Moments of Silence

Post Author: Jennifer Hackbarth

At the time, my husband and I were each new pastors serving little rural congregations 13 miles apart. I was vehement about keeping this news from our congregations. I already felt like I was living on display. To be that vulnerable with our parishioners (and, subsequently, two small towns) was unthinkable for me. I didn’t want our painful situation to be some entertaining news for the early morning coffee group at the local café. I protected myself fiercely, and soon found myself feeling increasingly isolated and alone (at a time when I was already feeling isolated and alone).

The next Sunday morning I presided over a baptism. It was for a beautiful, plump, pink little baby girl. Her parents hadn’t gotten around to scheduling the baptism until she was a few months old, so she felt heavier and more solid than the infants I had previously baptized. In my arms, she felt so alive and real.  I felt the physical symptoms of the miscarriage while I baptized her in front of the congregation.  I knew life was leaving my body at the same time I blessed this new life given to another family.

The emotions I felt overwhelmed me. I was grief-stricken, scared I would never have a baby of my own, and terribly jealous of this family. Again, I felt such shame at how I was feeling.  How could I, as their pastor, feel such negative emotions toward my own parishioners?  Somehow I managed to hide my pain from the congregation and carried on with the service. To this day, it is the hardest service I have ever led.

My husband respected my need for privacy and kept our news to himself. That is, until he met with a fellow pastor soon after our miscarriage. They were planning Lenten services, and my husband suddenly burst into tears. The news spilled out of him. He came home after the meeting and told me how our colleague had comforted him and told him of the miscarriage he and his wife had experienced years ago. He asked me to please reconsider telling our congregations. I held tightly onto my pain and stubbornly refused to make an official announcement. I did, however, relent to telling a few people.

My husband told a few select members of his church. Almost every person he told admitted to experiencing miscarriages as well. I never explicitly told my congregation, but in conversations over the next couple of years, I heard many, many stories of miscarriages from my parishioners. I began to realize how utterly common they are. Listening to their experiences, I began to feel less and less alone. I began to heal.

I don’t know if I did the right thing by keeping our miscarriage to myself. Had I told my congregation, I think I would have been astounded by the comfort and care they would have offered me. I could have taken time off, cared for myself, and received the support my husband and I so desperately needed. Instead, I wasted a lot of energy trying to pretend nothing was wrong. However, I would have made myself terribly vulnerable, and I don’t know how I would have handled that on top of grieving my loss.

It is so hard to be vulnerable as a pastor. At least, it is hard for me. It’s not difficult for me to mess up liturgy, or chant a wrong note, or show up late to a visit—those things happen. But to admit I am completely human, that I have hopes and dreams, that I feel pain and grief and sadness and jealousy and shame—that is much harder for me to admit. To receive comfort when I am always the comforter is even more challenging!

Today, I daily chase after my rambunctious 18-month-old son. I try to look back on that difficult time and hold my heart gently. I was only trying to survive. I can’t judge whether I made right or wrong decisions. However, I can take my experiences and learn from them. I now try to break the silence and shame surrounding miscarriages by sharing my own story. I try to admit my vulnerabilities. And as a pastor, I will never overlook the people in my church (and outside of it) who are longing to have families of their own. It will only make my ministry better.

Rev. Jennifer Hackbarth, a graduate of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, has been on leave from call for a year to spend her days with her 18-month-old son. She misses the pulpit, though; she's currently seeking a call in the Minneapolis, Minnesota, area.

Image by: ulleo
Used with permission
8 replies
  1. Melissa Lynn D
    Melissa Lynn D says:

    This is a powerful story… one that I can relate to very well having gone experienced two miscarriages before giving birth to my daughter who is now almost 2 and another little girl that is 4 months. One book that I read after these miscarriages was “Hope Deferred: Heart Healing Reflections on Reproductive Loss.” This is a powerful book which fills a void addressing the theological issues in reproductive loss. Even now I still will pull this book off the shelf and read a few chapters. The stories of loss are absoluetly moving.

  2. Bromleigh
    Bromleigh says:

    I was so nervous to share my pregnancy with my congregation — even when all seemed to be healthy and well, the vulnerability was terrible. But I like to tell myself that in my congregation, at least, the people have not always proven themselves trustworthy. If they cannot be good to me and one another around everyday issues like coffee hour, how am I to give them my heart and soul and the fears about my body and pregnancy? Maybe they would have risen to the occasion… and certain folks do… but I think it is right to be wary. Christ empties himself out, but that is hard for us to do entirely in a broken world.

  3. Collette
    Collette says:

    Yours is in fact a common story, which sometimes helps and sometimes feels trivializing. I too experienced a miscarriage, of a pregnancy that was conceived while I was on the pill. In addition, I found out I was pregnant the week I was leaving my first call. I told a couple of people I was close to in the congregation about the pregnancy, and have since had to deal with the process of telling others to whom the rumors spread that I am no longer pregnant, which is awkward to say the least.
    I am a big believer in keeping my private life private from the congregation, but when there are overwhelming circumstances, and it affects my ability to pastor the congregation, I sometimes end up sharing, simply as an explanation for my lack of energy and presence. I have always been surprised, pleasantly so, at how people are eager to care for me, and share their own similar stories.

  4. Mary Hess
    Mary Hess says:

    I’m so glad you shared your story! It is a story, as you’ve discovered, that is widely shared. There’s a wonderful book that’s been written by a group of women theologians, Hope Deferred: Heart-Healing Reflections on Reproductive Loss, that began when a few of them finally started to share their stories in a women’s bathroom at an academic conference. I hope you’ll check out the book — and share it with other women!

  5. Leah V-S
    Leah V-S says:

    Jennifer, thank you for sharing this painful and private thing. I have had similar dilemas and suffered a miscarriage just as I was caring for a parishoner who was m/c herself and I really struggled with the dilema of how to care for and support her (she hadn’t even known I was pregnant) and in the end i found that we walked with each other through it. I am even more aware now as I (with 3 sons) support her as a childless woman. Thanks again for writing about this area.

  6. anonymous
    anonymous says:

    I miscarried on a Sunday morning at church VERY early in my pregnancy. We had been trying to get pregnant for well over a year and this was a very wanted and planned event. I was devastated. I still flinch every time I go into the woman’s room where the cramps truly set in. But, I made it through the service and the party for families after. I scurried about during coffee hour hunting for someone who could give me Advil before I passed out. The next day at a clergy colleague group a colleague asked when we were due, I burst into tears. No one had known we were pregnant but the rumor mill continued…sometimes I wish I could be honest with my congregation. But while we are actively trying to conceive I cannot have them knowing that much about this aspect of my life. Thanks for writing on this subject–it’s good to know I’m not alone.


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