“Pain that is not articulated is going to come out sideways.”
Rev. Marc Nelesen, Pastor of Congregational Life at Georgetown (MI) Christian Reformed Church, issued a gracious word of caution to ministry leaders trying to press through the pain surging through our communities right now. Between the Black Lives Matter and the never-ending stream of loss brought upon us by COVID-19, the world is being forced to reckon with levels of pain and loss more widespread than at any point in a generation.
“COVID and Black Lives Matter are exposing things that we have known were there but that we may have tried to deny.” Nelesen says that as much as anything, the protests are society’s attempt to articulate communal meaning.
This is the kind of work with which pastors could be enormously helpful. After all, our Christian faith is packed with language, stories, songs, and prayers almost perfectly suited to articulate the very kinds of deep grief bubbling to the surface of our society right now.
The Limits of Our Explanations
But for Nelesen, the pastor who is best able to take advantage of this ministry moment is not the one who can best explain the interplay of grief and the Christian faith. Rather, the pastor our grieving communities need most right now is the pastor who is most acquainted with his or her own grief.
All of us have been forced, in these past months, to dispense with the myth that we in the US and Canada are immune from the stuff the rest of the world experiences: scarcity, unrest, turmoil.
For Christians, who put their trust in the everlasting God, this is a moment when our faith can shine. But an authentic witness to our world will require not platitudes about inner peace but rather courage and vulnerability. We serve a crucified and glorified Christ. To truly connect our own stories of grief to the hope of Christ, we must be willing to trace the pain in our own lives, and ask, “What’s going on? Where is this pain coming from?” As Christians, we are united with Christ in a continual process of both death and resurrection. To know Christ is to know both the pain of our own deaths and the hope of new life in him. You can’t skip the death part and jump to new life. The rhythms of grace won’t allow it.
And so, it is when we have traced the pain in our own lives -- by naming it, articulating it, and then seeing it transformed in the light of Jesus Christ -- that we become the most helpful conduits for connecting the grace of our Lord to the grief of those around us.
You Need Help and Your Spouse Won’t Cut It (your council won’t either)
For this kind of pain-tracing grief work, Nelesen urges pastors to seek professional help. He explains, “if pastors are not processing their wounds with someone...and it can’t be a spouse, or your partner, or your board or your elders...this needs to be done with a competent professional who knows you well enough to know when you’re full of it.”
Nelesen worries that if pastors don’t do this grief work with a professional, they are liable to end up “using their congregations, either in their preaching, pastoral care or leadership to sort of bleed all over them…” Instead, Nelesen suggests, “we are better suited to preach from our scars than our open wounds. My open wounds are for my therapist.”
Who Are We Kidding?
Speaking as a Regional Pastor (pastor to pastors), Nelesen relates the moment a professional therapist in his congregation told him that he (the therapist) had a caseload of 35 clients and that he had supervision (a form of his own therapy) once a week. Nelesen realized that pastors can function like pseudo therapists, being handed an enormous amount of their community’s grief (usually a community of more than 35 people!) despite those pastors rarely having more than a course or two of training. And yet pastors often presume to hold their member’s grief without hiring a professional to help them, as a pastor and a person, hold his or her own grief.
To see the whole conversation, check out the video. Go to the CRCNA Network to read about or see an earlier conversation about grief and the pastor. For more content like this, subscribe to the Pastor Church Resources Youtube Channel. For a recommendation of a Christian therapist, talk to peers or your Regional Pastor.
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.