No one likes to grieve. But amid loss, change that generates loss, and broken or breaking attachments, we feel the powerful grip of grief. And it hurts. At such times, leaders are challenged to help congregations grieve, so that they can begin to accept the reality of the loss and to develop the capacity to attach anew. Clearly, this is not the expression of leadership that most congregations expect, want, or will readily accept. Instead, they yearn for leadership that will minimize their losses and enable them to avoid the pain of grief.
Why is it important to name and grieve losses? Is it not easier simply to acknowledge our losses and to move on? Some congregational members and leaders express such sentiments in a time of loss, believing that attending to grief is a misdirection of energy, a misplacement of priorities, and a poor use of time.
Losses that are not appropriately named and grieved remain buried, however, as do the intense feelings associated with them. And although we may look as if we are “moving forward,” we remain stuck in the emotional processes of loss, unable to reinvest ourselves in the life and ministry of the congregation.
Multiple sources of anxiety are present in congregational life. Many congregations feel less safe and secure than in the past. Gone are the days when they had comfortable cushions of financial, capital, and human assets. With diminishing resources, congregations wonder whether they will survive. As uncertainty grows, so grows the pressure on pastors and other congregational leaders to respond to these problems and to inspire current and potential members. And often what people desire is a leader who will bring about renewal without change. As they eye narrowing margins of safety, many congregations become excessively dependent upon their leaders and form unrealistic expectations of what a pastor can do to “fix things.” Many leaders—anxious themselves—buy into these dependencies and unrealistic expectations because they desire to be liked, accepted, and needed.
Congregations grieve because members and groups have lost significant defining points. Anxiety escalates as people sort through the realities of loss, their intense feelings, and the uncertainty of their future. And anxiety escalates further as a congregation and its leaders wonder how to (1) care for people who are grieving deeply, (2) respond to people who are grieving similar losses differently from each other, and (3) relate to people who are not grieving the changes at all because they feel no sense of loss. Pondering all the change, loss, and grief, members may become anxious about the congregation’s undefined future and doubt whether its leaders have the necessary gifts to lead the congregation into unknown territory.
Many congregational members and leaders are familiar with the overlapping perspectives of authors who have written about the processes of naming and grieving losses. Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler- Ross, the most familiar theorist, identified five stages that terminal patients and their families typically experience to cope with impending death: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (On Death and Dying, New York: Macmillan, 1969). From my work with attachment theorists, I have come to appreciate a dimension beyond acceptance that provides a deeper fulfillment to grieving people. I refer to this as attaching anew. Attaching anew is not the same as reattaching; developing the capacity to attach anew requires hard work.
Clearly, the possibility of reattaching is tantalizing to grieving people and congregations. Reattachment would restore broken bonds and lost relationships, terminate the intense feelings of sadness, anger, fear, and despair, and would allow congregational members and leaders to avoid the expressions of anxiety that disrupt relationships and distract the congregation from its ministries. Reattaching would allow us to return to the stability we enjoyed in the past and halt grief.
But it is not possible to reattach to what is lost and gone. Despite a desire to cling to precious memories, despite heartfelt yearnings for leadership that will restore these broken bonds and relationships of the past, we cannot reattach to what is lost. It is gone, and in our grieving we must let it go to move into the future. However, it is possible to attach anew:
- Congregational leaders and members must thoroughly grieve the losses that one, many, or all have experienced. Members who are not grieving a particular change (or loss) must understand that other people are grieving, and members must support them and give them sufficient time to grieve. To shortchange grief is to rush people to a false sense of acceptance which diminishes their ability to accept the reality and finality of the loss and blocks their capacity to attach anew.
- Congregational leaders and members must learn to exercise restraint as anxiety arises. In times of grieving, the emotional climate of a congregation may be one of free-floating anxiety. We may view others’ words and behaviors through the lenses of anxiety, which will distort communication between people and disfigure treasured relationships. Members and leaders may personalize remarks that are not personal, escalating the pain. Acquiring the ability to identify multiple sources and effects of anxiety makes it possible to exercise restraint as it emerges.
- Congregational leaders and members must realize that their temptation to reattach is born of several factors beyond the broken or breaking relationship with an important person, place, or thing. Members may yearn to reattach because they fear that the congregation will never experience such vitality again, that it will continue to decline, and that eventually it will die. Conversely, they may fear that the congregation will change so much that it will no longer be the faith community they have known and loved, and in which they have invested themselves so deeply. In either case, they fear additional losses at a time when they are already grieving.
- Congregational leaders and members must understand the importance of honoring and preserving the best of the past as the congregation addresses the future. Amid losses, it is easier to accept the finality of loss and to attach anew when visible lines of continuity connect where the congregation has been and where it may be going.
- Congregational leaders and members must attend to relationships within the congregation, affirming the centrality of healthy relationships if congregations are to become and remain healthy. In the midst of loss and grief and the frustration of anxiety, it is easy for leaders and members to lose some or much of the trust they have extended to each other. Broken trust diminishes the capacity of people to grieve together, to remain hopeful about the future of their congregation, and to attach anew.
- Congregational leaders and members must comprehend that the capacity to attach anew is born of faith and inspired by hope. Rather than attempting to reattach themselves to what is lost and gone, they appreciate that hope and confidence are expressions of faith in one another, the congregation, and God’s hand amid loss, grief, and anxiety. At its best, the congregation understands that to attach anew is to experience resurrection.
- Congregational leaders and members must appreciate the role of vision as they invest in a future that is promised and being fulfilled. Vision functions as a bridge from the past to the future. Just as vision allows us to see with some clarity what has come before us and what dimensions of our past we value, vision also allows us to see into the future, even if dimly.
In helping congregations name and grieve their losses, live in the crucible of anxiety, and develop the capacity to attach anew, pastors and other leaders serve as “stewards” as people grieve. As congregations learn to embrace change, leaders guide them toward what will be. As congregations move in new directions, as exciting and uncertain as these may be, leaders help the congregation make many choices—about which directions to pursue first, which needs to respond to, how to allocate limited resources when needs exceed resources. And that is when leadership becomes real.