Pastor’s suicide leaves community grieving

First Church in Newark

The words that follow these might upset some of you.

But a significant part of our community has been grieving since Friday and it would be wrong to not acknowledge the death of a community leader.

The Rev. Seth Oiler, the 42-year-old pastor of Newark’s proud congregation at First United Methodist Church, died by suicide at his church-owned home Friday morning. According to a letter sent to the congregation earlier this month, Oiler had been placed on leave recently after admitting to an affair with an adult staff member.

As news of his death spread over the long holiday weekend, many were at a loss of words amid the gossip. There are countless questions and no good answers for why a father, not to mention a pastor, would take his own life even if he faced the worst of dilemmas.

Unfortunately, I never met Oiler during his nearly two years in Newark outside a brief handshake when he joined the Newark Rotary Club several weeks ago. That same club read a resolution of sympathy Tuesday to be delivered to his wife and three children. A few minutes later, as previously scheduled, the church’s executive pastor, Steve Rath, formally joined the club.

I introduced myself to Rath afterward and he politely told me he could not comment on the situation at this time. I can only imagine the challenges and pain he’s coping with right now.

We then reached out to Lisa Streight, communications director for the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church, who issued the following statement late Tuesday:

“The bishop (Gregory Palmer) requested a meeting with Seth at which time Seth freely confessed to sexual misconduct with an adult in the congregation. Seth requested a voluntary leave of absence. He agreed with the bishop that stepping aside from his current appointment at First United Methodist Church was best in order to provide a time of counseling for himself and his family.”

While Oiler would not have returned to the church, Streight said the church was providing support to the family, including allowing them to temporarily stay in the parsonage and extend his salary.

When I returned from Rotary Tuesday, I found a member of the church waiting for me to thank us for not sensationalizing Oiler’s suicide. Only his obituary, requested and worded by the family, had appeared Monday announcing his “unexpected” death.

When I explained we were considering a story, we sat down to discuss the media’s role in covering an undeniable tragedy.

To me, I don’t see how can we ignore such a significant event. We’re entrusted to provide our readers with accurate information even when it’s upsetting. I was then asked how can we cover the story without somehow glorifying suicide.

So, we chose this column format appearing inside the print edition, not a front-page news story. I also strongly urge you to read our story by Reporter Emily Madderndiscussing the many resources our community provides to help people coping with mental health issues. We’re blessed with a strong community that cares even if it’s not always enough to help everyone.

Some might be wondering why a news story has not been published before now. Quite simply our reporting team knew there was a suicide Friday morning, but they did not hear the name of the person involved.

As a matter of policy, we normally report on suicides only when they involve a prominent person, take place in public or some other unusual circumstance is present. Some disagree with that approach, but from my experience it’s strongly supported by mental health professionals.

Clearly this is a case we would have covered with a news brief or story if his name had crossed my desk Friday.

We know this week will be an incredibly difficult time for the Oiler family, the First United Methodist congregation and others who knew him. We don’t mean to make it tougher.

We do want to provide accurate information. We do want to help others make different choices.

Let’s hope and pray no other family experiences the same pain ever again.

Michael Shearer is executive editor of The Advocate and NewarkAdvocate.com. He can be reached at mshearer@newarkadvocate.com, 740-328-8820 or @AdvocateEditor on Twitter.

Found in The Newark Advocate May 27, 2015

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