As the United States embarks on a presidential election year, churches and their leaders face the reality of congregational life in both a charged political climate and a new era of ministry. National and local power struggles are fostering more polarization through the election cycle. And this year those tensions will continue creeping into congregational life, bringing stress to church relationships and consuming relational energies.
And if this year’s election cycle was not enough, we are also living in the wake of changes that began four years ago, in the previous election year. The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic not only altered our work patterns (video conferencing), grocery shopping (deliveries) and medical care (telehealth), but the pandemic also changed church ministry and congregational life.
In my study of more than 100 ministers and lay leaders across the United States between 2020 and 2022, I found permanent changes to the practice of ministry and congregational life — so many that I am convinced we are living in a new era of ministry.
With new congregational realities, national political tensions and a backlog of grief, how will we find our way through the malaise?
With new congregational realities, national political tensions and a backlog of grief, how will we find our way through the malaise? Acknowledging and honoring our grief is a solid step along a pathway to more healing, stronger future stories and a meaningful shared life of faith.
A new era of ministry
Working with research teams from the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project and Austin Presbyterian Seminary, I found more than a dozen enduring ministry changes, which are presented fully in the #PandemicPastoring Report.
The new era of ministry began when church leaders took their congregations online in March 2020. Churches spent the next three years responding, improvising and innovating in order to survive, and they gave birth to new ways of being and leading the church. The new era includes hybrid worship and gatherings, tremendous loss and grief, amplified conflict, a widespread need for renewal of purpose, healing for people and systems, and what pastoral theologian Andrew Lester has called “future stories.”
In pandemic times, wealthier churches remained stable, and a few got even wealthier. Meanwhile, churches that were financially struggling before the pandemic often continued to struggle during and after it.
Ordained ministers and lay leaders experienced notably different challenges during the pandemic era. Social isolation affected both groups, but pastors, ministers and chaplains felt more overwhelmed by ministry conditions that exhausted their energy and focus. Lay leaders, for their part, felt a loss of connections and of meaningful involvement in their faith communities. All leaders, however, deeply grieved the magnitude of the losses.
The pandemic season also revealed unrelenting racism, public outcries for justice and political fault lines that ran through congregations. One pastoral leader said they were “feeling like a scapegoat for general pandemic-induced fatigue and anger.”
One pastoral leader said they were “feeling like a scapegoat for general pandemic-induced fatigue and anger.”
In response to change and loss, churches also demonstrated profound resilience. They took on the challenge of moving church life into digital environments, earning a well-deserved sense of pride. This focus on survival also meant turning attention away from long-standing conflicts in favor of keeping the basics of church life going under new social conditions.
Dynamics of conflict, decline and grief
Conflict and change are normal parts of church life. However, church conflict may not always be what it appears. Intense conflicts – as benign as choosing carpet colors, as vital as raising salaries – may in fact be symptoms of decline in church membership, finances and energy. Growth and decline are part of the typical life cycle of churches and faith-based organizations. When we notice conflict ramping up, it is a good time to ask: Is this conflict this truly about what it seems? Or could the conflict be a symptom of decline?
When we get down to it, decline is another form of loss. And the conflict that erupts is another expression of grief.
While operating in survival mode during the lockdown months, some churches experienced a boost or rebound in attendance, giving or involvement. While this rebound dynamic was in full force, some church conflicts moved quietly to the backburners. So when new decisions arose that were related to in-person gatherings, those unresolved conflicts came back to the front burners, where sometimes they boiled over. Some church members, ministers and lay leaders got burned in the process.
What appears to be politically motivated conflict between groups in the church – between those who identify with blue/Democratic politics and those who identify with red/Republican politics – might also be a symptom, rather than a conflict truly centering on the substance of the arguments. Underlying concerns about the loss of power, influence and values animate the politics in national elections. The same preoccupations with loss can show up as conflict in the church, not just in the public square.
One young White minister spoke to the #PandemicPastoring research team about political conflict in her church: “As a pastor and head of staff, it is the divisions found in masking, and also the divisions in our country, which make it hard to be a pastor of a ‘purple’ church. We as leaders are asked to pick a side, but I enjoy the challenge of proclaiming that the Gospel is central to all decisions that we should make as Christians and challenging congregants to see how their ideologies and political affiliations have been shaping their faith instead of vice-versa.”
