We all grieve, individually and in community. We grieve for many reasons: the death of a loved one, or the loss of a beloved pet, job, and health are what normally come to mind. Yet, we grieve other less recognizable losses: changes following the completion of life’s milestones such as a child growing into a young adult and leaving home. We grieve the changes we experience as our bodies age, coming to terms with limitations not known earlier. These are just a few examples of the moments when grief meets life experience.
In this process of grieving, we are loved and supported by friends, and sometimes strangers, who call with a kind word or send a handwritten note wishing us well. We may receive love and support by way of the gift of a meal, the offer to sit with children while we find time alone to nourish our souls or something as simple as the offer to meet for coffee or tea with a friend or colleague who listens well. Food, notes and phone calls are all generous gifts of support immediately following a loss, but it the gift of listening, long after the loss has been publicly recognized, that is ultimately healing. Most of us who’ve suffered loss find help through the care of trained spiritual directors, therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists or clergy.
But what happens when the “person” grieving a loss or trauma is a congregation? What is the best response? How do we help congregations heal in the midst of great loss?
First, let’s take a look at the kind of loss and trauma I have in mind. I live in the religious milieu of Methodism where clergy come and go. Congregations are well aware that their clergy are available to be appointed to another congregation at any time. Still, there are clergy who have long pastorates, not only in Methodism, but in all other religious communities. The departure of a beloved pastor is a loss for all – the pastor, her family and the congregation. Congregations, for the most part, have learned to love their pastors well in both the welcoming and leaving process. We know how to do this as naturally as breathing because we have learned, in community, how to love.
However, what if the loss is a result of a breach of trust or betrayal by the pastor? What if the pastor has embezzled money, been arrested, had an affair or violated his or her position of power by committing physical, emotional or sexual abuse toward a congregant? This is a significantly different scenario; the congregation is now the “person,” in need of much support and love.
Here are some thoughts for both clergy and lay leaders on helping your congregation heal in the midst of deep grief.
- Keep in mind that your new pastor can’t do it all. He needs your help. She needs to work in partnership with you, the laity, to help bring about healing.
- Remember that grief is not a linear process, i.e., you don’t move from emotional point A to emotional point Z and then the grief is over. Our emotional lives are much more complicated than a simple formula.
- The emotions expressed in grief are much more varied and complex than just feeling sad or angry. Be aware of the myriad emotions which come into play. For an easy list of the most common human emotions, see the following link - http://www.sba.pdx.edu/faculty/mblake/448/FeelingsList.pdf
- In a congregation, the needs to address loss and trauma are multi-generational. Grief response programming will need to be put in place for children, youth, younger adults and older adults.
- Ask for help from outside sources such as trained spiritual directors and therapists. They can be a great resource for training of lay leaders on both listening skills and how to help best. They are also invaluable on helping the leaders who are walking with the congregation through the loss differentiate between normal or natural grieving and complicated grief. Learn more about natural and complicated grief at Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s site http://www.centerforloss.com.
- Designate a wall for all members of the congregation to place their own handwritten cards as an expression of love and hope for all who’ve been touched by the event.
- Make community dinners a weekly or bi-weekly experience. Use these events to create sacred time and space for one another. Make sure to include opportunities for play and fun when you gather.
- For the clergy and lay leaders who are helping congregations, always be open and honest. Take the risk of being vulnerable yourself and share, if and when you feel it’s appropriate, your own experience during this time.
- Listen well, and be consistent. To listen well is a learned skill and not one that is relatively easy to master. It takes time and, for those of us who do it for a living, supervision and care. If you observe that your congregation may not be listening to each other well, organize classes on listening. Teach your congregation how to listen with care and compassion.
- Utilize trained lay persons as Compassionate Listeners. Set up a sacred space and schedule these trained laypeople to be available at half hour increments from 8 am until midnight. Invite members of the congregation to come and talk honestly and openly about their emotions and grief.
- In addition to scheduling time for Compassionate Listening, schedule time for Prayer as well. Set up rooms for both Compassionate Listening and Prayer. Give members of the congregation choices on how to best express their feelings and hopes.
- Finally, don’t forget to utilize sacred ritual which touches our inner lives in ways that talking, listening and doing simply can’t. For Christian congregations, think about offering Services of Healing and Reconciliation or design a service of the Eucharist around the theme of healing. For Jewish, Muslim and other religious communities, draw upon the rich well of your tradition to create sacred rituals that heal.
These are just a few of the strategies available to clergy and lay leaders who find themselves having to navigate the grief of a congregation that is suffering great loss and betrayal by its pastor. I’d love to hear your own thoughts. What might you do to help in a such situation?
Blessings & Peace