What Have Grieving Pastors Said About Their Own Grief?
Grief can bring a crisis of faith and/or calling. One pastor spoke about waking up in the middle of the night, and thinking, “If I am honest, I can never enter the pulpit again.” This seems to be a normal response.
The pastor’s experience of tragic, personal loss will reawaken whatever unprocessed griefs the congregation may have experienced (griefs that come with conflict, church mergers, membership losses, painful deaths of congregation members). It will be necessary for the church to process those griefs/losses. Again, all grief connects to other grief.
Pastors too are tempted to avoid grief work. They do this most often by engaging in ministry work too soon after their tragic loss. This complicates the work of grieving as the unprocessed grief goes “underground” and is reconstituted in problematic and challenging ways. It then re-emerges when a subsequent grief event occurs, and its re-emergence confuses both the pastor and the congregation.
Holding onto God during the grieving process did not automatically translate into the ability to return to the pulpit and talk about God with the congregation.
Time spent caring for a dying loved one or recovering from a tragedy leads to guilt about getting a paycheck (because you’re spending less time and energy serving the church).
If a pastor’s grief is related to the loss of a spouse who has functioned as your ministry partner then you are not just grieving the loss of a spouse, but the loss of a colleague.
A pastor’s experience of grief may bring to mind all the ways that he or she failed those in my congregation who had experienced their own griefs.
Personal tragedy can make pastors somewhat cynical when hearing about other peoples’ “needs”-- particularly when their needs seem to be significantly less impactful than the loss that the pastor has experienced. It’s sometimes a battle to be present with people in their pain. One pastor spoke of his story of having to lead a funeral 3 months after losing a child. The 84-year-old grandmother’s grandchildren were weeping out of grief, and he found himself tempted to say, “You don’t have a clue.”
In time a minister who has dealt with his/her loss can be a better pastor-- particularly to others who grieve.
Taking a call to another church sometime after suffering a personal tragedy means that the support community that had first enfolded the pastor might be more distant/remote. Of course, when former parishioners continue to engage anyway they are special blessings!