Although church decline and conflict as a telltale symptom are normal parts of the church life cycle, the losses are not necessarily permanent. Nor is the death of the church imminent. Rather than thinking about decline as an ending, we can reframe it as an opportunity for church renewal.
In her 1999 book Can Our Church Live? Redeveloping Congregations in Decline, church consultant Alice Mann identifies three questions for congregational leaders to ask when seeking renewal: “1) Who are we (especially at a faith level)? 2) What are we here for? 3) Who is our neighbor?” Now is an excellent time to rethink the purpose of the church for a new era of ministry. Mann’s questions help us tell new future stories for how to be the church in a changed world.
Before congregations can move forward with crafting new future stories, however, they need to take time to acknowledge and honor losses and grief. Without prioritizing the grief work, churches run the risk of slipping further into malaise.
Naming and acknowledging grief
In the spring semester of 2022, seminary student Jenny Simmons worked on her capstone project, trying multiple ways to gather the teenagers in her church to talk about their grief. She knew they were not doing well, post-pandemic. And two of them had lost their parents to cancer. She hosted small groups but still struggled to find an effective way to get them talking.
In something of a last-ditch effort, she decided to rewrite the curriculum for her spring youth retreat to focus on acknowledging losses and honoring grief. She told personal stories during the teaching time, and then she invited her students to name what they had lost. She offered simple rituals for a time of worship to honor their losses.
Acknowledging and honoring worked. Jenny’s students experienced emotional release and a time of connection and bonding. Soon they were adding their own rituals to the weekend. Finally, they were telling the stories of loss to each other, naming their grief and containing it with rituals, which conveyed God’s loving presence even through their losses.
Finding the right way to invite faith communities, young or old, to name grief is key to finding our way. Outside churches and counseling rooms, our culture suffers from a significant absence of social and communal spaces for grieving. Some music, theater productions, movies, books and art make space for individual and collective grief. However, the pandemic accelerated declining attendance at funerals and memorial services.
Human beings need shared spaces to grieve. When communities and organizations do not have collective space to process losses, we lack the energy and focus to do the work of making plans, telling future stories or reimagining our shared purpose.
When we take time to name and acknowledge grief, however, we are naming and acknowledging our love and loss.
Three griefs that churches need to notice
We can start by noticing grief in its many forms. Then we also need to learn how to honor who and what we have lost, while we continue to live in the present. No matter the political environment or state of conflicts, these griefs need our pastoral notice and ritual attention. They deserve to be honored as worthy of grieving.
Life is full of loss and grief; these are part of the natural cycle of life. People die and divorce. They lose jobs and move away. Children grow up and stop asking for piggyback rides. And even the best and most positive life transitions, like births and weddings, include losses and grief. We love — and because we love, we face grief when we lose. To be sure, some losses may be everyday ones, but they can still devastate the hearts where they land.
Over the last four years, we also experienced a gap – indeed a canyon – in our ability to face our griefs with the usual support of friends, family and faith communities. Our typical ways of responding to one another’s normal, yet crushing, losses and griefs was lost (leading to yet more grief) in the isolation and loneliness of pandemic life. The breakdown in support systems and routines needs to be reimagined and remade.
Ministers and lay leaders in the #PandemicPastoring Report lamented deaths due to COVID-19 and other causes, the absence of being together for worship, the inability to solve problems in person, and the avoidance of rituals such as funerals, which provide dependable containers for grief. Leaders also witnessed friends and parishioners who faced grief alone. One leader summed up the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic as a “disruption of everything.”
Many pandemic losses and griefs went unnamed because, in the scheme of things, they seemed less immediately significant. Psychologist Pauline Boss calls these “ambiguous losses” in her 1999 book Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief. However ambiguous, these losses also made an impact: missing routines, reconfigured (or ended) jobs, lost schooling, lonely days, stresses of parenting and homeschooling, and an avalanche of canceled trips, graduations, weddings, funerals and celebratory events. Church members left for new congregations, moved away or just stopped attending church, with little acknowledgment from anyone.
