will admit that most of us, who serve in ministry, simply are not fully prepared to unprepared to address suicide and its aftermath. That’s unfortunate.

Churches can be unsafe places for persons struggling with suicidality, but they can also be life-saving spaces. That is the belief of Rachael Keefe. Having struggled with suicidality herself, she wants to help congregations become life-saving communities. She comes to this topic from personal experience, which, to borrow from the title of Henri Nouwen's famous book, makes her a "wounded healer." Keefe, has written this very brief book of just over 100 pages, that is autobiographical in nature, in order to encourage congregations to move toward becoming safe spaces. To do this she tells own story, one that is filled with pain and angst, and yes attempts at suicide. In the midst of all of this she found support and sustenance in the church (as well as rejection). It is a painful story, that takes us into a dysfunctional family life, as well as her struggles to find her place in the church. Even as she struggled with painful family dynamics, poor self-image, and feelings of suicidality, she found herself called to ministry. The journey has been difficult, but it provides her with significant insight.  

As a “wounded healer,” she currently serves as a pastor within the United Church of Christ. She has also spent time as a therapist and as a chaplain at a psychiatric hospital. While the church has not always been a healing and sustaining space, it was the church that helped her find her way. Or, more specifically, it was a couple of clergy who stepped in and supported her through difficult times. 
While the book is highly autobiographical, she reveals clues as to how churches might catch a vision of becoming safe spaces. She offers help as to how we might respond to people experiencing mental health issues, especially depression. She also addresses the challenges posed by suicide. She cautions clergy especially to avoid two opposing poles. On one hand, it’s important not to suggest that a person who commits suicide has committed the unforgivable sin or is going to hell. This can shut off opportunities to provide support to those who struggle with suicidal thoughts and inclinations. Being that I don’t hail from a tradition that teaches such things, I might think I’m out of the woods, but that might not be true. It’s possible to go too far in the direction, and suggest that a person who has taken their own life is now at peace with themselves and with God. The danger here is that it might encourage others who are struggling to follow suit and take their own lives.  Thus, we must find that space in between, where we give assurance of God's love without encouraging dangerous behavior.

While the bulk of the book is autobiographical, Keefe concludes the book with seven appendices. The first of these appendices offers a list of the signs of suicide risk. That list is helpful! This appendix is followed by a set of resources for clergy (including dos and don'ts for funerals—again a helpful resource). Appendix C is a form for lay persons to put down contact numbers related to suicide prevention. This appendix is followed by appendices that provide resources for those struggling with suicidality (phone numbers of organizations that assist in suicide prevention), and resources for suicide loss survivors (again organizations designed for this purpose). Finally, she offers two appendices, the first of which provides a set of scripture texts that emphasize hope, while the second one provides a set of prayers—the first of which is a prayer for one who is considering suicide to use, while the second is a prayer to be used by congregations as they pray for one who has taken one’s own life.

This is a small book, so it’s not the last word on the subject. However, it is a good starting point for an important conversation within congregations. One might get weary of the stories, but that is okay. They help us understand the challenges faced by persons experiencing depression and what she notes as psychache. This word, psychache, is a new one for me, but it is the key to the book. So, what is psychache? According to the author, psychache is an “intense, unbearable psychological pain that results from significant unmet psychological needs. When left unresolved, psychache leads to suicide, or at least suicidal thoughts or behaviors” (p. 9). Having experienced psychache herself, she offers this resource to congregations so that they might take up the calling to become lifesaving communities of faith. As a pastor myself, I believe this is a worthy goal.  


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