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How Might the Church’s Leaders Help the Pastor?

  1. Imagine what you might want your own biological family member to experience in the context of personal trauma and grief. Make arrangements for that to be done for your pastor.
  2. Immediately have a conversation with other church leaders and then with the pastor about providing the pastor with enough time away from ministry to do the work of grieving. This conversation can be staged out-- with an initial conversation about providing the pastor with the next few weeks off, during which another conversation can take place about longer range plans for relief.

    These conversations would be helped with guidance from a grief counselor who is aware of the grief dynamics noted in this resource and with guidance from those familiar with your state or province’s provisions for mental health leave. Our observation is that a significant time away is critical so that the pastor’s grieving process is not complicated by having to pour him/herself into the work of pastoring others and so that a healthy return to pastoral work is more possible.

    There is no hard and fast rule for how long any given pastor should be released from ministry work, but consider the following testimonies:
    1. From one pastor’s experience during his internship—“The lead pastor simply left ministry after his wife’s death a year earlier, and clearly remembers people saying that the minister cried a lot from the pulpit during that year. They knew that he missed his wife.”
    2. From a pastor whose child had barely survived a tragic accident: “I spent six weeks away from ministry, and returned while my child was still in a coma after the accident. After I returned it was eight weeks before I could get into the pulpit without having to kick myself emotionally.” 
    3. From a pastor who had experienced the accidental death of a child: “My council and I were advised by a denominational ministry leader to set up a 3-month sabbatical. I had already collapsed emotionally while trying to preach again just a few weeks after our daughter’s death.” 
    4. From a pastor who had experienced divorce: “I did take some time off from my pastoral duties but as I look back it probably wasn’t enough time to properly grieve this immense loss in my life.”
    5. From a pastor who had an infant’s death: “...the council should have required/enforced a lengthy leave of absence, with ongoing counseling, both individual counseling and couple’s counseling, in order to handle all the multiple tentacles of the grief process.” 
  3. Arrange ongoing pastoral care for your pastor and the pastor’s family. It is not possible for a pastor to pastor himself or a loved one who is suffering or dying or grieving a loss. Find those in the congregation who have experience with grief, and learn from them (chaplains, mental health professionals, morticians, etc.). Obtain assistance from any such people who are outside the congregation. Consult the provisions of any mental health Congregational Assistant Program (CAP) in which the congregation might be enrolled. Pastors in the area who have encountered their own grief can be helpful as well.
  4. When you visit your pastor you do not need to talk. Listening is often more welcome. Sit in confident and humble silence for a short time, and simply embrace the awkwardness for the sake of your pastor. Then offer to pray for healing and peace, and feel free to leave shortly afterwards.
  5. When communicating with the congregation about the pastor’s loss and grief be sure to obtain the pastor’s input when planning such communications. Often it is best simply to state essential facts only and then ask for prayer on behalf of your pastor. 
  6. You may want to identify, with your pastor, a person who can be the first contact for congregation members wishing to express their sympathies and support for your pastor. Ask your pastor if this would be helpful.
  7. When your pastor indicates readiness to re-engage ministry, allow him or her to re-engage those elements of ministry that were life-giving before the tragedy, and slowly move into the more demanding requirements of the job.
  8. See resources referred to in this blogpost created by Disability Concerns.