After speaking at dozens of clergy conferences and bereavement seminars, I am deeply concerned about the men and women in America's pulpits. They are expected to do a work of healing while their own gaping wounds go undressed. Their own emotional, physical, and spiritual health is in jeopardy. These spiritual leaders put on a brave front for the sake of parishioners, but behind the tight smiles are tears that beg to be wept. Underneath the public assurances of "joy in the Lord" is hidden a nagging sadness that paralyzes the spirit.
I have ceased counting the men and women in ministry who reveal their crippling pain to me. They meet me in hallways after lectures. They share quietly over lunch. As they walk me to my car they cry out for help. Letters and phone calls reveal the raw injuries of loss.
During a four-day conference a church administrator kept probing me with questions. He wasn't convinced that grief could cripple the pastors under his charge. He was forced to believe it when some of the pastors shared their heart break with the group. Before the conference ended, the administrator took me off to a side room and shared his own unresolved grief. He was seeking healing for himself and his family.
Some ministers have been dismissed from their pulpits because unresolved grief has rendered them unproductive. Parishioners have been known to petition church headquarters for the removal of a pastor who has recently experienced a major loss.
The illusion that clergy are always pillars of strength has not faded. They are still expected to wake up "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed" a week after a major loss.
The grief of clergy may linger longer simply because of this illusion. What little energy remains following a major loss is spent in ministry to the parishioners, who may give precious little support because they assume the pastor is "holding up so well." He or she may function at a deficit for weeks or months before anyone notices.
I was a guest on a radio talk show. A minister called to tell about his father's death two years earlier. "Sometimes when I'm preaching, a sadness comes over me. The feeling is so strong I can hardly go on. In a few weeks I'm going back to my boyhood home where my father died. The closer I come to returning, the more fear I have of going back to all the reminders. Do you have any suggestions on how I can make it easier?"
This question is typical of a minister who returns from the funeral and quickly engages in the demanding work of parish ministry. The busy whirl of meeting the needs of others camouflages his or her own feelings. Then one day the telltale symptoms show up.
Disinterest in reading the Scriptures, inability to concentrate on sermon preparation, indifference about prayer life, being annoyed with mundane problems of church administration, impatience with spouse and children these are a few indications that the postponed grief is catching up with you.
Frequently ministers report feeling angry at spouse, children, the board of deacons, the district superintendent, or even inanimate objects. "Anger in particular seems close to a professional vice in the contemporary ministry. Pastors are angry at their leaders for not leading and at their followers for not following. They are angry at those who do not come to church for not coming and angry at those who do come for coming without enthusiasm. They are angry at their families, who make them feel guilty, and angry at themselves for not being who they want to be. This is not an open, blatant, roaring anger, but an anger hidden behind the smooth word, the smiling face, and the polite handshake. It is a frozen anger, an anger which settles into a biting resentment and slowly paralyzes a generous heart." 1
"The roots of anger are almost always found in some kind of pain. That pain can proceed from physical injury or from emotional upsets of frustration and disappointment. . . . Too much frustration or an overdose of disappointment can produce anger that yields an abiding bitterness by which personalities are soured." 2
Loss and unresolved grief may well be the underlying factors in clergy anger. The pain of loss is constantly encountered by clergy for scores of reasons. This is why angry clergy should go in search of the pain.
I moved to a large city church from a small rural church. After one of my early sermons a visitor asked, "Pastor, who are you angry at?"
After I recovered from my initial offense at his question, I analyzed my conspicuous anger until I found the source of pain. I had lost weekly contact with outgoing country folk. Many of them had found new life in Christ while I was pastoring them. Former classmates were in my parish. I left them behind. I was homesick and didn't know it, but the pain came out as anger in my sermon.
At times ministers respond to losses by withdrawing in silence. Their lonely hearts ache, but nobody is aware of the turmoil within, not even their own families.
An administrator I worked for would sometimes good-naturedly recognize me in a group of colleagues by saying, "Now, Yeagley is one of those quiet ones. You've got to watch out for the quiet ones."
My administrator was touching a vital truth that could not be hidden by humor. Wayne E. Oates stated it seriously: "Ignoring these deadly silences can be followed by events that leave permanent noises in your heart--i.e., regrets." 3
Suffering in silence after personal loss is certainly not a sign of emotional or spiritual maturity. Such silence can bankrupt the minister, the minister's family, and the congregation. But this bankruptcy can be prevented by common sense on the part of the pastor, the congregation, and the church administrators.
The minister must seek peer support. This is seldom found in ministerial alliances or denominational conferences. Informal fellowship with area ministers of various faiths is an excellent approach. This is not a time for swapping success stories, but rather for sharing sorrows, dilemmas, disappointments, joys, hopes, and dreams. Praying for one another could be the sustaining factor between sessions.
A few close relationships with parishioners are healthy. This doesn't hinder ministry to the whole congregation as long as the minister remains available to everyone.
When a major loss strikes, the minister should curtail his work sharply and inform the congregation of the changes. Sermon preparation and presentation should be turned over to others for a month or more. Being a hero isn't necessary; neither does it give the minister time to heal.
Seeking help outside the family is often wise. A minister is usually a good counselor, but the grieving period is the time for the minister to be a good counselee. Toughing it out alone is not a good use of emotional energy. Take a day off each week. Utilize all your vacation days. Go on a minisabbatical occasion ally. Get out of the workaholic run-run mode that is so difficult to break.
Some churches are developing pain banks. Members who have recovered from a variety of losses volunteer for training and service. They go into action as soon as a fellow member suffers a similar loss. The pastor and the pastor's family receive help also.
Some church administrators are becoming very sensitive to the need of clergy to adjust to personal and professional loss. Regular retreats for clergy and their families are provided in some places. Rest, rehabilitation, group and individual therapy, recreation, and time for meditation are provided. Organization and promotion of church business are taboo.
Seminars, teleconferences, and correspondence courses on stress management, grief recovery, communication skills, and church organization foster personal growth and healing. I have heard of denominations hiring a counselor to work with clergy and their families. This is a refreshing idea long overdue.
In today's high-tech church we must realize that ministers are still human. Their hearts are breakable. Their spirits are woundable. They do not function as healers unless preventive measures are programmed into the personal and institutional priorities.
It has been said that in love's service only wounded soldiers will do, but if wounded soldiers are never healed, they cannot remain on the front lines.
1 Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart
(New York: Ballantine Books, 1981), pp. 23, 24.
2 R. C. Sproul, In Search of Dignity (Ventura,
Calif.: Regal Books, 1983), pp. 64, 65.
3 Wayne E. Oates, Nurturing Silence in a Noisy
Heart (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co.,
Inc., 1979), p. 85.