Ordained Servant Online



A Pastor’s Grief, and How to Cope with It

Gordon H. Cook Jr.

Pastors Grieve, Too

Some of you who are reading this have a longer and even more personal list of significant losses.

Some of these sources of grief are common to everyone, some are unique to a pastor. We have not always been spared the “sorrow upon sorrow” of which the Apostle spoke (Phil. 2:27). In my first article in this series[1], I suggested that at times the church and well-meaning pastors discourage believers from grieving. This is even more the case when it is pastors who are experiencing the grief.

Congregations often think very highly of their pastor. They believe that pastors are spiritually strong, closely connected with God, mature enough to see the glorious purposes of God and thus be immune from the frailties of grief. Pastors are supposed to be those who provide comfort for others, not the ones needing to be comforted themselves. Regretfully, some pastors also accept these myths as if they ought to be true.

Yet consider the example of the great Apostle. Paul was constantly grieving. He grieved for his Jewish people who had failed to embrace Jesus as Messiah (Rom. 9:1–5). He acknowledged himself “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,” an aspect of the hardships which he had endured in his ministry (2 Cor. 6:10). His relationship with the church at Corinth was characterized by “affliction and anguish of heart and ... many tears” (2 Cor. 2:4). The same was true of Paul’s ministry throughout Asia (Acts 20:18–19). Thus, for example, Paul notes “that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears” (Acts 20:31). He also knew the grief of betrayal by those who abandoned Christ (Philippians 3:18). And, as has already been noted, in the face of the grave illness of Epaphroditus, Paul had anticipated “sorrow upon sorrow” (Philippians 2:27). Notice the variety of different causes of grief in the apostle. In all of this Paul is fully consistent with so many others who have labored in bringing us God’s Word.[2]

Pastors grieve, just like every other human being. Sometimes pastors grieve about things that others would not. Though, to be sure, they ought not to grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13).

Allowing Ourselves to Grieve

Pastors grieve. But rarely do we allow ourselves the time necessary to complete this process of grief. Our commitment to “making the best use of the time” (Eph. 5:16) often presses us under “the tyranny of the urgent.” [3] We willingly sacrifice our own needs for the spiritual needs of others. Yet, as many pastors learn, grief has its own time-table and it can re-surface at the most inopportune times.

It was almost a year after the death of my grandmother that I was asked to do a funeral service for an elderly woman in the community whom I barely knew. I met with the woman’s family, prepared an appropriate service, and was in the midst of delivering it, when suddenly I felt quite overwhelmed by feelings of grief. It became difficult to continue speaking, and I was very embarrassed. The family and members of the congregation comforted me, and soon I regained my composure and continued. What was this?

Therese Rando, a clinical psychologist, and one of the foremost writers in the area of grief, refers to this phenomenon as a STUG Reaction, a “subsequent temporary upsurge of grief.”[4] Undoubtedly, it was triggered by the context of a funeral service, the proximity in time, and some minor similarities between this woman and my grandmother. Anyone who has experienced grief knows what STUGs are. They can and do occur even when grief has been carefully processed. They can occur many years after the event which was first grieved. Rando indicates that STUGs are even more common in cases of incomplete grief, where our grief has not been fully processed.[5] Taking time to process our own grief in order to reduce the likelihood of incomplete grief is a wise course.[6] It can enhance our ability to minister appropriately to others. It may take time now, but it will be time well spent.

Processing grief includes a) accepting the reality of loss; b) working through the pain and emotions associated with our grief; c) adjusting to the new environment in which the loss has occurred; and in due time d) emotionally relocating the one (or thing) who is now absent from us so that we can begin to move on with our lives.[7] Each of these tasks takes both time and emotional energy. They can be aided by spiritual and emotional support and by the good use of the means of grace. In the end we have not forgotten our loved one, nor even moved on without him or her. But we have allocated to them a new and special place in our life story which allows us to move on.

When members of your congregation grieve, they often turn to you for emotional and spiritual support, and rightly so. God has called you to serve as their pastor, a shepherd among the flock of God. The godly shepherd comforts and consoles God’s lambs with the consolation of God’s Word and Spirit. To whom do you turn as your pastor when you need comfort and consolation?

As Presbyterian pastors, we see ourselves as under-shepherds of the Lord Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the Sheep. Surely none can provide greater comfort than our Savior. Such a thought urges us to make good use of the means of grace, not only as that which we minister to others, but also as that which nurtures, supports, and comforts us. It is the God of all comfort who comforts us in our affliction and thus provides us with comfort with which we may comfort others (2 Cor. 1:3-4).

