After-care is not an accident—careful planning and training are required. I know this sounds foreign to some pastors. They have been schooled in planning for evangelism, financial management, church growth, Vacation Bible School, and dozens of other programs in which concrete results occur early. But caring for grieving people over a period of years is slow and painful work. Growth can take place only at a certain rate, often so gradual that the pastor has difficulty putting his finger on the gains made. It is not easy to get excited about planning and training for grief support, but it is one of the most important ministries in the life of the parish.
Every member of God's church is a minister. This Biblical concept has been solidly entrenched in the New Testament church by the Great Commission given by our Lord: "Go ye into all the world." I am suggesting that the church is the greatest resource of healing. It must go into the world of those who grieve. That world of grief may be caused by death, divorce, separation, illness, senility, or geographical relocation. It may be created by the loss of body structures and functions as in mastectomy, amputation, colostomy, disfigurement, or surgery. It may be brought about by the loss of a valued relationship because of death, divorce, or estrangement. That world can be caused by the loss of material possessions or by the developmental losses that result when all the children leave home or when an elderly couple separates. The members of God's church are to be living reminders of Jesus' love. People in the world of grief need to be reminded not by empty words, but by living reminders who speak with eloquent action.
Plans for adequate grief support in the parish begin with the development of a "pain bank" from which grieving persons can draw helpful resources when necessary. Parishioners who have experienced and adjusted to various losses can be trained to form such a "bank" through adult education courses in grief counseling or related topics. Motion pictures and filmstrips, as well as a number of books, are available for such training. A dedication service that is open to the congregation could be an excellent way of opening the pain bank. The idea is to join parishioners who have suffered loss with pain bank members who have had similar losses. This matching of losses in after-care is a very efficient use of the church's resources.
A pain bank secretarial pool is invaluable. The secretaries keep accurate records of those who have suffered a loss, the type of loss, and other information pertinent to good follow-up. This information is given to the appropriate caregiver from the pain bank. A summary of after-care visits and services are recorded. The secretaries call a random number of parishioners prior to the anniversary of someone's loss and invite them to call, write, or visit the grieving person on what might be a very painful day.
Care conferences can be held periodically to discuss progress in particular after-care cases. The pastor should be present at the conference. The pastor and the pain bank personnel can develop care plans for each family in grief. This will prove to be a real conservation of the parish's energy, and it will guarantee that no grieving parishioner is missed.
If you really wish to be progressive, invite the family members being discussed at the care conference to meet with the pain bank. Together both groups can assess growth, plan future care, and pray for the continued peace and healing of the family.
The pastor and the parish are in touch with many church and community resources. These resources can be tapped, in conference with the family, to assist with specific needs.
The length and intensity of after-care are gauged by the needs and the response of those who are grieving. After a sufficient amount of adjustment has been achieved and a reasonable time has elapsed, the grieving person can be invited to be a part of the pain bank. This takes the person's focus off of self and places it on others. It increases self-esteem and restores a purpose in life.
Organizing the parish for after-care is different for smaller churches than it is for larger churches. In a smaller church the pastor may train the whole church to be a pain bank. The after-care plan should be adapted to meet the unique needs of each parish.
It is not uncommon for me to have a series of counseling sessions with 25 percent of those who attend a Grief Recovery program. One woman who attended the sessions referred five of her family to me for counseling!
This happens for several reasons. Some people do not feel free to share their emotions or their loss situation with a group. Sometimes the grief is so deep that there isn't sufficient time to talk about it in the group. Others have such a small support system that they need to talk things out privately with the presenter. A few persons will begin to do their grief work toward the close of the sessions, and they need further help. Yet another reason is that problems unrelated to the loss are exacerbated by the loss. These problems can be solved better in the private counseling setting.
During the five sessions of Grief Recovery I always give my phone number to the group. I urge them to talk to me either on the phone or in formal counseling sessions. Going through grief can be very frightening, and people need to know that I am available. They need to know that I am not going to leave them "high and dry" after Grief Recovery is over.
I recently took a survey of participants who went through Grief Recovery as long ago as three years. They unanimously suggested that follow-up group sessions be held about three months after the program ends. These sessions are really group counseling sessions.
