Some time ago I was led to think seriously about pastors who experience significant loss while they are in ministry. I was talking with a pastor, and he shared with me the story of his wife’s death some years before. He also shared the story of how little there had been available to him in terms of support. There was virtually no pastor-specific coaching, care, or counseling from qualified people.
After that conversation there was another one, this time with a pastor who had lost a young child. He spoke with me on the difficulty of leading a congregation as a pastor while traveling through the process of deep grief. For some in the congregation, he observed, the pastor is grieving "too much."
For others, the pastor is "not grieving enough." What a complicated process grieving can be when you are trying to care for and experience the care of members of your congregation!
These two conversations, as well as others that I've participated in along the way, indicate that the trauma-related grief that a pastor experiences is a complicated thing. In fact, it is challenging for a congregation and a council as well as for the pastor. Consider the following:
1. Grief awakens grief.
The grief produced by a pastor’s personal tragedy always interacts with whatever other griefs have been experienced while:
- Hearing and addressing the grief stories of congregation members
- Lamenting whatever unspoken and unmet expectations there might be related to ministry life and pastoral vocation
- Encountering ministry disappointments related to people and programs
- Struggling through the weariness and loneliness that often come with the role of spiritual leader
- Fending off disappointment with God for any or all of the above.
2. The grieving pastor experiences a significant role change.
A pastor usually experiences grief while serving as a comforter for others. Tragedy changes that, and a significant part of that change is the loss of control. This loss is made more challenging if a pastor has defined him/herself in terms of the ministry role.
3. Congregations assume too much.
Because congregations see their pastors as skilled in the arts of comforting grievers they assume that pastors are also skilled in the arts of dealing with their own grief. As a result, people are sometimes less motivated to reach out to their grieving pastors.
4. Pastors assume too much.
Pastors may sometimes assume that a seminary degree or a pastoral role automatically comes with greater ability to deal with one’s own spiritual and emotional challenges. A lack of self-awareness might make this false assumption even more problematic.
5. Church members enter awkwardly. They often don’t know how to express their grief well. They are clumsy with their words, unaware that their ways of speaking sometimes hurt. Sometimes they assume that, since you are a spiritual leader, you are better equipped to absorb the awkwardness that might come with their clumsy expressions of support.
6. Isolation deepens grief. The isolation that often comes with the work of pastoral leadership is experienced more deeply in times of grief. It intensifies the experience of grief and makes recovery from grief a more protracted process.
7. Meanwhile, the pastor has the same needs as everyone else.
Just like everyone else in the congregation who experiences trauma and grief, the pastor has needs for community, comfort, and confirmation that the feelings of grief are fitting and appropriate.
If you would like to find out more then take a look at a new resource developed by Pastor Church Resources. It's called "Pastors Who Experience Significant Trauma", and can be found here: https://www.crcna.org/pcr/pastors-who-experience-significant-trauma. You'll see helpful guidance for councils, congregations, classis functionaries, and pastors themselves.