Post Author: Stephanie Sorge
After what might have been my fifth phone call of the morning, the dichotomy hit me again: I was delivering very sad and difficult news about the death of a beloved church member, then quickly asking for logistical help. It had been less than a month since a shocking, terminal diagnosis, but for that month, I had been sitting with the grief, knowing that this was coming. We knew that the end was imminent, and the night before, I had the great gift of being present at the bedside, singing, praying, and anointing with oil.
The family wanted to hold the service soon, but I also knew that on a holiday weekend, with a number of our regular volunteers out of commission for one reason or another, it would be a bit more of a stretch to cover everything. Not impossible, but a stretch. So when I got the official word, and confirmation of the service time, I set to work making phone calls.
Actually, I started to do that. I was about to tell the secretary that the member had passed, and the funeral would be in a few days, but my throat closed up, and the tears returned. I had shed many tears in the past month, and would continue to shed many more. Grief is like that. It sideswipes you with no prior warning. It opens up like a flash summer downpour on what had been a brilliantly sunny day.
In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of our ordination vows is to “pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” When I was ordained, my pastor father gave the charge to me, which boiled down to this: love the people you serve. Seven years later, I was installed into my current call, very appropriately on Valentine’s Day.
I deeply love the people I have been called to serve. When they rejoice, I rejoice with them. When they weep, my heart weeps with them. That’s part of being one body of Christ. But being a pastor to that body also means that when they are weeping, I am also providing pastoral support, comfort, and care. They are not called to comfort me in my grief, even though I am grieving, too. That’s just the way this calling works.
The congregation that I currently serve goes far above and beyond in extending comfort, care, and compassion to me as their pastor. They recognize that these times are also painful and difficult for me, and they make sure to let me know that I am loved, cared for, and prayed for. God, I love these people.
But then the dichotomy strikes. To get done all that needs to get done in the midst of the grief. To continue, and minister with strength, rather than staying at my desk wiping away the tears that flow when I stop to think, feel, and process all that is happening. I wonder. Do people think I’m being callous? Do they think I’m unaffected by this loss because I’m asking for help with cleanup or parking? I certainly don’t want them to think that. I also don’t want to be so busy taking care of details that I fail to take care of the grieving.
This role of loving the ones who we are called to serve, grieving with them, but also comforting them in grief – it can be a heavy load. Pastors must find their own ways of dealing with it. It’s not that we can’t be honest and authentic with those whom we are called to serve, but as we are front and center in leading through the services and rituals of our faith, we also need to be aware not to center on our own grief in the midst of it.
Some of us do a lot of car crying. On the way to or from a bedside, a hospital, or a funeral home. We practice the homily, crying as often as we need to in practice so that we can hold it together in the service. We have our words with God. We know that life is not fair, and that bad things happen to good people, but sometimes it is really too much to hold neatly within our theological categories. Hopefully we have our own networks of external support who can hold space with us as we hold space for others, especially those who are in this particular calling to pastoral ministry. We get it.
It’s hard. It’s not the responsibility of church members to minister to us (though they often do!), but there are a few things that might be helpful for them to know. We love you, and we grieve with you. We also have a lot to do during these times of acute grief. If we don’t seem to be affected, or if we don’t allow the space for grief in the midst of the details, that’s not reflective of how we feel. We are aware of the load we are asking you to bear, parking cars, washing dishes, and ushering visitors, in the midst of your grief, too. We are grateful for all that you do. While we appreciate your concern for us, we also probably won’t lean on it too heavily. That’s not the way the balance goes. But most of all, know that we love you. We really, really do.
Stephanie is grateful to serve alongside and be cared for by the saints of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Her two boys love going to church, where they know beyond doubt that they are loved and welcomed.
Image by: Tammy Wiens
Used with permission