In practical terms, this involves spending time with God. It means reading God’s Word, not just as a preparation for the next sermon or Bible study, but with a desire to know, believe, and obey the will of God revealed in it; meditating upon that Word; and actively seeking to put it into practice in our lives.[8] It means partaking of the Lord’s Supper, blessing God for the quickening and comfort we find therein, looking to God to continue that comfort in our lives, spiritually feeding upon Christ, the Bread of Life, and waiting upon God for the fruit of it in due time.[9] It means spending extra time with God in prayer, pouring our hearts out to him, recognizing our complete dependence upon him, humbly submitting ourselves to his will even in the matters which have erupted as grief within us.[10]

Within Presbyterianism we also find strength and comfort in the plurality of elders. God has established sessions, consisting of ministers and ruling elders. Our Form of Government charges ruling elders that “they should have particular concern for the doctrine and conduct of the minister of the Word and help him in his labors.”[11] These elders are called and equipped to support the minister in matters of grief. A wise minister will do well to be open to this support from the session, or even to ask for support and comfort from these mature church leaders who are entrusted with our care. Further, many of us enjoy a close personal relationship with one or more presbyters. We find in such a colleague an open and listening ear, ready and willing to hear our grief, indeed to share in our grief with us. In these close relationships we can and should share on a far deeper level. Such a friend is not likely to wait for you to call and ask for support. A good friend offers this support as soon as he becomes aware of the need.

There is a danger within congregational ministry that a grieving minister may inadvertently burden a church member who is less mature with his own struggles and challenges, a practice both unwise and unwholesome within the church. Pastors ought carefully to heed the cautions Jesus offers in regard to offending “the little ones.” It is not wrong for the minister to wrestle with grief, but this should be done with the support of mature church leaders who are equipped and prepared to provide that support.

Ministers who struggle with grief have found some other activities which are particularly helpful. For those whose vocation involves the written word, another opportunity to process grief may be found in the form of writing, whether letters or poetry or memorials, this writing allows us to express things which might be difficult to verbalize. I have been impressed with the letters incorporated in Heather Hays’s book Surviving Suicide, Help to Heal Your Heart.[12] Survivors whose loved ones have chosen to take their own lives found great comfort in writing letters to that loved one. Indeed, readers of Hays’s book can also find comfort there. The same was demonstrated in the correspondence between Pastor David Biebel and a close friend and associate, the Rev. John Aker, following the death of David’s son, Jonathan.[13] Recently I was privileged to read a beautifully written letter by a fellow pastor regarding the passing of his mother, a letter which was clearly comforting for him and also for any who might read it. Putting these deep feelings into words on paper may be easier than saying them out loud, and can bring significant relief even in the midst of active grief.

Others may find comfort in gathering photographs or other items associated with those who have died, and services (public or private) of remembering and celebration. Pastors are usually very efficient at conducting funerals and memorial services, but rarely allow themselves to benefit from those services, being focused on the spiritual needs of others. Thus, it is often necessary that the minister find a separate time and occasion for his own grief, for saying goodbye, and for entrusting a loved one to the gracious hands of God.

Ministers, just like anyone else, can experience complicated grief in some circumstances. This is a grief which does not resolve with time. This is especially common in cases of sudden death, violent death, suicide, or the death of the pastor’s child. Complicated grief was addressed in the second article in this series.[14] If the minister or an elder sees any of the signs of complicated grief: violent outbursts, strong guilt feelings, suicidal thoughts, lingering inability to concentrate, self-destructive behavior, radical changes of lifestyle, or physical symptoms which imitate those of the deceased, then professional support should be sought immediately.[15]

Leading by Grieving

We ought to give ourselves the time needed to experience and process our grief. It is dangerous to try to “get on with life” too quickly. However, most ministers do not have the luxury of lengthy sabbaticals, or even long vacations. The needs of a congregation and presbytery must be met, a responsibility which we accepted in our ordination and installation vows. So how should our grief be resolved?

In grief, as in every other aspect of life, the minister should be “an example” to the flock of God.[16] Without imposing our spiritual struggles upon those who are less mature, it is fitting for the congregation to know of and to uphold their pastor in prayer during the time of grief. The faithful pastor is a testimony to the hope that we have in Christ, a hope which is undiminished even in grief.[17] Setting a proper example as one who seeks and obtains comfort from the means of grace and from mature church leaders can be highly educational to the congregation. It should not be tucked away in a false privacy, but spoken of freely, albeit in edifying terms. At the same time, many will attest that keeping active in the labor of ministry can be very helpful as part of our effort to cope with grief. And our grief can make us far more sensitive to the spiritual hurts of others.

