Pastors Losing Family Members to Death

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How do churches and pastors carry on after an immediate family member has died--whether suddenly or after an illness?

I know two colleagues whose wives have died in automobile accidents and another whose young daughter died after a long illness. They were all faithful servants. Their congregations treated them well before and following those tragedies.

Yet, as a friend wrote, “There’s no rule book for church councils to follow for such tragedies, and each pastor reacts differently. Time-off from regular duties—preaching, pastoring, and everything else—must be given, but the duration of that time-off varies by person and circumstance. Continued conversations (using a Pastor-Church Relations team works for some) are necessary, as eventual re-entry is determined, but these conversations are not substitutes for pastoral counseling and constant, sensitive communication between pastor and council.”

Still, despite long-term efforts including most of those practices, none of those three colleagues described above was able to continue long-term in their congregations. I am only partly aware of reasons which come from their perspectives. Their congregations surely would describe some events differently. Regardless, this is what did happen: All three pastors returned to their work, one after weeks, another after two months, another part-time over the course of a year. All gradually worked up to full-time.

Yet after a while in all three cases, "things" didn't work emotionally, spiritually, or vocationally for them and their congregations. After less than a year pastoring again, one took a year-long break in an entirely different vocation overseas before returning to North America and beginning a church planting ministry. The other two moved amicably from their congregations to other churches after receiving calls. Both widowers remarried within two years of losing their spouses. All three have found certain measure of renewed vocational fulfillment, albeit in different places of ministry.

I know little about how the congregations were affected by these sad events or what plans or programs were instituted in order to help both pastors and families find resolution with the least upset possible. I do know that a few people were mean-spirited—critical when the time-off seemed “too long." Most were gracious and patient. Some members, though, did not know how to let the pastors grieve and recover. They wanted their pastors "back" as they were before and criticized the widowed pastors more or less openly when they developed friendships with women whom they eventually married. Somehow the pressures and sorrows of the circumstances all resulted in changes in location for the pastors after a time of what can only be described as partial healing in the communities.  All probably would have remained longer had the sadnesses not intervened.

I don't know if there is any way to plan for these catastrophes that are inevitable, yet always unexpected, blows in the lives of God's children and servants. I am curious if you know of and can describe situations (anonymously, please) where such events have turned out similarly--or more smoothly, with less disruption. Grace is amazing, but never predictable.

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I experienced something similar when going through divorce.  Initially the church was tremendously gracious and understanding, providing financial resources and time off for counseling.  But neither they nor I knew what to expect when it came to "healing."  I think we all expected that, eventually, everything would go back "to the way things were before" but we had no understanding of what that really looked like, how long it would take to get there and what the challenges would be along the way.

Divorce, like the death of a spouse, means that a person of significance in your life is now missing.  All the qualities they brought to the relationship -- balancing/complementing you, giving a listening and discerning perspective, etc. -- are gone.  This is only complicated when children are involved and what that brings to grieving process.  Add to that issues of depression, loneliness, the necessity of returning to work -- emotionally healthy or not -- because there are no other sources of income or no other call on the horizon, ... the list goes on.

It made me understand -- often painfully -- that there are many facets to pastoral relationships.  People that I considered more than parishioners, indeed friends, often vacated that relationship.  More often than not, instead of leaning into one another’s pain, we ignore it or walk away; understandable, but tragic, none-the-less.  Elders that I thought would be able to "pastor the pastor," and pastor my family, were ill prepared and perhaps ill equipped, to handle the crisis.  Trying to be a “wounded healer,” is only something I am marginally capable of doing now, many years later, but clearly was incapable of doing at the time.

For me, denominational resources were less than beneficial.  They did indeed bring to the surface underlying issues for both me and the church, but offered little guidance for addressing those issues. 

Praise the Lord for Cursillo, for faithful prayer partners, and for fellow pastors who walked a long Emmaus Road with me until I was again able to see Jesus. 

I don’t say this with any malice toward anyone involved.  I realize how difficult this was for everyone involved.  It does assure me that there is more that needs to be done, as your post suggests.

  

Community Builder

Thanks much, Rich, for your candor and vulnerability. It had not occured to me immediately whe I wrote that a divorce is also "losing a family member." Your thoughts have deepened and broadened the blog thread. Thanks again--and blessings.

Welcome to my reality Jim, I'm have been the midst of this issue for years. It is humbling and makes trusting Jesus more important. You see when I was healthy I wasn't any better. Calvin was correct about total depravity we just don;t realize the how short we fall of living our faith.

Thanks

Ken

My experience 17 years ago in losing a wife and daughter while serving a rural church in northern MI was probably atypical in that: 1) the church had experienced a number of tragic losses before mine (in other words, they had some experience in processing this), 2) rural farm families (in my experience) seem to be very tough while being fairly flexible -- they wouldn't survive in the farming industry if not both, and 3) we had a very positive relationship as church and pastor. They "pastored" me through the recovery and remarriage process. I stayed for another six years and left very amicablyand with their blessing to begin an experiment in workplace chaplaincy. It is true, however, that as a pastor you live in the public image and must be willing to be very transparent through this process in order to survive. I also had the support of a local Christian psychologist who later became a co-founder in the workplace chaplaincy ministry. 

In summary, God saw that I had a support system outside of the church plus a lot of grace and encouragement from inside the church. Without both of these it could have been a very different story.

PS: I should not discount the fact that God brought a new person into my life whose own life was shaped by the premature loss of her first husband, and who was very humble and skillful in making herself much appreciated by the church and by my remaining three children.

Ron Klimp

Community Builder

These lines of Jim Dekker are no longer recent but they are still very relavent.

I understand, I (we) have been there.

Jim's article will have been read and re-read.  Forcussing for the moment on congregational response to sorrow in the parsonage, a few things come to mind. The ministry is demanding emotionally and spiritually, so pastoral care to the  pastor-couple is very important. Hopefully congregations have a pastoral alertness, so that there is a spontaneous ongoing sharing of consolation and comfort. One never "gets over" sorrow.

But the elders should also  provide regular care for  to their shepherd. All grieving people find it disconcerting when, after some time, no mention is made any more of their grief-burden.

But, as well, because of the pastor's work and position, he/she  should not hesitate to seek professional help.

There will be some readers of 'NETWORK' who will want to share some thoughts on the Pastor practicing 'self-care.'