Engaging Death as Practice: Two Re-Frames That Mattered

February 1, 2017

Let’s allow the word “practice” to entice us with its double meaning: a profession, as in the practice of medicine or psychotherapy; and practicing for learning, as in piano practice or spiritual practice. In both ways, I submit, pastors engage death as their practice.

We begin with the first meaning — pastor in a professional practice that specializes. If, let’s say, Alicia practices law and Alice, a therapist, practices psychotherapy, then Helen, a pastor, specializes in death and dying. Death and dying are her specialty, her practice.

With that point named I can hear the quick rebuttal, “Why, don’t you know, Mahan, that pastoral ministry is one of the last generalist professions?” I have made the same observation. It’s true that we are more general practitioners than specialists with broad competence expected in multiple roles: preaching, teaching, designing and directing rituals, leading and managing, caring and counseling, writing and speaking, and offering leadership in the wider church and community.

Nonetheless I want to make a case for engaging death as our specialty. The presence of death is always close by. If the shaman Don Juan challenges Carlos Castaneda to heed death’s wisdom as a companion just over the left shoulder, then for pastors the presence of death is more in front of our nose, not to be missed. Most people can keep at bay the reality of death, denying its inevitability most of the time, out of sight, out of mind. Not so with pastors.

For us death is present. While we scamper from appointment to appointment there is on the edge of our consciousness a member experiencing a profound loss — the loss of a loved one, job, health, marriage, home, hope, status, memory, or even a worldview crumbling from the weight of irrelevance. There’s so much diminishment in the air we breathe. Death stalks the halls of hospitals we regularly visit. In nursing homes you see its presence in the gaunt, vacant eyes you pass by, faces registering gratitude for the briefest recognition. In the homes of grieving members there’s unspeakable grief in memories noted and photographs exchanged, reminding everyone of what was but is no more. In every service of worship, whether funerals, weddings, or weekly gatherings, some are always there with moistened eyes, feeling the pain of a particular loss welling up from deep within. The security and privacy of a church sanctuary provides the sacred space for felt grief to surface. My point: for the pastor death is close, ever near.

I name as well the special role of pastoral presence throughout the dying and death journey of a parishioner: present during the dying whether extended or short term; present during the days around the death, including the preparation and leadership of corporate rituals; and present during the after-care of continued grieving. Other professionals — physicians, nurses, chaplains, funeral directors, financial planners, therapists — have their unique roles but the pastor is, or can be, the over-seer of this lengthy process. Pastors, given the constituency of the congregation they serve, will have many or few deaths of members in a given year. In my first congregation, a church of young families, I led about two or three funerals a year. In my last congregation, there were as many as fifteen funerals each year.

But regardless of the number of funerals, the death and dying that pastors confront far exceeds the circumstances surrounding physical deaths. Grieving is so much larger. If you were to stop reading for a moment, you could quickly recall recent conversations with parishioners about some loss they are experiencing. Most pastoral care is grief work in some manner. Death and dying, in its multiple forms, is our specialty. It’s our forte.

I will amplify one example of this larger dying, usually not understood as grief ministry. I began as pastor in the post-World War II era when progress, growth, and advancement seemed everyone’s potential. Economic growth and rising national prominence in the world were assumed. Larger Protestant denominations shared in this expectation of progress with numerical growth being the gauge of a successful ministry. With marketing savvy the church became another attractive commodity of choice. During my forty-two years as an ordained leader of the church I have experienced the gradual breakdown of this prominence, privilege, and exceptionalism. I have watched our churches move from main-line to side-line. And along with the loss of external status has come for many the internal loss of meaningful beliefs and church programs that no longer nurture them. These losses are also deaths that demand pastoral attention. As I presented in another reflection on a re-frame that mattered, in our time most pastors are hospice chaplains caring for the dying in its many forms and mid-wives assisting in the birthing of the new.

I rest my case. Death and dying define a specialty practice. And this practice must be done with effectiveness. Like no other pastoral function, the skilled care offered around losses will either deepen or distance the relationship between pastor and people. Faithfulness in this specialty is not forgotten; unfaithfulness is not forgiven. No one told me this during my formation years, or if it was said, I wasn’t listening. I learned it on the job, an awareness that became a re-frame that mattered.

. . .