The pastor who adopts “stoicism” in the face of grief is not doing the congregation any exceptional favor. Rather, the pastor who demonstrates a godly and hopeful grief may open the way for others in the congregation to express their own deep feelings of loss, and find healing in the sweet communion of the saints. The church is to be a safe place in which we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15).

A Congregation in Grief

Perhaps the most challenging situation is when the whole congregation, including the pastor, finds itself in grief together. The community of faith has suffered a loss. A prominent member has died. A core family has left the church. A beloved pastor has announced his intention to leave this pastorate. The church has sustained multiple losses in a relatively short period of time. A disaster has befallen the church facility or community.

Suddenly the signs of active grief are being exhibited by many or all of the members of the congregation. Members interact with each other with irritation or disinterest. The congregation feels fatigued. You can hear the uneasiness during the worship service. You can feel the heaviness of heart. As the pastor or one of the elders you feel that same heaviness yourself.

Grief interrupts the life of the church. The church as a congregation may move through the stages of grief not unlike an individual: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and hopefully one day acceptance.[18] Often church leaders will be eager to move on, to get back to normal. But grief for churches, just like individual grief, takes time, time often measured by months and years, not days or weeks. Pastors and elders need to be sensitive to the spiritual needs and comfort of God’s people as they work together through this grieving process—attending to the means of grace, providing sensitive grief counseling, encouraging open discussion of the loss which is producing grief. Some churches have formed grief support groups for members who wish to make use of them. Some provide special worship services or study groups which explore loss and grief in biblical ways. Still others bring in counselors or interim ministers to help the congregation and pastor through the hard work of grieving.

It is vitally important that the pastor and elders approach their own grief realistically and in a godly way, not avoiding their grief, nor giving up that hope which is central to our Christian faith. Simply acknowledging the grief and the need of the congregation to work together through this grief may prove to be a major step toward restoring the spiritual wellbeing of a congregation. Listening and responding compassionately to the grief of the congregation is important. But ultimately, the comfort and substantial healing that is needed comes from God by his grace (2 Cor. 1:4).

Endnotes

[1] Gordon H. Cook Jr., “A Pastoral Response to Grief,” Ordained Servant 19 (2010): 38.

[2] Cf. Job (16:16, 20); Jacob (37:35; 42:38); Samuel (1 Sam. 15:35); David (2 Sam. 1:17; 12:21, 22; 2 Sam. 19:2; Ps. 6:6, 8; 13:2; 31:10; 39:12; 56:8); various Psalmists (42:3; 80:5; 88:9; 102:9; 116:8; 119:28, 136); Elisha (2 Kings 8:11); Isaiah 22:4; Jeremiah (8:18; 9:1, 10; 13:17); Ezekiel (21:6); John (Revelation 5:4); Peter (John 21:17; Matthew 26:75); Jesus (Isa. 53:3; Mark 3:5; Luke 19:41; John 11:35; Matt. 26:38).

[3] An expression made famous in Christian circles by Charles Hummel of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.

[4] Therese A. Rando, Treatment of Complicated Mourning (Champaign, IL: Research Press, 1993), 64–77.

[5] Ibid, 65.

[6] I have also found that taking more time with families in preparation for a funeral is very helpful. It allows me to get to know the person in a far deeper way. It makes for a more personal funeral. It also helps to avoid those unintentional associations with others more closely related to me.

[7] J. William Worden, Grief Counseling & Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner (New York: Springer, 1991).

[8] Consider Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 157.

[9] Consider WLC Q. 175

[10] Consider WLC Q. 185

[11] The Book of Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Form of Government 10.3.

[12] Heather Hays, Surviving Suicide, Help to Heal Your Heart (Dallas: Brown, 2005).

[13] David B. Biebel, Jonathan You Left Too Soon (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 112–13.

[14] Gordon. H. Cook Jr., “A Pastoral Response to Complicated Grief,” Ordained Servant 20 (2011): 60–65.

[15] Ibid., 62.

[16] The Book of Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Form of Government, 6.2.

[17] There is wise and mature counsel on this matter in an article by Stephen Tracey, “The Danger of Excessive Grief,” Ordained Servant 20 (2011): 65–67.

[18] These are the stages of grief set forth by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her now classic text, On Death and Dying (New York: Macmillan, 1969).

Gordon H. Cook Jr. is the pastor of Merrymeeting Bay Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Brunswick, Maine. He coordinates a Pastoral Care (Chaplain) program for Mid Coast Hospital and its affiliated extended care facility and has an extensive ministry as a hospice chaplain with CHANS Home Health in Brunswick. Ordained Servant Online, June–July 2013.

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