Challenges to Humanity

Grief and the Pastor

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Grief. It’s a part of life that all of us have experienced in some form or fashion. Whether it be the loss of a loved one, the loss of a dream or perceived future, or the loss of material possessions, none of us are immune from this difficult reality.

The same is true of pastors, and, in some ways, the experience of grief is just like the general population: something is lost, and they feel negative emotions in response. But pastors also may experience grief in ways that aren’t like everyone else. For instance, when we lose a loved one, there is a community-wide response of support. The same is true for a pastor, hopefully, but some losses (perhaps being asked to resign or struggles within the family) aren’t widely publicized and therefore aren’t widely supported. Given the nature of ministry, isolation tends to be much higher in pastors than in the average Joe, which means losses are dealt with in isolation as well.

Oftentimes when I counsel, I’m asked why grief is so hard to deal with. Why can’t we just “move past it” or “get a handle on these feelings”? The problem is that grief is messy. It sticks around a lot longer than we want it to, and it tends to force its way into places we’d rather it stay out of. And grief does strange things to us; it’s not just an emotional response–feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Grief affects our thoughts and our actions as well.

Let me share an example from my own life that you may resonate with. Several years ago, my husband and I suffered a miscarriage. While I knew it was possible, I wasn’t prepared. But like pastors often are, a pregnancy loss typically happens in isolation. It was early, so few knew about the pregnancy. I was sad, of course, but I also could not focus at all for the next week or two at work. I stared at spreadsheets as if I’d never used a computer before. I wasn’t hungry, and my sleep was restless. And if I’m honest, I just didn’t want to be around people.

You see, we tend to have expectations, culturally and individually, about how we ought to grieve. And the expectation is often that grief should be proportionate to some previously-deemed assessment of the loss itself. A “greater loss” should equal “greater grief.” And culturally, we tend to grieve in pre-determined spaces, like at a funeral or in private for a short amount of time. The truth is, these expectations sometimes don’t match reality. We feel a loss deeply, at inopportune times or in unexpected ways, and we don’t have normalized ways of coping with it.

Grieving isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s evidence we’re human.

So how can pastors work through and process their grief?  I have three suggestions:

1. Share the burden

In the book of Job, Job’s friends show up after he loses everything he has and almost everyone he loved. Do you remember what they did? They sat and wept with him. They put on sackcloth and ashes and wailed with him (Job 2:11-13). Job brought others into his loss, and he wasn’t alone. Pastors often have to fight back against their isolation to bring others in. Grieving isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s evidence we’re human.

2. Follow the biblical pattern of lament

As we read through the psalms, there are many, many songs of lament. Some would say there are more psalms of lament than any other type in the Bible. But compare that with our worship, even proportionately, and we can easily see a difference. We must practice lament, and we have the freedom to come before the Lord in our grief just like the psalmists. We can and should cry out to the Lord, place our petitions before Him, and then respond by remembering the truth of His Word that is not dependent on our circumstances.

3. Be gracious with yourself.

As we explored above, grief is messy. It lasts longer than we want it to and shows up in ways that we don’t expect. While grief is not a license to sin, hard emotions often lead us to act or think differently than we might otherwise. Give yourself the freedom to sit in and express your grief for the time it needs, not just the time you want to give it.

Finally, sometimes we find ourselves trying to deal with a loss or the resulting grief, and we just can’t do it on our own. Maybe our grief is much more prolonged than it should be or continues at the same intensity since the initial loss. Pastors need help but often are resistant to seeking it out (they’re used to being the helper, after all). But sometimes we need someone to grieve and bear our burdens with us, someone trained in how to sift through grief systematically and thoroughly. A counselor can provide that sort of help.

I’ve found that grief is often stuffed beneath the surface, but it will make its way out one way or the other, whether we’re ready for it or not. It’s much better to process it as it comes and make space for it rather than ignore it until it’s unavoidable. Thankfully, the Lord in His kindness gives us example after example in His Word of how to respond in lament but with hope.

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  • Challenges to Humanity
  • counseling
  • formation
  • ministry
  • suffering
Kristin Kellen

Associate Professor of Biblical Counseling

Kristin Kellen (MA, EdD, PhD) is an Associate Professor of Biblical Counseling. Her focus is counseling children, teens, and their families. Kristin is the co-author of 'The Gospel for Disordered Lives' and 'The Whole Woman.' She is married to Josh and they have three children.

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