The second re-frame is more personal. As I turned into my fifties, entering my last decade or so of being pastor, another shift occurred. As a pastor being so often near death experiences they began to be for me my near-death experiences. As I allowed it, I could hear each one whisper, “You too will die! So will your loved ones and friends. So will your vocation. So will your energy, health and mobility. It’s only a matter of time.” I’m reminded of what I have been told about monks whispering to each other, memento more (remember death).

This may sound bleak, if not morbid; for sure it’s sobering. Note my disclaimer, “if I allowed it.” Most of the time I didn’t allow this awareness to linger, but when I did — and when you do — it can be paradoxically life-giving. You know this truth: to survive a near-death experience enhances the preciousness of life. You have watched this miracle in others. In every religious tradition it’s a practice: contemplating intentionally your death that in turn ignites the joy in the gift of being alive, breathing in, breathing out. Could it be that this is one of the fringe benefits of our work — the consistent near-death reminders of our dying?

The weighty theological word “eschatology” (acknowledging the “end times”) can help us. Let’s pull it off the shelf, dust if off and seize its life-giving benefits. What if we lived with the end in sight? For instance, imagine yourself at the end of your pastoral leadership with your current congregation — let’s say, three or five or ten years in the future. With that ending or death before you, ask what does this congregation most need from me (or not need) and what do I want to give (or not give) during this time?

When I turned sixty I imagined myself serving my congregation a few more years until retirement. I asked these questions: what was most needed from me, and what gifts would I enjoy giving before resigning. It turned out that these were my most enjoyable years, no doubt in part because my eschatology brought clarity.

Now at my current age of eighty-two my sense of eschatology still asks the same questions: what is most needed that matches the gifts I have to offer. What’s clearer?

. . .

My last illustration is the challenge of living with our end in sight, namely, our ending, our dying. What’s the picture? Likely you see yourself, as I do, in a bed at home or in a hospital. Though research tells us that most of us will not be conscious let’s assume we are conscious, very present, feeling only moderate pain. I’m guessing that you and I have a similar fantasy: loved ones around the bed amid blessing, tears, and laughter. At this moment, this truth crystallizes: love is what really matters — profoundly painful in its absence, deeply joyful in its presence.

No wonder, in light of our many near-death experiences, you and I offer at every funeral some form of “love is what really matters.” We express in some way how our taste of love is a part of a larger divine Love that never ends and from which nothing in life and death, now or later, can separate us. Maybe it’s easier for us, having journeyed with others so often through “the valley of death,” to hear and even heed on occasion the summons to live from that part of us — Love — that never dies.

So I say, why not maximize the vocational advantage given to us — regularly engaging, as practice, the mystery of death and dying, including our own. I do not minimize the truth that as pastors we are generalists fulfilling a broad range of expectations. But I’m proposing a correction. We are generalists with a specialty. Death is our practice: as a unique role of care to the dying and death of congregants, and as a spiritual practice of personal transformation. These are twin re-frames that mattered.

 


Hospice Chaplain / Midwife: A Re-Frame That Mattered

July 13, 2015

Friends, I have revised my website and blog to reflect this time in my life. As a way of leaving this vocation that always exceeded by grasp while filling me with purpose, I’m going back and picking up some tools (re-frames) that I found useful in the gardening we do. These “re-frames” mattered to me in my years of pastoral ministry. I’m passing them along with the hope that some will serve you as well.

. . .

Pete named it: “I feel like a hospice chaplain and a midwife.

In our circle of pastors we were responding to the question: “Your current ministry feels like or looks like a … what?” Pete’s response stayed with me. I played with it, trying on the images, experimenting with seeing pastoral ministry through these lenses. Over time it became a re-frame of the role for me. Of course, no metaphor captures the complexity of our work. But this frame reflects a truth I want to explore with you. Let’s consider these images separately.

Hospice chaplains help people die. They look for ways to align with the little, sometimes compelling movements of faith and gratitude during the journey toward one’s final breath. Pastors, as well, are given this sacred opportunity with parishioners.

But Pete was not referencing the standard, expected grief ministries of pastors, namely, the responses to personal losses that include death of a loved one or marriage or job or reputation. He was pointing to another level of loss more peculiar to the church in our historical moment.

This grief takes us to another category: the loss of church status, once “main-line,” now “side-lined”; the loss of congregational programs once vital but no more; the loss of familiar faith concepts, once life-giving but no more; the loss of institutional loyalty; and the loss of consensus about the essentials, e.g. what is Spirit/God about? … what is church about? … what is being human about?

