Sumter Pastor Clay Smith: Pastors, politicians and grace....


You may not have seen this news story: F.L. "Bubba" Copeland, mayor of Smiths Station, Alabama, and pastor of First Baptist Church of Phenix City, Alabama, committed suicide recently.

A few days earlier, a conservative news site posted a picture of the mayor/pastor in a woman's dress and a wig. Copeland also apparently had posted pictures of people he did not know on his Reddit page. He is also alleged to have written violent fan fiction.

The local sheriff was concerned about Copeland and sent two deputies to do a welfare check. They saw Copeland driving his car slowly. He would not stop for the officers for about 30 minutes. Then he stopped, stepped out of the car, pulled out a handgun and shot himself.

People who knew him called him "a good and decent man." He served in two high-pressure positions: pastor and politician.

It might surprise you to know that according to one study, 1 in 10 pastors have thought about suicide. Another study revealed 40% of pastors have thought about quitting the ministry in the last year. Why?

As a pastor, I think I can shed some light. Pastors are expected to live to a higher standard than other people. We are expected to have marriages that are perfect, kids that are perfect, manage our money well (even if the church underpays us), remember everyone's name and preach sermons that are terrific. Inevitably, when we can't meet our own expectations, let alone the expectations of others, the pressure leaks out somewhere: an addiction, a dysfunction, an obsession. These things pastors must hide. These days, nothing stays hidden for long.

I'm not a politician, but some of the same expectations apply. Politicians are forced to make promises that can't be kept to be elected. If elected, a politician begins to feel the weight of those impossible promises. Before long, it gnaws at their soul. Distracted by a hundred compromises, it is harder to keep your eye on the goal. The choice is awful: Either deaden your soul or wake up every day to do battle to keep your soul.

Having been with families after a loved one commits suicide, I can tell you suicide always leaves a wreck. The family asks "why?" Someone will wonder if it was his or her fault. Friends feel betrayed. Suicide is a permanent fix to a temporary problem.

Mayor/Pastor Copeland told his congregation that the pictures of him in drag were part of a humorous exchange between him and his wife. I do not know if he apologized for the Reddit posts or for writing violent fan fiction. What would have happened if he hadn't ended his life?

One thing I have learned is embarrassment and public shame never last as long as you think. Having stuck my foot in my mouth several times, I've eaten my share of humble pie. I would imagine few people think about that now, except me. When those memories come up, the shame can return, refreshed and powerful. That's when I need to remember that as a child of God, I am forgiven. I am loved. My sins, even the manner of my death, do not change my relationship with God. What God thinks of me is more important than what anyone else thinks.

If I had been in the car with Mayor/Pastor Copeland, I would have asked him, "Bubba, if this happened to someone in your church, what would you say to him or her?" I think I know what the answer would be. Mayor/Pastor Copeland would reply, "Why, I would tell them God loves them no matter what. That ending your life doesn't solve anything; it just creates pain for those you leave behind. I would tell them to put themselves in the care of God." Then I would tell the mayor/pastor, "Exactly. Listen to your own message, and apply it to yourself."

I know it is easy to preach the Good News to others and not embrace it for yourself. I think about all the times I've proclaimed the grace of God and then beat myself up for my failures and sins.

I can't speak for politicians, but I know pastors appreciate words of grace. By words of grace, I mean words beyond "Good message today." When the pastor messes up, forgets to call your mother before her hang-nail surgery and comes to apologize, give him words of grace, like: "It's OK, Pastor. I understand. I don't hold it against you."

I've noticed that churches that give grace usually have pastors that give grace. And yes, you can turn that around: churches that do not give grace usually have pastors that do not give grace.

I think about the grace of Jesus, confronted with that woman caught in the very act of adultery. Remember what he said to her? "I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more."

Remember that pastors and, yes, even politicians need grace, too.

The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter. Email him at

To read the Associated Press story on Pastor Copeland, visit


If you are thinking about suicide or have other end-of-life thoughts, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 988.