The pandemic also brought social and political grief. Injunctions to distance ourselves and wear masks served to unmask deep divides over how to make churches safe. Lay leaders told me about grief over pastoral insensitivity, denial of racialized injustices and a summer series of sermons that discussed nature instead of addressing the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In her 2022 book Tilling Sacred Grounds: Inferiority, Black Women, and Religious Experience, pastoral theologian Phillis Isabella Sheppard reminds us of the “wreckage and grief” in Black and Brown lives – and the “violent brutality against Black bodies and communities” – committed at the height of COVID-19 measures. These and other political divides severed congregations.
In his 2019 book Pastoral Care and Counseling: An Introduction: Care for Stories, Systems, and Selves, pastoral
theologian Philip Browning Helsel says we need to give attention to attachment, time, context and meaning making as we care for grieving people. Each of these aspects of life was upended in the months of lockdown, and they were altered permanently going forward.
Pandemic grief is far from resolved. It lingers and pleads for acknowledgment.
Before the pandemic, vocational grief was a little-known and little-named experience. As it did with many experiences since 2020, the pandemic managed to amplify and compound vocational grief. Countless ministers, chaplains, church members and lay leaders felt the impact of grief related to work in the last four years. Faith communities would do well to make space for talking about it.
The “Great Resignation” or “Great Renegotiation” of jobs in the United States (and globally) became a time of leaving work, changing work, starting new work and cultivating new habits of work (like working from home or from another city).
One pastor who commented for the #PandemicPastoring Report told us how the pandemic “exacerbated what was already unhealthy in my congregation/staff.” She “couldn’t take it any longer” and resigned from her church in 2021. Other women in ministry juggled homeschooling and pastoring, retired to care for grandchildren or departed their ministerial “dream jobs.”
One pastor named the vocational grief involved in “the extra amount of work that goes into planning each and every program” in an era when she was protecting volunteers from exposure to the coronavirus. Yet another pastor in the study named his grief over “conflict and lack of communication between people with opposing perspectives.”
One can feel so many kinds of loss in relationship to vocation. By design, ministers carry a great deal of loss as they accompany parishioners through life. Vocational grief also emerges from tragedies like the untimely and unjust deaths of children; from institutionalized and personal sexism, racism and injustices that prevent meaningful employment; from relational betrayals and disappointments; from abuse, underpayment, unfair restrictions and hurtful dismissals. The list is long and heartbreaking.
People in every kind of work and profession experience vocational grief. Naming and acknowledging vocational griefs together can open a space for feeling seen, heard, acknowledged and normalized.
Honoring and ritualizing our losses
Christian worship offers rituals for acknowledging and honoring loss and grief. We can engage worshipers in grief in many ways, such as music, prayers, communion, storytelling and art. Practices such as journaling, meditation and prayer can travel with us daily.
We do not need to fear living in sadness, anger or depression just because we choose to acknowledge and honor our grief. Quite the opposite. Taking time to prioritize and ritualize grief helps us to weave it more holistically into our lives. Remember that Jesus engaged in lament, curses, weeping and constructive anger to call out the losses and hurts of his day.
Focusing on loss and grief as a pathway sounds counterintuitive. However, ignoring loss and grief invites grief to show up in surprising, conflictual and potentially painful ways.
Grief is ultimately about love — and the ways we give loving attention to the people, routines and ways of life that have gone missing. When we bring the rituals of faith to surround our loss, we integrate love and loss into the whole fabric of life.
When we bring the rituals of faith to surround our loss, we integrate love and loss into the whole fabric of life.
This kind of grief work – acknowledging, honoring and ritualizing – holds the power to disarm other surface-level disagreements and politics. Grief work is not likely to change someone’s political party or voting record, but it may create a human connection. It may allow us to remain in community and communion despite our differences.
The student I mentioned, Jenny, taught her youth a simple set of gestures, a portable ritual for loss and grief. Many of them were already familiar with the sign of the cross. She gave them new words to accompany it. First, touch your forehead and say “God.” Second, touch your heart and say “is.” Then touch your shoulders, left to right, and say “with me.” The result is a simple prayer and reminder: “God is with me.” This embodied gesture can be a shared reminder of God’s love and healing, a future story of hope.
When we prioritize and ritualize our loss and griefs, we do the spiritual work of finding our way in a politically challenging world and a new era of ministry.