Pastors these days hear a litany of laments:

“We don’t have young people like we used to” …

“I miss the old hymns” …

“you don’t talk about God in ways I’m accustomed to” …

“our ‘active’ members only attend maybe twice a month” …

“why, we used to have a thriving Sunday School” …

“nobody talks about tithing any more” …

“change, change everywhere, and now in church too.”

But there is an even larger sense of loss and lamenting, seldom named but nevertheless in the air we breathe. Nation-states are collapsing. Refuges know homelessness in unprecedented numbers. No longer can we assume a stable climate, predictable shorelines, and an ample, unending supply of clean water. Others have noted that 9/11, 2001 symbolically represents the undoing of U.S. exceptionalism. For sure, we are witnessing a gradual decline of our sense of privileged super-power at its peak during post-Cold War years.

This is my point. A huge amount of felt loss — losses on multiple levels, deaths experienced in various ways — is experienced by every pastor on a regular basis. People grieving over some kind of dying are the norm, not the exception. I think Pete is right. We are more, but not less than hospice chaplains.

Yet, I know of no pastor who “signed on” to be a hospice chaplain. Not one. Granted, hospice chaplaincy is both worthy and needed. But to see oneself as a hospice chaplain is a major shift in self-perception. A re-frame. It means valuing and appreciating grief work on these many levels. A priority insists on being clarified and embraced: assisting others in the letting go of what is no longer life-giving and, at the same time, companioning with others in the move toward re-formation, toward new life, toward birthing.

Yes, birthing. This takes us to the second image — a midwife. Clearly at this point I am now beyond my personal experience and can only draw on conversations with others, particularly with my ob-gyn physician daughter-in-law. But the birthing metaphor is so perfect, so essential, so biblical, so full of awe and mystery. Think of the fetus forming in the womb, growing until pre-natal life outgrows the constricting walls of the womb. The mother’s excruciating pain announces this point of no-return. But the movement toward new life cannot be stopped. Pushing forward is demanded. Evolution will not be denied. Either this singular evolving life will be supported or aborted. Amid it all, persons with “midwife” capacities offer skilled, compassionate, supportive presence.

Pete, in explaining his metaphor, felt the excitement of a midwife. He was witnessing pushes for birthing the new. Here and there, emerging from congregational relationships, were experimental ideas, programs and practices. This included many who were at work re-imaging their understanding of God, church and discipleship. The winds of spirituality blowing largely outside of the institutional church were beginning to blow within the congregation as well. It was as if he was midwife to emerging life pressing for birth, for breath, for new forms against the womblike strictures of the church.

At first glance, this metaphor of Pete’s — hospice chaplain and midwife — might appear as binary, as either-or. No, it’s not. It is not as if we do grief hospice work in the morning and midwifing of the new in the afternoon. Rather, I see the two dimensions, hospice chaplain and midwife, as held together by our most central theological affirmation of faith, namely, dying and rising, death and resurrection. It’s the Spirit’s way.

We affirm, as I understand our faith, that life and love cannot die; only the form of life and love dies. Any form — whether stage of human life development or stage of church life development or stage of faith development — will die. Our ego, ever clinging to form for security and comfort, will resist the dying, the letting go of our finite formulations. But like the trapeze artist, the trick is learning repeatedly to trust the letting go of one bar, enduring the up-in-the-air anxiety before grasping the next bar coming toward us. Isn’t this what we in the church name the paschal mystery embodied in Jesus — letting go, taking hold; dying, rising; life, death, resurrection.

If true, then this is our work: to help others learn to die in order to live, to help others learn to let go in order to embrace the next stage, to help others release their efforts to control/cling and trust the new life wanting to birth through them. This is where hospice chaplain and midwife meet. It’s one work that faces in two directions. It’s one call to be present in a way that bridges past and future.

This reflection ends with admiration. To stand in that breach, attending both to helping in the letting go and supporting the new being birthed, takes courage. Especially in our time of paradigm shifting, experienced in every institution, this role is seldom understood and appreciated. You can see why. Who likes to hear the message that much is dying in the church? Who is eager to hear the invitation to let go and trust the new yet unformed and unknown? Expect no kudos for that message! Then, on the other hand, what innovative souls, eager to get on and experiment with “being church” in fresh ways, want to hear, “Now be patient with those still denying the death occurring in the church!” Expect no kudos from them!

