The Grief of Leaders: Solitary & Shared
When church leaders grieve, there is sometimes a spiritual reality that makes the grief of a pastor or priest slightly distinct from the grief of other leaders. Grief and reality pair together; anytime we find ourselves grieving, we find ourselves responding at multiple levels to what we perceive to be true, as cartoons remind us whenever someone cries over a character thought to be dead, their tears changing to joy when someone proves alright. So anyone’s experience of grief may itself be real even if it doesn’t correspond either to reality or to the usual proportions of navigating this world: senior citizens with Alzheimer’s “sundowners” syndrome may at the end of the day weep at things they only perceive in their minds, quite apart from the physical surroundings of a nursing home. Young children may cry “big tears” over something that, to adults, seems quite a small thing, and yet, to the child, it is enormous; the child, who doesn’t yet know of genocide or extinction.
When we read in Scripture that Christians do not grieve as the world grieves, the point made is that we do not grieve as those do who have no hope. Another ramification is that we do not grieve as the world grieves because in terms of epistemology – how we know – by the power of the Holy Spirit and the grace of Christ, we see differently and know differently and therefore grieve differently; we grieve many of the same things, yet some very different things. The spiritual reality in which we participate is connected to the presence of God and also to our role in the universe we affirm God created. Christians may explore and study the empirical world with joyful glee and curiosity and also express that there is this and. There is more to the world than the tangible.
So in addition to what might be called the “natural grief” that pastors and church leaders encounter, there is the grief that echoes, originates from, returns to, and expresses the heart of the Trinity – a kind of spiritual grief or lament that sees evil, sees the out-of-joint misalignment of the world, sees disordered loves, and responds with sorrow. The liturgy of the church, like bumpers on a bowling alley lane, prevents us from going off-course by any instinct to “grieve” over the evil in our world without also sitting with remorse for the lack of love in our own hearts: “most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.”
So what are some of the “natural” griefs pastors and church leaders experience? They may range from sitting with someone’s loved ones to deliver bad news, to sorrow at moving to a new church, to shepherding a congregation through property destruction from natural disaster, to learning a beloved church member and friend has died suddenly. Many pastors are accustomed to encountering many more funerals and hospital waiting rooms than the average person – yet by and large, these are things that most people would also grieve, whether or not they’re a Christian.
Some of these “natural” griefs are experienced largely in isolation, like moving to a new church, while others are experienced as shared grief, like the loss of a church building to a tornado, or when a congregation mourns a terminal cancer diagnosis for a child. Though Jesus later raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus saw the mourning and grief over Lazarus’ death, and first wept with those affected by the death. This was a communal, shared grief over the death of a good and beloved man.
When leaders experience spiritual grief or lament, it brings a new – and sometimes draining or demanding – layer to natural grief. When Jesus came near to Jerusalem, what was his response? “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41-42, NRSV)
Unfailingly, the anointing of the Holy Spirit reshapes what and how we grieve, the actions we take in response, and how we take those actions. Unfailingly, whatever our own natural temperaments or cultural upbringing, the Holy Spirit is kind to the gaps in our awareness by gently or not-so-gently revealing what we fail to love, by what we fail to grieve – usually by allowing us to see, if we’re willing, and to grieve, if we’re willing. Unfailingly, the Holy Spirit calls us to see and apprehend and grieve what Jesus Christ grieves, not just what your Grandma grieved, not just what your culture grieves.
There are times natural grief and spiritual grief and lament overlap. There is natural, communal, shared grief over the death of a good and beloved man. There is also spiritual grief and lament over evil, when that man was Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who died while leading a Bible study because an armed White supremacist was determined to follow through on his plan to kill members of a historic Black church. For Rev. Pinckney’s friends and family, the natural grief of loss collided with grief at the past and ongoing active evil of White supremacy. Those who didn’t know him personally were still able to grieve the evil that ended his life. Where did spiritual grief take family members of some of the churchgoers who died at that Bible study? Through their natural grief, their spiritual grief also allowed them to tell a young man who took many innocent lives that they forgave him, that God loves him, but that he needed God’s mercy on his soul for the lives he took. They saw both: both the horrible crater blasted in their families through the loss of their loved ones, and the damage to his own soul that this young man caused when he chose to terrorize and murder others.
Why is it helpful, as a pastor, to ask yourself if you’re experiencing “natural” grief, or spiritual grief or lament, or a combination of both? Because they’re dealt with in different ways. Good therapists, strong support systems, healthy life rhythms, friends in the same vocation, sabbaticals, emotionally healthy discipleship, antidepressants, all these can at times be helpful to anyone grieving and to pastors and church leaders in particular.
Spiritual grief also needs those good foundations in place, yet comes with that earlier and. There is the tangible world, and. Why does the Holy Spirit allow us to see, to perceive and apprehend, to join our mourning to the revealed heart of the Trinity that spills out a fraction of the grief of God at the suffering and evil by, in, and toward humans and creation?
Spiritual grief allows you to pray differently; beyond outer circumstances into the reality with and beyond. Spiritual grief cues you to pay attention, to make room to pay attention, and to practice the hard work of listening and discerning between your own grief or responses or ideas, and God’s. Spiritual grief allows you to see and act differently, when God allows you to come face-to-face with suffering to which you’d previously been oblivious. Spiritual grief drives you back to the Word of God as sustaining, irreplaceable, life-giving, and perspective-setting; truly, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Spiritual grief is understood by and to a degree also carried by mature people of faith who have a deep life of intercession and deep experience of both the grief and the joy and confidence found in the practices of the life of faith.
Grief of any kind is never comfortable. We would outrun it with busyness, if we could, or hide from it silently as it prowls back and forth, or give voice to it, longing to broadcast our tormented howls daily on a loudspeaker.
Whatever month grief first appears, however long it stays, once a year, the church marks a day where “natural” and spiritual grief or lament overlap. On Ash Wednesday, Christians set aside a day for grief – we grieve mortality; we grieve, perhaps, those we have returned to the earth; and we grieve the decaying effects of evil, and the reach of evil into our world, into even our own hearts. And then, we turn our eyes toward Lent, and the long road to the cross, and the shaking road away from an empty – an empty – a definitively empty tomb, that proclaims the last word, anchoring even spiritual grief in the reality of hope; because both spiritual grief and hope find their origin in the heart of God, who enters our dusty mortality, weeps with those who weep, and sets all things toward the inescapably new.
Thanks to Dr. Pete Bellini for his related insights on the spiritual gift of prophetic intercession.
Elizabeth Glass Turner is Managing Editor of Wesleyan Accent.
Featured image courtesy Kira Porotikova via Unsplash.