Shepherds who grieve need the support of their ministry settings. What gifts can a faith community offer in times of sorrow? How can safe space be created so rostered ministers can grieve in healthy ways?

In his poem “Lodged,” the late poet Robert Frost’s words express the power of grief. 

The rain to the wind said,
“You push and I’ll pelt.”
They so smote the garden bed
That the flowers actually knelt,
And lay lodged—though not dead.
I know how the flowers felt.  

Many of us know “how the flowers felt” when we lose a loved one, but the journey of grieving may be especially difficult for rostered ministers. Not only do we accompany others in their sorrow and attend funeral and graveside rites, but we also will experience the death of loved ones. How do we balance the need for personal grief over and against the demands of our vocation? 

My brother John died as the result of suicide in my first year as a pastor. I took one Sunday off to be with family and attend the funeral in a distant state. Back home after the funeral, I poured myself into work and avoided being alone. The stress and lack of time for intentional grieving exhibited itself through stomach distress and headaches. I was bereft, wounded and, for the first time in my life, knew what the phrase “hearts heavy with grief” meant.  

Twenty-eight years later, my brother Chris died in a similar manner. I took three weeks to grieve and be with family, including two Sundays where a colleague preached for me. Several months later, I negotiated a one-month sabbatical with my congregation for respite and study.  

Our father died this past spring. Again, I was grateful for a retired colleague who stepped in for me and a congregation that understood my need to be away from pastoral duties. Grieving is hard work. For that reason, intentional time away is critical for personal health and well-being. 

Jesus and grief 

Jesus exemplified several important elements of grieving. The first involves the expression of lament. Following Lazarus’ death, Jesus openly weeps. Even the Jews are struck by this, commenting, “See how he loved him” (John 11:35-36). His grief was palpable. It wasn’t hidden or ignored. 

The second example comes in Matthew following the beheading of John the Baptist. When the word comes to Jesus that John has been killed, he withdraws “to a deserted place by himself”(14:13). It’s an intentional move in response to devastating news. It seems likely that Jesus had some time by himself as he traveled by boat to his destination, while the crowds followed him on foot.  

The third element of grieving relates to Jesus’ ongoing ministry. Jesus meets the crowd on the shore following his travel to the deserted place. “He had compassion for them and cured their sick” (Matthew 14:14). It’s the first act of mercy he shares after his respite. Might Jesus be a model for us? Could it be that in taking time to withdraw from routine and dealing with our grief, we might be able to again have compassion and mercy for others? 

The power of grief can be isolating. Yet God in Christ calls us to a life of discipleship in community. Into community we are baptized as beloved children of God, nourished and fed at the banquet table, and sent out in Christ to serve the needs of the world. We aren’t independent contractors or entrepreneurs working alone.  

Shepherds who grieve need the support of their ministry settings. What gifts can a faith community offer in times of sorrow? How can safe space be created so rostered ministers can grieve in healthy ways? 

Consider the gift of time. While every situation is different and people grieve in different ways, it’s important that rostered ministers receive tangible time off from work responsibilities. From my experience within a congregational setting, two Sundays over and apart from designated vacation hours can provide initial time to regroup. The possibility of a mini-sabbatical or further respite time can be negotiated as needed. 

Can your mutual ministry or staff support teams be sensitive to such needs and offer respite time when a death occurs? Sensitive and proactive leadership in any ministry setting will be a true gift of grace for the shepherd who grieves. 

Celebrate the gift of leadership. Every ministry setting has individuals who have gifts and talents for building up the community, for support in time of need. Who can be responsible for ministry needs?  

In a congregational setting, who are the people with gifts for visitation or teaching? Are there trained lay leaders who can lead worship? Designate either council or mutual ministry leaders to set up a list of those who could be contacted in times of emergency. Having a plan in place helps ease chaos and confusion when a death occurs. 

Use the gift of greater community. Are there local rostered leaders who can offer respite? Are there retired or ecumenical colleagues who could be of assistance? 

Be aware of area leaders who might be able to assist during this time, and keep their contact information updated. Again, who will arrange help? Designate someone to take this burden off the shoulders of your rostered minister. 

With the gifts of time, leadership and community, may all who grieve hear a new song. How can you sing the song of the beloved so shepherds who grieve may know the power of resurrection hope? 

Here is my vision of life restored through the witness of compassionate community: 

The returning sun brought another day 
and the vibrant blossoms rose to say:
Our roots are deep and our branches strong.
For our Gardener speaks a beloved song
of healing and growth and seeds to sow.
New life, for all to know. 

Anne Roser
Roser currently serves as an intentional interim pastor at First Lutheran Church in Portland, Maine. 

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