But this leadership during the “in-between-time” is critical. The church needs clergy called to this challenge. This challenge includes the inner work required. The pastor must learn to release dependence on kudos, to let go of the egoic need to be understood and affirmed, to, as Ethel Waters once said, learn to become “applause deaf.” To relinquish the known and trust the birthing Spirit of the unknown may be the hardest inner spiritual work embedded in this re-frame — being both hospice chaplain and midwife.

I hear this same re-frame in Vaclav Havel, the poet, playwright, philosopher and first president of liberated Czechoslovakia. Let’s give him the final word: “We offer leadership in a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born.”


Locating God

March 24, 2014

Where is God? Where do we look for God in our secular age?

I was asking these questions out loud while driving home from a recent discussion group. In the group one person was telling the Jonah story, treating it like a myth or parable. The presenter was asking: where is the Jonah in us? What are the ways, like Jonah, we flee from a God so radically loving of “the enemy,” Nineveh in this case?

A few in the circle quickly self-identified themselves as “secularists.” They interpreted the story literally, dismissing as fanciful any God who stages an ocean storm, including a large fish to swallow fleeing Jonah, later regurgitated on the land. “We can’t relate to this story. We don’t believe in God, especially that kind of God,” they all said in various ways.

Later in the conversation, a member of the circle (let’s call her Kelly), one of the “secularists,” spoke movingly of her long history with an elder in a remote Mexican village. Once a researcher in this village, she remained his friend through the years. When she heard of his dying, she made the long trip to be at his side. It seemed that he was staying alive to have his last moments with her.

By the time of her arrival, the elder has slipped into a coma. “Too late,” she lamented. But Kelly stays, remaining at his bedside, holding his hand in hers. She spoke of a profound, palatable presence of love that pervaded the room. Even the animals seem aware of this difference. Hours pass until the unexpected happens. Her mentor opens his eyes, fully and clearly, smiles, squeezes her hand and the hand of his son, then closes his eyelids, and stops breathing. It was a brief moment, so full, so unexpected, so unexplainable.

I blurted out, “Why God was all over that!” She smiled with a puzzled acknowledgment that neither of us pursued.

While driving home, I imagine saying more to Kelly. I wanted to add: “Kelly, in my way of seeing, what you experienced was God. The invisible, loving presence, so palatable to you, I name Spirit. The name is not so important to me, but naming the experience is. Your love for and from this Mexican elder, culminating in that sacred moment, is a Reality more than just you and him, more like a magnetic field, a Mystery that pulled you beyond explanation into awe.”

I assume most people have such profound moments igniting similar responses: “Wow! What a gift. And surprise. A presence, too deep for words!” Every one, from time to time, gets knocked off their feet with unexpected goodness. But I’m sad when these life-shaking experiences are left without symbols, story and metaphor, without rejoicing in community. Naming, I think, gives these spiritual experiences a marker, a container, an anticipation for more.

Isn’t this what church, at its best, does? Church, as corporate worship and caring relationships, can provide the context where such experiences are named, appreciated and expected. Of course, we cannot make these extra-ordinary events happen, but within community we do offer liturgy, story, and silence where openings to gracious/terrifying Mystery are invited and celebrated — the very fuel for acting compassionately in our worlds.

This is my assumption: Kelly, and many “secularists” like her, do have spiritual experiences. She strikes me as a person open to wonder over breakthroughs of kindness, beauty and self-giving acts of compassion. But with her image of God so tied to an other-worldly figure removed from our humanity, she may miss the connection so obvious to me.

I am thinking of the preachers among you. Probably you have a congregation full of those who still worship a God separated from this world who intervenes from time to time according to whim. I keep being surprised about how imprinted in our psyche is a deity “up there, out there,” not in here, the invisible, in-between part, the love energy in relationships.

I suppose I am a literalist at this point. I take this truth at face value: “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God, for God is love.” (I John 4:7). There’s where I look for God.


A Pastor Advantage

January 20, 2014

“Pastoral ministry is one of the last generalist professions,” it’s often said. And that’s true. You have to wear many hats: preaching, teaching, leading, pastoral care, managing and community leader. And each function calls for a different skill set.

