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Pastors Who Experience Significant Trauma

Grief is a universal human experience. We live in a broken world after all, one that produces loss on a constant basis. Pandemics interrupt our lives. Conflicts disrupt our peace. Changes break into our world. Loss also happens when, as children, we leave the intimate security of home to go off to school. Later in life we experience loss in the context of broken relationships, lost opportunities, and unfulfilled dreams. 

There are some losses, however, that are so sudden and so deep that the grief they produce almost wrecks us. Depression descends out of nowhere. A loved one is diagnosed with a life-altering disease. One awakens to painful memories of past abuse. A child is killed. A spouse asks for a divorce. 

It is one thing to experience such grief as a church member. It is quite another to experience it as a pastor, as someone called by a community of faith to hold, minister to, and call out the meaning of other peoples’ spiritual and emotional experiences.1 Attending to such things while holding one’s own deep grief is hard and terrible work. Pastors come to the end of themselves while trying to do it. And those who supervise and encourage them are often at a loss as to how to help.

This resource is designed to provide churches and church leadership with ways to love and provide for their pastors when their pastors are struck by such losses. It is also aimed at pastors, to help them right-size their expectations of themselves and of their congregations. 

The material contained within this resource first emerged from a conversation with a pastor who had experienced personal tragedy and then was disappointed by the lack of meaningful help from the classis and the denomination. It was then developed in the context of conversations with many pastors in the Christian Reformed denomination and, in particular, conversations with a small number of pastors who had experienced significant personal tragedy. A tremendous debt of thanks is owed to these pastors and to the pastor who had lamented the lack of support from broader assemblies. We are grateful for all of their courage and generosity! 

Note that this material is not an academic or research-based treatment of the topic of grief, and has all of the resulting limitations. Nonetheless, we hope that it brings shalom and blessing.

1 For another window into the special challenges faced by those who provide pastoral leadership to congregations see “Pastoring the Pastor” blogpost, by Rev. Cecil Van Niejenhuis.

Additional Resources

Additional resources suggested by the pastors who have experienced deep tragedy.

  • Books recommended by the pastors who had experienced grief:
    • A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis (1961; various editions available)
    • A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss by Jerry Sittser (2004)
    • A Liturgy of Grief: A Pastoral Commentary on Lamentations by Leslie Allen (2011)
    • A Path through Suffering: Discovering the Relationship between God’s Mercy and Our Pain by Elizabeth Elliot (2003)
    • Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I Have Loved by Kate Bowler (2018)
    • Getting to the Other Side of Grief: Overcoming the Loss of a Spouse by Susan Zonneveld-Smeenge and Robert De Vries (1998)
    • Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff (1987)
    • Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ by J. Todd Billings (2015)
    • Sometimes Mountains Move by C. Everett and Elizabeth Koop (1979)
    • Stations of the Heart: Parting with a Son by Richard Lischer (2013)
  • “The story of Job was helpful.” 
  • Psalms 42, 43 (3 cycles of “why so downcast?” followed by a profession of faith-- so true to the complexities of real life)
  • A trip to the mountains helped me experience the vastness of the world that God created and that my loss was significant to God but it wasn’t the only thing on God’s radar.

Feel free to suggest other resources that have been helpful to you. Please contact Pastor Church Resources as [email protected].

More Personal Testimonies From Pastors

  • The truth of the Resurrection has come to me with a whole different flavor. 
  • I now think and feel about the resurrection and eternity in a new and more connected way. When a fellow pastor said to me that he thought we would not know our loved ones in the afterlife I became rather angry. This was not just a matter of theology to me. It was my heart reacting before my brain — though I think scripture supports my feelings.
  • I weep more easily now and I am less patient with people who get upset over small matters, who don’t see the big picture of life, who fail to recognize God’s gifts in life.
  • I found immediate connection with widows and widowers in my congregation.
  • After our child’s death my wife changed where she sat in the sanctuary — to be nearer the widows.