For Pastors — Good Grief

You in grief ministry, how do you handle your own grieving?

As pastors we are knee deep in grief work. It may be our specialty. Isn’t death and dying our professional “turf”? While many other professionals, like doctors, nurses, chaplains, funeral home directors, are involved in the care for the dying and their families, the pastor is the “point person.” Ideally, we are the overseer of the continuity of care—alongside during the process of dying, sometimes present at the time of death, then designer and leader of the funeral/ memorial service, and afterwards, the follow-through care to the grieving family. This spectrum, I submit, is our arena of expertise. Our congregants expect this. We expect this of ourselves. We are general practitioners with a specialty. (I am also thinking of chaplains and counselors for whom grief work is a primary practice.)

It was Tom, let’s call him, who put his finger on an occupational hazard. He was in Raleigh on sabbatical leave from a congregation he had been leading for twenty years. He was feeling tired, slightly depressed. Tom turned to me as a fellow pastor to probe the source of his heaviness.

In our first pastoral visit, I asked him to tell me about his last years of ministry. I saw my question as a gentle way of easing into our conversation. To his surprise, and mine, losses came pouring out—the deaths of congregants, many of whom were intimate friends and leaders in the church; families with whom he shared life-changing events who moved away; resignations of close colleagues; and members who left the church in anger or indifference. Multiple “deaths,” I heard.

These were not the “necessary losses” from living described in Judith Viorst’s book by that title. Rather, my friend’s felt losses are peculiar to our vocation.

Tom’s focus centered on the mourning of others, shepherding them through grief’s movement in theirs lives. That was his role. That was his job. But few, if any, turned to assist him with his grieving. More to the point, seldom did he ask for assistance.

Tom saw the pattern. While fulfilling his role as comforter, he discounted his need for comfort. And after twenty years of neglect, he sat before me with layers of unprocessed grief. We began to peal off these layers, one by one, as he recalled, and in some sense relived, the loss of each important relationship. He left our conversations a little lighter.

I left more aware.

Tom’s vulnerability was a mirror in which I saw myself. I too, in the care of grieving parishioners, would discount my own grieving. I didn’t have the time, I would tell myself. Often I stuffed it down in my haste toward next tasks, responsibilities postponed due to the unanticipated, additional attention that crisis grief-care requires.

Today, in the catbird seat of retirement, I wonder what happened to my unacknowledged grieving. Did it contribute to the occasional heaviness I could feel, wanting to curl up before a fire-place, reflecting and digesting? Did my denials of death caution me from investing deeply in relationships, using my role as buffer? Did the pain of these losses spark the fantasies of escaping to another congregation or another job free of emotional entanglements? (I wonder if unprocessed grief contributes to short, not long, pastoral commitments to congregations.)

Yes, to all the above but . . . thanks to Tom, I see, more than an occupational hazard. I also see an occupational opportunity, even blessing. At the time of death, including the death of a relationship, I drew on my pastoral authority by insisting on private time with the persons, usually the family. I see now, this was one place where I could share my sense of loss along with theirs. My tears, my stories, my laughter, my regrets, my gratitude could join theirs. Invariably these were cherished sacred moments.

I think of Nouwen’s infamous description of our role as “wounded healer.” Yes, it surely means that we lead from our own vulnerability, weakness, and woundedness. But I am also thinking, as I write this reflection, that welcoming, not denying, our proximity to the wounds of those under our care carves out and deepens our capacity for compassion. In this sense, by their wounds we are healed.

Do you identity, as I did, with Tom denial of grieving? Would you name this as an occupational hazard and/or blessing?

I don’t see these questions raised in the literature about pastoral leadership. I hope you find them provocative, and, if you have the time, respond with your thoughts on the matter.

2 Responses to For Pastors — Good Grief

  1. Stan Dotson says:

    Hey Mahan,

    I wonder about how shifts in the culture have affected the way we experience loss and grief. There was a time when the comfort food provision was all home-made, when people’s homes were more open to the influx of many visitors, etc. Now you’ll see store bought veggie trays and buckets of chicken brought to the house, but the visitation is different, more private. Kate Campbell’s “Funeral Food” song reveals a dying cultural tradition, another loss for us to carry.

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  2. Ben Wagener says:

    Thanks for this encouragement. With an unusually large number of people leaving our church, I am taking time to release my sense of lost by inviting to see them or at least contacting them to ask why and/or affirm their worth to me and the church. Furthermore, I am in a monthly “Anam Cara” clergy group to give voice to these separations and have entered a brief time of counseling to take care of myself to find ways to grieve.

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