For the first twelve to eighteen months after the sessions are over I suggest that the presenter or a member of the pain bank call each participant on the phone. The calls should be weekly or biweekly for the first three months. As adjustment progresses, the calls can be reduced gradually. Phone calls sometimes uncover a need for pastoral counseling.
In one-to-one counseling sessions the pastor should feel free to lead the grieving person to the Master Healer.
This is the ideal time to help the person back to a renewal of a faith so rudely shattered by loss.
The practice of preventive ministry is the key to paving the way for adequate grieving. This is a method of ministry that notices losses and reactions to losses early enough to prevent the devastating effects of unresolved grief.
Nothing will ever replace pastoral visitation. In the homes of the parishioners the pastor touches the sensitive nerves of the family. Here the pastor learns about the major and minor losses of the young and the old. The parishioner's home provides a comfortable environment where the losses can be discussed, solutions can be found, prayers can be personalized. In the home the pastor learns of future events that could spark a crisis and can help the family lay a strategy for meeting the crisis.
The alert pastor will keep a file on each family. This should include names, ages, notes on loss, and reactions to loss. Follow-up plans can be noted as well.
The midweek prayer meeting is another ideal time for preventive ministry. Short series can be presented on family relationships, loneliness, meditation, crisis management, worry, and other practical topics.
The discussion of a topic at the prayer meeting should not consume the whole hour. Plenty of time should be allowed for testimonies, prayer requests, and prayer. The pastor can guide the congregation in helping a particular parishioner who shares a problem. This reaching out by the congregation to a person who is experiencing a loss creates a support group for the person. Church is no longer just a place to spend a quiet hour or two on the weekend.
The hour of worship on Sabbath morning should offer healing for those who are grieving. Preventive ministry calls for an occasional sermon about grief. I preached on this topic in a small rural church, and an old man shook my hand at the door and said, "That was a strange sermon." I controlled my tongue. After an awkward silence the grandfatherly saint added, "But I guess a fellow needs to think about these things sooner or later—maybe sooner than he thinks." My reply was "That's why I preached the sermon."
I never apologize about preaching on grief and grief recovery. I have done it many times. Without fail, someone in the congregation finds peace and encouragement. Frequently there have been great losses in a parish shortly after I have spoken, and my sermon prepared the congregation to adjust to the loss and equipped it to support the grieving family.
The subject of the sermon is not the only factor in healing. The tone of voice and facial expressions contribute to the therapeutic effect of worship. There is very little healing to a broken heart when the pastor shouts, scowls, and scolds. A warm smile and a friendly voice are healing agents. And it is not only the sermon that is involved. Every phase of worship may address the brokenness of the human spirit, or at least be con ducted with a sensitivity that will not add to the pain of those who are suffering.
My convictions about preventive ministry grow out of sharing tragic losses with many people. Frequently I see people suffering needlessly because of misconceptions of God's nature. I was called to a hospital room late one day. A man facing major surgery had dreamed two nights earlier about his surgery. He saw the physician operating on him. He saw himself die on the operating table. The dream did not make him afraid; he, simply wanted to know how to get ready to meet God.
"I haven't been much on religion for the past twenty-two years, Chaplain. I went astray, but I want to come back to God again."
"What happened to take you away for twenty-two years?" I asked.
"Well, I'm not judging anybody, you understand. It's my fault for getting discouraged. Twenty-two years ago my 3-year-old boy died. I was going to church regularly then. When the preacher came out to the house, he said God was punishing me for some wrong doing. That's why Jimmy died. And, Chaplain, I've been angry at God ever since."
Dozens of tragic incidents like this lead me to appeal to pastors to examine the concepts of God that are being presented in the services of the church. Are the concepts Biblical? Are they presented in a healing manner?
Preventive ministry, like after-care for the grieving, is no accident. It is the result of careful planning. If a pastor is serious about preventive ministry, he can arrange for a needs-assessment conference in which the pastoral staff and the leadership personnel of the parish sit down together and study the needs of the parishioners. Once the needs are identified, the methods of meeting them can be defined. The pastor is advised about the kinds of sermons, midweek prayer meetings, and seminars that are considered important.
It is amazing how much elders, deacons, and deaconesses know about the losses and the griefs of a parish. A whole sermon calendar often jumps out at the pastor as he listens to the conversation at a needs-assessment conference.
