Creative ministry during pandemic grief

My study leave this year looked different than a conference, or even sermon series planning.

I used my study leave to catch up on all the articles I’ve been meaning to get to during this COVID-19 craziness.

That meant I read about everything from church conflict to air ventilation during this past week.  And in that odd range of topics, I also found time to read the article in the Harvard Business Review titled, “That Discomfort You are Feeling is Grief.” If you have not read it, I highly recommend it.  As I gave myself time to really read this article (rather than skim it, which I admittedly find myself rushing to do most of the time), the following words brought actual tears to my eyes:  “Finally, it’s a good time to stock up on compassion. Everyone will have different levels of fear and grief and it manifests in different ways. A coworker got very snippy with me the other day and I thought, ‘That’s not like this person; that’s how they’re dealing with this. I’m seeing their fear and anxiety.’ So be patient. Think about who someone usually is and not who they seem to be in this moment.”

That’s my own emphasis on the last line of the author’s words, because that is the line that stood out to me.  I’ve been trying so hard to remember that we are all fractured versions of ourselves right now, but the compassion we read about here is grace.

This article was written in March of this year, when the coronavirus pandemic was still “new” in the United States.  The article refers to David Kessler and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ six stages of loss and grief, but asserts that grief is not linear — and we may find ourselves visiting these stages in any order, and often more than once.  Just to name them, they are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, and finding meaning.  I preached a sermon on grief and these stages very early on in the pandemic, but I find – personally and collectively – that we are still grieving. And the sobering reality is that we certainly will continue to grieve for an undetermined amount of time.

As a spiritual leader, I have to constantly challenge, remind and discipline myself to keep up my compassion.  But the reality is that leaders are in this storm too, and we can just as easily find ourselves being the person who is not like themselves.  And in these raw, failed moments, we desire that same understanding and “benefit of the doubt” from those around us.  Frankly, we not only desire it, but need it to make it through this together.

If you’ve read Kessler and Kübler-Ross’ work on grief, you know they emphasize that the stages of grief are not linear or sequential.  The challenge for all of us right now is collective and continual grief — we’re all going through this pandemic together, grieving at the same time (but not always in the same way or about the same things). Yet, after almost six months of this in our country and our churches, I am starting to notice some alignment as far as stages go.  Lately I have heard the words from my congregation, “we are where we are,” or “we might be here for quite some time,” or even “we’ve got to figure out a way.”  All of these phrases lead me to believe we are collectively aligning in the stage of acceptance.

But let me submit that acceptance is not enough for the people of God.  I remember clearly a difficult time in my first call when the church leadership was trying to solve a problem and each time someone would offer a creative solution, someone in the group would find a reason to say no.  I came out of that meeting so frustrated, remarking to the other pastors on staff, “As Christians, we should be people who are looking for opportunities to say yes, not no.”  And, I still believe that.  Being in the grieving stage of acceptance means we have to be creative.  For better or worse (I would like to believe it is for better), we cannot do things the way we’ve always done them and still remain safe throughout this pandemic.  However, I believe the church is still called to minister in this pandemic, in this time in history.

So, we have to find creative ways to worship, to serve, to gather, to pray, to celebrate, to mourn, to baptize, to share the gospel.  We have to find creative ways to do this essential work of following Jesus.  It cannot look the same as last year. And so, our call is to find ways to still say yes to following God when it would be easier to stay shut down or suspended or paused.  And, not only do I believe this is the call of the people of God in this acceptance stage of grief, I believe it is paramount to bringing hope in a trying time.

If we can find a creative and safe way for people to be together, we bring hope.  If we can find a creative and safe way to celebrate baptism, we bring hope.  If we can find a creative and safe way to continue community mission, we bring hope.  And it might be that bringing and bearing hope right now is important and just as critical as the actual ministry being done in this time of grief.

JULIE RAFFETY serves as the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, New Jersey.  Julie is a violinist, aspiring writer, snowboarder, runner, identical twin and crazy about popcorn.