When Personal Grief and Public Ministry Collide

Post Author: Ashley Updegraff


I was sitting at one end of my church’s Fellowship Hall, surrounded by a pile of opened gifts and resting a plate laden with cake on my swollen, pregnant belly. I looked out upon the faces of fifty or so women and girls who had come to celebrate the impending arrival of my daughter. I started to thank them for their generosity and support. As I did, tears slid down my face. My voice cracked with emotion. They smiled at me kindly, taking my tears simply as those of a woman on the brink of motherhood, overcome with happiness, gratitude, and love (and hormones!). 


But I was crying for another reason. I was crying because my husband had just declared his intent to move out. I was crying because I’d be going home to an empty house, left to put away the diapers and the gifts by myself. I was crying because my marriage was over. 

They just didn’t know it yet. They didn’t know it then, and they wouldn’t know it for another seven months. They wouldn’t know that my marriage was over on Easter Sunday, as I led worship, silently praying the entire time that resurrection would happen in my life. They wouldn’t know it two weeks later when my daughter dramatically entered the world, a perfect combination of two parents no longer one. They wouldn’t know it when I came back to work after maternity leave, exhausted from managing the daily care of an infant alone. They wouldn’t know it until just before my daughter was baptized—a letter in the newsletter announcing publicly, finally, what had been happening secretly, steadily for months. I was getting divorced. 


When I look back on that time in my life—that crazy, chaotic, heartbreaking time—it’s easy to chastise that version of myself. It’s easy to feel shame about the secrecy in which I held my pain. It’s easy to say, “What were you thinking?” to that woman who showed up to work every day, never mentioning that her life as she knew it was crumbling.


But the thing is, I didn’t know what else to do. As pastors, we are trained to show up for our congregation members. We are trained to listen actively, to show compassion, and to leave our “stuff” out of it. It’s about them, not us. It is a sacred and holy thing, we are told, to get invited into the corners of grief and pain in someone else’s life. Yet, what are we to do with our own? We are not trained for that. 


It’s clear to see what I did. My grief was a hole, deep and wide. I climbed down into it, burrowed into a comfortable spot, and made myself at home. But instead of allowing sunshine and fresh air to come in, instead of letting my grief be visible to those passing by and peering down, instead of leaving open the possibility that someone might see the hole and climb in with me to be present with me and comfort me, I covered it up. To the people around me—the members of my congregation—there was no hole. The ground was perfectly flat. 


I didn’t stop there, however. While my real self was hibernating, alone, in a hole of grief hidden to those around me, a feigned iteration of myself was up and about. I was casting a hologram. A remarkably convincing copy of myself was going to work, shopping for groceries, caring for an infant, caring for a congregation, caring for everyone. 


I went to all this trouble hole-digging and hologram-casting because I didn’t think, as a pastor, that I could let people in. My family and close friends, yes; but they were all hundreds of miles away. No, I didn’t think I could let in the people physically closest to me simply because they were part of my congregation. I was afraid that my authority to speak into their lives, to preach to them, and to care for them would somehow come into question. I was afraid that they wouldn’t be able to handle their leader experiencing a devastating crisis. I had a notion that being a pastor meant that I had to be strong no matter what. I had an illusion that I had to keep my full humanity from my congregation—hidden out of sight. 


What an unreasonable expectation! What a false interpretation of being a leader! What an unsustainable way of being in the world! What a lonely and isolating existence! 


I now know something different: you can let people in. You can let people down in the hole of your grief and your pain. And guess what? You can still be an incredible pastor. You can do both. 


It started out slow, with one trusted person, then two, then three. (Not everyone deserves the full extent of your story. Find the ones that do, the people that you trust, and start there.) When I told them what was going on with me, they listened. They expressed sorrow and concern. They provided encouragement. They asked what I needed. They offered to babysit and to bring meals. They understood my daughter was part of the package now, attending some meetings and providing a valid excuse not to attend others. 


None of this lessened my pastoral authority or diminished my leadership. Instead, it gave others the chance to care for me, as I had so often cared for them. Relationships grew stronger, and my pastoral authority grew, as it became cemented in the real, authentic me. I was no longer a hologram, perfect and unshakeable. I was human, a human being and a pastor both. What a complicated, beautiful thing that is. 


Here’s the happy, nothing-is-wrong face I maintained for the duration of my baby shower. Convincing, huh?

Rev. Ashley Updegraff is an ordained pastor in the ELCA, and currently serves a congregation in the Minneapolis area. She knows that life is messy (take her for a cup of coffee and ask her how!), but she also knows that God shows up in the mess. Reminding herself and others of that is her full-time job. She also mothers her big blended family, loves adventures with her husband, Aaron, and reads whenever she can. She writes at flailingintodancing.wordpress.com.

Image by: Holy Nativity Lutheran Church, New Hope
Used with permission
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