“If you skip the work, you don’t heal.”
Dr. Danjuma Gibson, Professor of Pastoral Care at Calvin Theological Seminary, got straight to the point when asked “what’s the danger to a pastor and his or her community in skipping grief work and jumping to problem solving?”
On June 9, 2020, Pastor Church Resources convened a panel with Gibson and Rev. Marc Nelesen, PhD, Pastor of Congregational Life at Georgetown (MI) Christian Reformed Church, to reflect on this loss-filled, grief-filled moment in our society. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, protests around the globe have exposed a profound sense of widespread grief. Meanwhile, the ongoing challenges of COVID-19 have meant every single one of us is experiencing meaningful loss on a scale and a frequency few could have imagined just a few months ago.
Though pastors, especially, are tempted to respond to these challenges by shifting to problem-solving, Gibson and Nelesen urged pastors to slow down and grieve well themselves, for their own sake and for the sake of their congregations.
The Gift of Grief
Together, they cast a vision in the conviction that God can do beautiful things in us when we are invited to articulate our losses, grieve deeply and bring that grief to him for healing.
For example, explains Gibson, “entering the grief allows you to love better; [it allows you] to be a better human being.” Whereas, when we skip grief or stuff it down, we “truncate the possibilities that can come from lament and grief.”
In this season of immense and widespread loss, Nelesen suggests that denying the reality of our losses is a kind of “false testimony.” Our denial suggests to our neighbor that he or she ought to deny how hard this is, too. Whereas when we, especially as pastors, model the work of naming and grieving our losses, we offer an invitation to everyone else dealing with loss that our faith has the capacity (even the encouragement) to grieve well.
Types of Loss
Nelesen and Gibson offer several categories of loss that may help us name what we’re experiencing.
Ambiguous Loss: Ambiguous loss is the kind of loss we associate with a loved one declining in the face of Alzheimer's disease. It’s not that we lose that person entirely the day of their diagnosis. It’s that they and we lose little bits of each other gradually and imperceptibly over months, years, and even decades. Sometimes the loss is obvious, sometimes it’s subtle. But in either case, the losses pile up over time. Many of our COVID-19-related losses are ambiguous.
Intrapsychic Loss: Gibson explains intrapsychic loss as the loss of an idea we had about ourselves. For instance, the loss of the idea that we are good, that we are innocent, that racism doesn’t exist anymore, that I am in control of my life. Both COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests have introduced widespread intrapsychic loss.
Disenfranchised Loss: Loss that is denied or unacknowledged.
If You’ve Got Me, Who’s Got You?
Gibson quotes Lois Lane in Superman (1978): when Superman catches Lane falling from a helicopter, Lane asks Superman, “If you’ve got me, who’s got you?” Nelesen and Gibson observe that too many pastors try to be the hero fixing everyone else's problems, helping everyone else process their grief. But every pastor needs to hear Lois Lane’s question: If the pastor’s got her congregation, who’s got the pastor? Any wise pastor would insist, “God’s got me.” But Nelesen and Gibson urge church councils to see the way God can practically use professional therapy to uphold pastors dealing with their own grief.
“Vote the money this week” [for your pastor’s therapy] says Gibson, “it will pay off in the long run.” The best gift, Nelesen adds, you can give your congregation right now is not the latest technique or best video production, it’s you “getting to know your stuff.”
More on Grief
Dr. Danjuma Gibson is professor of pastoral care at Calvin Theological Seminary. He also has a private psychotherapy practice in Grand Rapids, MI. Before coming to Calvin Seminary, he was a pastor of a church in Chicago and a commercial banker.
Rev. Marc Nelesen, PhD, is Pastor of Congregational Life at Georgetown Christian Reformed Church in Hudsonville, MI, where he has served since 2006. He also serves as Regional Pastor in Classis Georgetown.
Rev. Sean Baker is Ministry Consultant with Pastor Church Resources, a team in the Christian Reformed Church in North America focused on serving pastors, churches and classes as they seek to promote healthy relationships, encourage one another in ministry and discern next steps in seasons of growth, transition or challenge.