The Honor of Pastoral Service

Julie’s despair was mounting as her two pre-adolescent boys were becoming increasingly demanding, her husband was working out-of-state, and the strains on her time seemed beyond her ability to perform. She had worked at a local para-church ministry for years and was a committed Christian with supportive friends, but a dark cloud of hopelessness was growing in Julie’s mind.

While at work Julie increasingly spoke with her coworkers about the relief being in Heaven would provide. One day she told a woman who worked closely with her that she had decided to take her own life. The woman reminded Julie that she loved her two sons and would never want to be without them. Julie’s response alarmed the woman. She said she planned to take them with her.

As Julie walked to her car at the end of the day, her co-worker called the police and reported to them that Julie was suicidal and threatening the lives of her children. When Julie arrived home, the police were there and, as required by protocol at the time, took Julie to our local hospital for a psychological evaluation.

Oddly, the hospital cleared Julie within a few minutes. Later that evening while the children lie sleeping, she shot both of them to death and then took her own life.

Within a week three coffins—one large and two small—were stationed in the sanctuary of our church. I performed the funeral as Julie’s husband, the father of their children, sat shocked on the front row. After the burial, he sold the house and left town.

A few weeks later one of my friends in the police department told me that he was at Julie’s house that day and had taken her to the hospital. He said typically they place people on a 72 hour hold for evaluation, but in this case they didn’t. He did not know why.

Another friend, who worked in admitting at the emergency room at the hospital, told me that when they brought Julie into the hospital, a friend of Julie’s happened to be overseeing the psychological evaluations that evening. She reported overhearing Julie and this women talking and laughing together in a hallway around a corner. Afterwards, the woman in charge filled out the paperwork reporting that Julie was fine and released her to go home . . . resulting in the deaths of the two children and Julie’s suicide.

I did not blame the hospital, but I thought they should be informed of the situation and consider improving their systems to ensure this didn’t happen again. Yet when I contacted the hospital administration, they received my concern as a threat and issued a public statement that all legal requirements were met. Later our local news reported that I had accused and blamed the hospital for the tragic event. The public perception was that I was grandstanding.

I backed off because I knew the hospital was concerned about liability—which was not my intent in contacting them. I also wanted to protect the confidences of the people who shared privately with me, and to avoid feeding the press a sensational and grizzly public confrontation between a pastor and our local hospital. I was simply seeking an improved system at our hospital, knowing that another Julie would one day arrive at their door.

That was over 10 years ago and I still carry it. Since I did not respond, the story died in the press, leaving the appearance to the public that I had baselessly accused our hospital. Julie and her children were buried in our local cemetery, and the hospital quietly improved its systems a few months later. I called Julie’s husband from time after that to see how he was doing. He just wanted to leave the pain of the past behind and build a new life. The families that left the church because they believed the press account—I’ve not heard from since. But I, as a pastor, feel gratified that our systems were quietly improved after the glare of the press was lifted, and to my knowledge, there have been no cases like Julie’s since.

This is the honor of pastoral service. There are typically facts behind pastoral decisions that cannot be publicly known, but the goal is to improve the lives of others, apart from grandstanding or glory. It’s an honor to serve; it’s the way of Christ.

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7 thoughts on “The Honor of Pastoral Service

  1. Tammy Jo says:

    I believe you did the right thing. How can a Hospital improve and better serve their patients, if they are unaware of tragic mistakes? Or if they are aware they need to be made accountable and change their procedures so this never happens again.

  2. Elsie says:

    Thank You for Caring.

  3. Rhonda Walter says:

    I remember this event so well. Julie was a customer at our awards business and became a friend. My first thought when I found out what had happened was how could this be she was always so happy! The last time I talked to her was at church. I reminded her that she had a plaque to pick up that she had previously paid for. I told her I would bring it to church the next Sunday. I don’t remember the details now but she never got the plaque. We still have the it because throwing it away just didn’t seem right. Thank you for writing this, she was a good woman who hid her pain, what a tragedy.

  4. Rhonda Walter says:

    This comment is about the people leaving the church when it was obvious to me and everyone I knew that you were just trying to get to the bottom of why this happened. I doubt you were looking for ways to fill up your day!! Isn’t it strange that many people were questioning the same thing but because you were a high profile pastor they wanted to start controversy with you being in the wrong. As to the people who left the church. I have always been amazed how people will leave churches and do not have the facts. I guess they were just looking to leave so why not be dramatic while going?

    • Paul Gavin says:

      We left three small churches and never told another member or leader why, we just simply did not return. All were related to trustee action taken against good pastors, twice where the churches actually split. One was a very similar circumstance to what Pastor Ted described where the details could not be disclosed. Anyway, I do not understand why some have to beat their own drum and take as many with them out the door as possible. Should be a personal decision.

  5. frankiethemc says:

    Well, the U.S. has a mental health system that’s second to all, but that’s not really the topic here. The hospital fumbled here. Often, a person is cheerful before a suicide; why worry when the decision is already set?

    Suicide I see often, since I’m in the recovering community. The usual symptom of coming disaster is isolation, which is epidemic in the U.S. these days. Carl Jung, in one of his letters, writes (this is a paraphrase) that, if a person doesn’t have the protective wall of community, the devil will come for him or her.

    These days, people can blow anything out of proportion, since facts don’t seem to matter much.

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