When grief strikes us as congregational leaders, it always involves some kind of death, physical or otherwise. Ministry that happens in the midst of our own crises depends upon our ability to witness two things. First, we witness to the reality of pain and second to the possibility of Resurrection. It has been my experience that one cannot speak truthfully about resurrection without first living the pain of death that precedes it.
Unfortunately, I have learned this the hard way. I led the same congregation through both my own divorce and then the death of my second husband. When I started at Bethlehem Lutheran Church it was June of 2011 and I was (I thought) happily married with a child. But in January of that following year, I wrote a letter to the congregation I barely knew telling them of my shock and grief that my marriage was ending. I was ashamed and didn’t know what to expect in response.
“Be gentle with yourself”
Immediately, the cards and prayers started pouring in, along with my parishioners’ stories of their own divorces. This was my first glimpse into the depth of sharing and care that healthy congregations can provide for their leaders, when they know it is needed. I had taken the call at Bethlehem thinking that I had skills the congregation could use, but it turned out I needed them just as much as they needed me.
The best words given to me in that divorce grief were from a woman much older than me, who had been through a painful divorce herself years earlier. “Be gentle with yourself,” she said, —her hand on my arm, after Bible study one Wednesday. I have often repeated her words to others who are suffering, but that was the first time I’d ever heard the phrase. It was balm to my wounded spirit, as I navigated a life suddenly different than I wanted. I wish more parishioners would say those words to their leaders, and not just in moments of loss or tragedy. The phrase could certainly be useful during Advent or Holy Week, for example, when church leaders are working harder than ever.
Grief upon grief
Fast forward a few years and I got married again, this time in the chapel at Bethlehem. A couple years after that, the congregation promised their prayers and support as our new baby was baptized in the sanctuary, with my step-daughters as her baptismal sponsors. The congregation and I had come full circle, supporting me through my divorce and now celebrating with me every story of resurrection and redemption. We trusted each other deeply, because of all we’d shared. The best of the ministry we did together was in that time.
Then in June of 2019, I came home from my post-VBS self-care one afternoon to find my second husband unresponsive on the kitchen floor. He was pronounced dead just a few hours later, and a week later we held his funeral in the same sanctuary where his middle daughter had been confirmed just weeks before. It took five weeks for me to even attempt returning to work, but on every one of those days, congregation members sent cards, brought meals, walked my dog, cleaned my house, and so much more.
It took months before I was able to get through worship without tears, but the congregation held space for my pain and cried with me. My preaching was different, full of questions and doubts, and the congregation assured me they’d keep the faith when I wasn’t sure I could. Again, they shared their stories of spousal loss, often stories that I was hearing for the first time from people I thought I knew well.
Bearing witness to God’s presence in pain
After both encounters with grief, I noticed that I was often the leader to whom parishioners brought their grief. Because I had been open about both the theological questions my pain raised and the comfort I found in faith as I struggled, my congregation members were open with me when they were struggling. They sought both understanding and resources, but perhaps more than that, they sought testimony. They wanted to know where and how God showed up when I was at my lowest point, so they could believe that God would show Godself when they needed it most as well.
Telling my story, and as a preacher, weaving my experience into the stories of Scripture, opened up a whole new lens through which to read the Bible. In my newfound empathy for the grieving, I was suddenly aware of how heavy the Scriptures are with all kinds of grief. People often say that grief is the price we pay for loving deeply, so it is only natural to think the story of the greatest Lover of all should be drenched in tears. In real ways, the Bible has become one of my grief manuals, a guide through the pain and a witness to the hope that persists in suffering.
A brief guide for grieving while leading
I hope you will not have frequent need of such a resource, but the longer you are in ministry with God’s people, the more likely it is you will encounter some grief that shakes you to the core. I am living proof that it is possible to continue leading as you grieve, but there are a few things to know as you do that:
- Give your grief somewhere to go. In addition to therapy (which is probably a given), make regular time daily to cry, journal, nap, or whatever your grief is telling your body it needs. This scheduled time will make it less likely for your grief to come out sideways while you are leading.
- Just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to. This goes for sharing your pain, continuing with the workload you had before, and even staying in the same congregation. Grief reorders your priorities, and you should give yourself permission to renegotiate your work in whatever way you need.
- You may need to lead others into caring for you. When a loss strikes their leader, many parishioners find it especially unsettling and may not know what to say or do. Where you have energy to do so, telling people specifically what to do (and equally important, what not to do) can provide a bearable framework for receiving care from your congregation.
- Find fellow grievers, especially those who’ve experienced a similar loss, and/or who are leading while grieving. While each person’s journey with grief is unique, it helps to know you aren’t the only one. There are great online communities for this, such as Nora McInerny’s The Hot Young Widow’s Club (you don’t have to be young or hot to join) and Megan Devine’s website RefugeinGrief.com.
God is with you
Above all, know that God is with you and understands your grief. God is able to heal your broken heart, possibly even through the people you are called to serve. And in God’s economy, death is always a precursor to resurrection, even if you cannot imagine it yet. May the community of God’s beloved people hold you and help to hold your pain.