What Makes Pastors’ Grief Work Especially Challenging?
Grief awakens grief. The grief produced by a pastor’s personal tragedy always interacts with whatever other griefs have been experienced while:
Hearing and addressing the grief stories of congregation members
Lamenting whatever unspoken and unmet expectations there might be related to ministry life and pastoral vocation
Encountering ministry disappointments related to people and programs
Struggling through the weariness and loneliness that often come with the role of spiritual leader
Fending off disappointment with God for any or all of the above.
The grieving pastor experiences a significant role change. A pastor usually experiences grief as a comforter for others. Tragedy changes that, and a significant part of that change is the loss of control. This loss is made more challenging if a pastor has defined him/herself in terms of the ministry role.
Congregations assume too much. Because congregations see their pastors as skilled in the arts of comforting grievers they assume that pastors are also skilled in the arts of dealing with their own grief. As a result, people are sometimes less motivated to reach out to their grieving pastors.
Pastors assume too much. Pastors may sometimes assume that a seminary degree or a pastoral role automatically comes with greater ability to deal with one’s own spiritual and emotional challenges. A lack of self-awareness might make this false assumption even more problematic.
Church members enter awkwardly. They often don’t know how to express their grief well. They are clumsy with their words, unaware that their ways of speaking sometimes hurt. Sometimes they assume that, since you are a spiritual leader, you are better equipped to absorb the awkwardness that might come with their clumsy expressions of support.
Isolation deepens grief. The isolation that often comes with the work of pastoral leadership is experienced more deeply in times of grief. It intensifies the experience of grief and makes recovery from grief a more protracted process.
Meanwhile, the pastor has the same needs that everyone else has: Needs for community, comfort, and confirmation that the feelings of grief are fitting and appropriate.