By Bill Wilson
A friend and I were talking a few weeks ago and she made the following statement: One of the hardest parts of long-term ministry is burying your friends. I buried a dear friend on Monday. It was all I could do not to burst out crying in the pulpit. Thank God for Easter!
Your pastor probably could say the same thing. Grief is a steady companion for ministers, and a healthy church will recognize that dealing with grief is essential if your ministers are to help you navigate the difficult waters of grief and loss. Have you thought about all the ways clergy encounter grief in their work?
I’ve been thinking about grief a good bit lately. My wife and I have left friends, a home and church family we loved dearly to come to a new place of ministry. As we walked out of our house for the last time, grief ambushed us, and we found ourselves quite emotional. This was a transition that we chose and felt was undeniably of God, but it still hurt and evoked deep emotions for us.
I recently preached at a church I formerly pastored. Although I have been gone nearly 20 years, I found myself deeply moved by the experience. One of the most emotional moments for me was when I stood in the pulpit and looked out over the congregation and found myself seeing the empty seats of those who were missing. Death had visited numerous times in the congregation, and many of the people who had shaped and loved me are no longer among us. Marriages had ended, and families had become inactive. I was nearly struck silent by a deep sense of loss and had to work hard to regain my composure for the rest of the worship service.
I have talked regularly with clergy and laity alike who are in various stages of grief with regard to their ministry or church. Some are angry, some are sad; many are confused and bewildered by events they experience. Some find themselves being transported back to unresolved grief experiences in the past by things happening to them in the present.
When a minister and congregation live with one another in the midst of the ups and downs of everyday life, it becomes essential that they give one another room to grieve and permission to be human. My colleague was articulating a truth that many clergy feel guilty for experiencing. Dealing with death and serious illness on a daily basis requires a level of disconnectedness from a minister to be able to function. When everyone else in the ICU waiting room is panicking and emoting, it is extremely helpful for the minister to be the voice of controlled, calm assurance. Even if you are devastated by the prognosis, the family needs you to be able to help them think clearly and make good decisions. Shedding tears isn’t taboo; it may just need to wait for an appropriate time.
The point is, ministers need to make sure there is a time when they grieve. After you have been part of a church’s life for a few months, funerals become times where you bury friends, not strangers. God grants us the ability to speak words of comfort and encouragement even when they are words that are directed back to ourselves.
Ministers need to grieve the losses they see in the lives of others, as well as the losses that are part of our own personal and family story. When we do, we model the hope that Christ enables us all to feel in times of loss. When we do not, we set ourselves up for darker experiences that produce despair and hopelessness.
Remember your minister the next time you encounter grief. You may need to check in with him or her and encourage them to grieve the losses you and your church have endured. You may need to grant permission for them to be human. Some days we clergy try to deny that we have feelings about losses, but grief is one of those emotions that will not be denied. When we are able to experience our losses as believers, we embody the hope-filled grieving that the Bible calls us to know.