But you are specialists, as well. Your specialty is grief ministry. That’s your expertise. From beginning to end, you are alongside of this sequence: illness, dying, death, funeral/memorial service, after care. Other care-givers, like nurses, funeral directors, physicians, family, and friends have unique roles to fill, but, as pastor, you have access to the whole grieving process. If pastors are faithful in this work, relationships with congregants deepen; if pastors fail here, congregant relationships weaken.

Consider seeing this specialty in a larger sense. Among helping professionals, you possess a distinct advantage. All around us death and decay are being experienced on a much broader scale than persons physically dying. We are daily engaging individuals and families grieving multiple losses. So much of what “worked” is not “working” now — in virtually every area of our lives. Given this historical context, your vast experience with death and dying well positions you to see and offer what is critically needed.

Our moment in time is being similarly named: New Reformation (Phyllis Tickle); New Axial Age (Karen Armstrong); The Great Turning (Johanna Macy); From Empire to Earth Community (David Korten); From Domination Systems to Domination-Free Systems (Walter Wink). This major historical transition, however it’s named, is about change. And change is about loss. And loss is about grief.

The hard part of change is loss because the letting go has happen before the new can be seen. The trapeze act gives us the picture. The trapeze artist must first release the current bar, risk suspension in mid-air, and trust that a new bar is coming. That’s what grief looks like.

Call to mind how many of your pastoral conversations are about the losses that come with change — the external, measurable losses of technical prowess, job, status, income, place, structure mirrored by the more internal, immeasurable losses of self-esteem, confidence, security, control, and trust. The grief process follows, more or less, a pattern that includes denial, bargaining, anger, fear that may, if honored, move to acceptance, letting go, and even gratitude for what was.

You know this process like the back of your hand. You are not afraid to place yourself in the midst of grief’s intensity. Others, perhaps most others, are likely to withdraw for fear of saying the wrong words or doing the inappropriate thing. You have an advantage. You know it’s not about saying or doing the “right” thing. You know its primarily about Presence, being present with listening, mirroring, encouraging, coming alongside like a midwife, patiently and sensitively assisting in the letting go and the birthing of the new.

Of course, change has always been with us, but the accelerating rate of change is the big story of our time. No longer is the rate, 2-4-6-8, but rather, 2-4-8-16-32. Grieving multiple loses may be our primary inner work. People need you — neighbors, family and congregants alike. They need your expertise. They need your presence. They need to experience within their loses the paschal mystery, the very core of your calling: dying/rising; facing into loss trusting that life is rising out of death.

You and I, as pastors, have an advantage. Can we see it, then offer it?


Near-Death Experiences

February 21, 2011

It was a near-death experience, the kind that frequents the life of a pastor, but less frequent for a retired pastor.

Just minutes after Ann died, I stood at her bedside along with her three devoted daughters. For many days, Joyce, Deb and Kay had been loving their mother—embracing, stroking, bathing, changing diapers, feeding, smiling, singing, praying gratitude. “Full circle,” I thought. Here, in this bed by the window, they had been caring for their mother in precisely the same way they were cared for at birth. As we held hands across her bed, the Mystery sank in on multiple levels: ending and beginning, death and birth.

In Western culture death is primarily denied. And feared too. We push the awareness of death down into our unconscious only to experience its projection all over our media screens. But mostly, except when death invades our intimate circles, our conscious thinking does a good job in keeping it “out of sight, out of mind.”

As pastors we don’t have this option. I’m glad. The experience of dying and death is always “near.” Like no other professional, we are expected to show up all along the continuum—from early stages of dying to death rituals to follow-through grief ministry.

Back to Ann lying lifeless before us. I kept to myself the question demanding a response: With Ann, as she was, now gone, is there “something” that lasts? In all the impermanence, is there any permanence? Is there “reality” behind these appearances, “something” invisible, “something” gracious and awesome and beautiful?

For certain, “love” was and had been present—the hard, sweaty, sleepless, earthy, self-emptying kind. No question about that.

I turned to the words I always do, Paul’s bold effort to name this Presence: “Love never ends . . . and no-thing now or later, in life or death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Then I went home and hugged Janice so hard, she said, “What’s gotten into you?”


Helping Without Hurting

June 7, 2010

Here we are, working in one of the “helping professions.” People expect help from us; we expect to give help. However most “help,” I suspect, is hurtful.