If a pastor is very courageous, he might try exposing himself to a congregational critique. A survey can indicate how well the pastor has spoken to the needs of the congregation over the past year. Let the people tell the pastor if the services and sermons have been healing and hope building.
Another form of preventive ministry is casual conversation with parishioners. The pastor who has learned to listen to deeper levels of hurt will detect troubled waters long before they become tidal waves. The problems that are perceived can be addressed early.
Preventive ministry is more apt to be practiced when the pastor remains in the same parish for a long time. The pastor with long tenure knows the parishioners intimately. He knows the resources for healing both in the parish and in the community. Short tenures sometimes make aloof pastors. Aloof pastors add to the pain of the parishioners.
Nearly every time a pastor moves from a parish, the parishioners grieve. The new pastor may experience difficulties as a result of the unresolved grief of the parish. When pastoral moves are frequent, the parishioner may remain withdrawn to prevent future hurt. This means the pastor cannot be present with people in the fullest sense of the word. Entering into the pain of grieving parishioners is more unlikely.
It is imperative that I mention the personal grief of the pastor. A pastor's grief can be caused by being with parishioners who have lost. It can also be caused by personal loss of family members. In addition, the pastor suffers a multitude of other losses that can cause cumulative grief.
If the pastor has no opportunity to resolve personal grief, the needs of the parish will not be met. Every pastor needs a group of colleagues or a close friend who will share personal grief emotions. This can't be done in clergy conferences that deal predominantly with promotion and competition. AH pastors require healing for their own pain if they are to minister to others in a healing manner.
I know pastors who have kept their grief feelings to themselves in the interest of being "pillars of faith" and "examples" to their parishioners. Some left the ministry. Others were misunderstood by parishioners and by denominational administrators. Transfers were arranged for some changes that deepened the pain of their grief.
Preventive ministry, then, is a ministry to the minister as well as a ministry to the parish. It has been my observation that when the pastor educates the parish to reach out to those in brokenness, and when the pastor openly admits his own brokenness, the parishioners are more than willing to enter into the pain of the pastor and lead him to the portals of recovery.
I invite you seriously to consider conducting a regular Grief Recovery program for your parish or community. This dual approach of preventive ministry and curative ministry will bring a sensitivity to your congregation and to the pastoral staff never experienced heretofore.
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For Further Reading:
Bane, J. Donald, Austin H. Kutscher, Robert E. Neal, and Robert B. Reeves, Jr., eds. Death and Ministry. New York: Seabury Press, 1975.
Bowlby, John. Loss, Sadness, and Depression. Vol. 3 of Attachment and Loss Series. New York: Basic Books, 1980.
Bowlby, Separation Anxiety and Loss. Vol. 2 of Attachment and Loss Series. New York: Basic Books, 1960.
Davidson, Glen W. Living With Dying. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1975.
Fulton, Robert J., and Robert Bendiksen. Death and Identity. Bowie, Md.: Charles Press Pubs., 1976.
Kushner, Harold S. When Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York: Schocken Books, 1981.
Kutscher, Austin H., and Lillian G. Kutscher, eds. Religion and Bereavement. New York: Health Sciences Publishing Corp., 1972.
LeShan, Eda. Learning to Say Good-by: When a Parent Dies. New York: Macmillan, 1976.
Lynch, James J. The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness. New York: Basic Books, 1977.
Miller, Jack Silvey. The Healing Power of Grief. New York: Seabury Press, 1978.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Wounded Healer. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1972.
Parkes, Colin Murray. Bereavement. New York: International Universities Press, 1973.
Peretz, David, Nathan Lefkowitz, Austin H. Kutscher, David Hammond, Nancy Huber, and Martin Kutscher, eds. Death and Grief: Selected
Readings. New York: Health Sciences Publishing Corp., 1977.
Ramsay, Ronald, and Rene Noorbergen. Living With Loss. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1981.
Switzer, David K. The Dynamics of Grief. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970.
Wass, Hannelore, ed. Dying: Facing the Facts. Washington, D.C.: Hemisphere Publishing Corp., 1979.
Wass, Hannelore, and Charles A. Corr. Helping Children Cope With Death. Washington, D.C.: Hemisphere Publishing Corp., 1982.
Weisman, A. D. On Dying and Denying. New York: Behavioral Publications, 1972.