7 Steps to Follow When Dealing With Pastoral Grief


This week across America, thousands of pastors will receive countless calls, texts and emails from their congregants and their communities asking for their help. They will get requests for prayer, counseling, financial support and groceries. They will be asked to show up in the middle of the night to lend support through the tragedies of sickness and death.

Yet when Sunday arrives, they will be expected to mount the pulpit with a smile on their face and a message of hope and faith—all while shouldering the heavy burdens of their people.

However, what happens when the pastor experiences grief and loss? How does the shepherd carry the wounded lambs when he also is injured and suffering?

It is easy to forget that our ministers experience the same seasons of grief and loss that we do. Their grief experiences are often intensified as they are simultaneously carrying so many of their congregants' spiritual and emotional burdens.

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How does a grieving pastor engage in a healthy grief cycle while continuing to lead the church successfully?

This is a question I have helped many hurting pastors answer for themselves and their families. I would like to take a few minutes and share seven steps pastors can take to walk through a mourning season.

1. Be open with your church about your grief. As pastors, it is easy for us to preach that we should bear one another's burdens, and that practicing vulnerability in our community should be safe. However, when it comes to our own pain, we often lose the objective sight we had while counseling others. All of a sudden, we convince ourselves that appearing weak to the church will somehow injure them. We swallow the lie that if people see the pastor suffering, they might see them as unfit as a pastor and incapable of leading the church.

On the contrary, in my counseling experience, when I have helped pastors let down their walls and communicate openly with the church about what they are going through, the church usually responds by following the pastor in the act of confession. In fact, I have seen revivals break out in cold, spiritually drained churches simply because the hurting pastor got real with his people about the grief he was experiencing.

Confession is good for the soul. From a pastor's confession, their soul-goodness spills out on their congregation in a cascade of healing waters, empowered by the comforting Spirit of God. Vulnerability and confession are critical to a healthy, biblical approach to mourning.

2. Use the opportunity to model healthy biblical mourning. I am reminded how Abraham, one of the greatest leaders of the Bible, dealt with his own grief. In Genesis 23:2, it says that "Sarah died ... and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her."

Abraham didn't tuck it all in and keep it together. He wept and openly mourned for her. He didn't say to himself, "I have to be strong for the kids and our servants." He didn't say, "I can't let the Canaanites see me this way." Abraham understood it was a natural time appointed by God to engage in a raw display of mourning.

In Ecclesiastes 3:4, Solomon writes that there are times appointed in our life to engage in weeping and mourning: "a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance."

Pastors, I urge you not to give in to the Western culture's false truth that you have to bottle it up and keep it all together in the season of mourning. If you do, you will fail to seize the opportunity to lead your church into the biblical norm of communally sharing a time of weeping—as it was always meant to be.

We know as a minister you desire to go above and beyond for people in need and help them walk through their underlying issues. Within the Called to Care Suite, we will examine the biblical call of a counseling ministry at the local church level. Give us a call today at 844-279-6084 to learn more.

3. Take time away from your pastoral responsibilities to heal. When Sarah died, Abraham didn't send his servant to mourn in his place so he could keep running the farm. Abraham put his everyday life on pause to come to the place of his pain and engage purposefully in grief.

Pastor, the church walls won't fall down, and the people won't stop tithing just because you pause your work for a season to become purposeful in your focused engagement of processing through your grief. When you don't, your unaddressed grief and pain will spill over into your ministry and relationships. As a result, your ability to be effective in your spiritual leadership of others will suffer.

The sooner you decide to pause, say no to the demand of your duties and engage in your grief cycle, the sooner you can experience the flood of God's healing power in your pain. By taking care of yourself, you are taking care of your church. Yes, your church feels what you feel, even if you don't share it with them. Choosing to focus on your personal grief process is a positive choice that benefits both you and your community.