Sometimes, but not often, helping actually does mean rescuing, fixing, taking charge. Mary is paralyzed, deep in depression, unable to see options. You help by saying in some way, “Mary, you need a doctor. I will make the appointment and go with you.” Or, someone is controlling the group that you are facilitating. So you say, “Joe, there are others who have not spoken. Let’s hear from them before you speak again.” Or in a crisis, you say, “We don’t have time to process this as we usually do. Lee, will you do this . . . Ellen, would you do that . . . and Eric, do you have time to check with . . . ?”

But most times requests for help and our impulse to help can be saboteurs to genuine helping. Co-dependence looms. “Helper” needs the “helpless;” the “helpless” needs the “helper.”

So what is genuine helping? Recently I was invited to join a healthy, redemptive example of helping. Roy, let’s call him, was struggling with a huge self-defining decision. He came to Jack for help. Jack suggested that Roy invite a few trusted friends to sit with him as he struggled with “what to do.” I was invited to join the small circle of five that met about every other week.

Here is what struck me about Jack’s helping. We began each time with a few minutes of silence that allowed me to get myself out of the way, namely, my desire to interpret, my tendency to offer solutions, my investment in Roy making a particular decision. I needed to be reminded that this is about him, not me. Then Jack, more by example than word, honored, without diminishing, Roy’s suffering. He invited us to be a holding circle, a space without judgment, without advising, without analysis, without fixing, offering instead a prayerful place of trust and not-knowing. Our occasional questions and mirroring kept the inner work with Roy. And work he did! After many months, Roy came to a clearness that empowered courageous action. From his suffering was birthed a Soulful clarity.

This experience reminds me of a question I carried with me as a pastor. When I was in a relationship where I was in the role of helper, particularly when there is no movement toward resolution, I found this question revealing: “Am I working harder than he/she/they are?” If so, I knew my needs—possibly the need to be needed or right or admired—were in the way of their inner work. Then, if I were having a mature moment, I would back off and hold the relationship in grace, asking curious questions, not giving answers, trusting their capacity to discern Spirit, Soul at work in their depths.

Are we not talking about “agape” love here?


The Courage to Show Up

May 17, 2010

Let’s think about those times when you enter those human spaces where, in Paul’s thought, the “sighs [are] too deep for words.”

Roy, let’s name him, was presenting his pastoral challenge to his circle of clergy friends. On a snowy day in February, just as he was settling in for sermon preparation, the word came that Bill Lowery, friend and community leader, had suddenly died from a massive heart attack. Roy rushes to the hospital to be present to the shocked family who look to him for words. Two months later, the heart broken widow commits suicide. Again Roy rushes to the place of death to be present to the surviving sons who look to him for words.

In both situations, Roy spoke of having no “right” words, feeling inadequate, uncomfortably vulnerable, standing, it seemed, naked before a Mystery “too deep for words.” Priding himself as a professional crafter of words, he was lost for words.

You can imagine the responses from his colleagues: “But Roy, you were authentic, not mouthing pious platitudes that discount the anguish and deny the mystery” . . .”You were present with touch and feeling” . . .”You must have invited trust because the sons later wanted time and conversation with you.”

I drove away from this conversation thinking about the courage it took for Roy to show up in such a surreal place, a space extraordinary, corded off from the ordinary, a timeless moment oblivious to the clock on the wall.

I remember—as I suspect you are remembering—the dread in driving to the hospital or home knowing you will be walking into a “sighing too deep for words.” You anticipate expectations you cannot meet. You assume eruptions of feeling you cannot predict. Yes, there will be words, but they must be few and carefully parsed.

But . . . you go.

Physicians go into these holy places with a stethoscope and other tangibles. The nurses, funeral director, and friends show up with things to do. You don’t have much to do. You don’t have much to say. But, and this may be the point, you have much to be.

Being present, representing a “with us” Presence, may be the wordless Word declared that really matters and comforts.

In retrospect, Roy might turn to Paul’s assurance that Spirit is in the “sighing.” “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8: 26)

But let’s not smooth over Roy’s angst: his felt weakness, inadequacy, left to share the sighs too deep for words. I want to honor his courage, and yours, to show up, offering Presence within so much not-knowing.

—Mahan Siler


For Pastors — Good Grief

April 5, 2010

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.