There were not infrequent times in ministry when I found myself overwhelmed with a kind of cosmic grief. It wasn’t depression — I know what that looks like, if not what it feels like. It was sadness, grief, mourning. It would last for a few days, sometimes longer, and it felt as if I was walking around wearing an invisible lead apron. Like the psalmist, my soul was cast down and disturbed within me. During these seasons I would enter the sanctuary on Sunday morning, sit in the big chancel chair, look out at those assembled and want to weep.
There was the man caring for his wife who has dementia, a once-vibrant Presbyterian Woman now cradling a baby doll. On the back row was the youth struggling with drug addiction, her family six rows ahead of her at wits’ end with what to do for her. In the choir behind me was a newly divorced member; there was an alto who’d come to me needing help with rent; there was a soprano devastated by a recent miscarriage. A glance in the transept revealed the person undergoing chemo; the young adult who’d not yet come out to his family; and the woman whose husband’s funeral I had conducted not long ago. As I stood to give the words of welcome, the homeless man who sleeps on the stoop of the youth house slipped into a rear pew. My robe felt like lead and my stole as though rocks weighted it down.
An honest seminary professor had warned me about grief, but no warning is sufficient. He had said it is painful to keep burying people you love. He was, and is, right. But death only represents a small part of the large, complicated puzzle of sadness that accompanies pastoral ministry.
One of the hardest aspects of ministerial grief is this reality: As the pastor you know far more than anyone else the extent of grief in the room, the depth and breadth and variety of suffering present at any given moment. Add to that the fact that you can’t share it, except with Jesus and your therapist, and this mixes loneliness to the pain of hurting with people you care deeply about. It has the capacity to disturb your soul.
Hence the reason we pastors are told to maintain boundaries, have a robust and disciplined prayer life, cultivate community, get professional support when needed and, even better, before it is needed. However, in my experience, we pastors tend to be lousy at this kind of self-care, chugging earnestly along like the little engine that could … until we just can’t anymore. Statistics bear this truth out with rates of clergy leaving the ministry, depression, stress related illnesses, poor eating and deficient exercise habits. Our souls are downcast and disturbed within us but, like many seated in the sanctuary in front of us, few know about the lead aprons we are wearing — invisible but getting heavier with every pastoral call, every hospital visit, every Service of Witness to the Resurrection.
This issue of the Outlook offers pastoral perspectives on grief, how to help others, how to remain present and care for ourselves. Far from exhaustive, these are glimpses from particular contexts and experiences: chaplains, a parish pastor who found himself ministering in the midst of a community tragedy, a minister who has spent time exploring the role of rites and rituals in healing. The articles are often written in the first person. This isn’t always the Outlook’s style, but given the topic, how could it be otherwise? You will find more perspectives on our website and I hope you will offer your own in response to the articles both here and online. This is only the beginning of a much-needed conversation.
Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden light, but the lead apron of grief is heavy and sometimes we need help taking it off, if only for a while. I am grateful for the people of faith who have helped me, quieting my soul so that I could once again wear a garment of praise instead of mourning. May God gift you with those people when you need them most.
Grace and peace,