4. "Stand up from before your dead." I believe the most critical part of the biblical model of a healthy grief cycle is found in Abraham's burial of Sarah in Genesis 23:3a. A significant phrase in this story is often overlooked: "Then Abraham stood up from before his dead."

I submit to you that this action Abraham took is the crux in the grieving process. Yet, many Christians have neglected to do this and therefore have spiraled into life-debilitating grief.

I worked in the hospice industry as both a spiritual counselor and a grief counselor for over 10 years. I can tell you firsthand how the Western view of the grief process opposes this biblical view.

The Western culture holds to the belief that mourning has no time frame and that people can and should be enabled to grieve with no intentional end in sight. Then, at some undefined point, time will heal the pain, and they will resume life again.

From my personal and professional experience, nothing could be further from the truth. The biblical model shown by Abraham displays a willful action to intentionally cease from the act of deliberate mourning; to "stand up" (move on) from before our "dead"—our losses, our fears and our pain.

Choosing to "stand up" from our mourning is often the most painful part of the grief cycle. It is the step away from the object of your grief, and the first step towards closure.

5. Engage in final tasking. Now it is time to take the next step: final tasking. Final tasking is how the bereaved can get closure from their mourning by penning the last words on the final page of the story of their loss—and closing the book.

Abraham's final task is identifying a burial place for Sarah. He chooses an obscure field with a cave owned by his pagan neighbors. He selects that field for several reasons. It is not a place he would return to. He didn't bury her in an important location where they shared precious memories together that he would relive every time he passed by. He chose an obscure field owned by a people he did not fellowship with so that he might, in his words, "bury my dead out of my sight" (Gen. 23:4b).

Abraham knew he had to do the hard task of doing what was both honoring to Sarah's memory and spiritually preserving for his relationship with God. He had to lay her physical body to rest among the spiritually dead Canaanites, to close the book on their life together—on his terms and out of his sight.

This act helped him keep his spiritual line of sight with God and not allow his grief to cloud his view of God's plan and purpose for the remainder of his life. By following Abraham's example, one joins themselves to God in their grief and separates themselves from the world.

6. Rejoin, redefine and grow your community. After taking the above steps in your grief process, it's now time to head into your next season. As you move forward, you can expect that your life will never be the same as it was before. However, as I and so many of the pastors with whom I have walked through this journey can attest, the closeness to God and comfort of the Holy Spirit you can discover through your grief cycle can deliver you into a season of life that is better than you ever knew before.

Abraham moved forward, married again, had many sons and daughters and was laid to rest at a ripe old age, surrounded by his enlarged community. Rejoining your community, redefining its role in your life and growing your relationships as you move forward are key components to experiencing the abundant life God has for you after the pain of experiencing a traumatic loss.

You might even take this new season to consider fulfilling a new ministry dream, like planting a new church, starting a for-profit arm or creating a community development program. Give us a call today to speak to one of our specialists about the next phase of fulfilling your calling: 844-279-6084.

7. Even the pastor needs a counselor. No one is born knowing how to walk through a journey of grief. It is a learning process understanding how to cope with our pain, seeing beyond the darkness of the mourning season, and coming out on the other side supernaturally whole again.

For this reason, pastors must have a wise and godly biblical counselor to gain perspective as they heal from their pain and loss.

Many pastors tell me things like, "I needed you 20 years ago when I started my ministry," and "I wish I hadn't waited so long to get this counsel for my family and my church."

I encourage you to seek out a counselor you can trust, who can take God's Word and allow Him to shine healing light into your pain, comfort your heartache and help you mourn. There is light at the end of your grieving period, and it shines brighter as your pain leads you ever closer to the presence of the Lord.

At StartCHURCH, we are ready to help you in any phase you are in of fulfilling your God-given calling. Give us a call today at 844-279-6084 to learn more about how we can help you on your journey.

TJ Hawkins is the chief operating officer at StartChurch.

For the original article, visit StartCHURCH.com.

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