Navigating Pastoral Grief During COVID-19

COVID-19 has introduced countless life-altering adjustments for church leaders. With the inability to perform so many of their responsibilities and passions, many pastors are experiencing deep levels of grief. I interviewed Sean Palmer, Teaching Pastor at Ecclesia Houston, and Rhesa Higgins, Founding Director of Eleven28 Ministries, on ways to healthily navigate pastoral grief during COVID-19. They shared wisdom, hope, and practical strategies to help church leaders navigate the complexities of grief during this global crisis.

The e-book by Eleven28 mentioned in the video for pastors experiencing grief due to COVID-19 who are looking for help connecting with God in the middle of grief can be found here. Additional resources from Eleven28 Ministries can be found at the bottom of this article.

5 Common Losses That Church Leaders are Experiencing

  1. The cascade effect – Carrying the losses for everyone in your church community and feeling the impacts of each of those unique responses can be heavy. You have people facing everything from sadness of cancelled milestones like graduations and weddings, to the loneliness of elderly who live alone. On top of this, pastors aren’t able to visit those who are hurting within their community. Caring for those in need is a major part of the pastoral role that’s currently a substantial loss church leaders are facing.  
  2. Spiritual rhythms interrupted – Weekly participation of worship in a local church is not possible at the moment, and that shift happened so quickly that this intimate loss also comes with shock. Church leaders thrive when worshipping with their community every week, and that connection has been interrupted.
  3. Preaching in a live setting – Many church leaders spend a lot of time preparing to see the faces in their church community while sharing the word of God with them. Now that this is not a reality for church leaders, that in-person feedback is also something they’re grieving the loss of.
  4. The potential shift in identity – Pastors may find themselves feeling the weight of once being the expert in their own space to suddenly not having the answers to the uncertainty COVID-19 brings. They’re also experiencing the weight of not being able to carry  out so many of their typical duties such as weddings, funerals, and day-to-day care for their congregation.
  5. Everyday routines and stability – The simple routine of knowing what you’re going to do is now all uncertain. From the timeline of reopening church to the process of gathering again, it’s challenging for church leaders to create routines and plans around such unknown factors.  

Ways to Healthily Process Grief as a Church Leader

  • It’s important to be able to separate your personal experience of grief as a church leader and your congregation’s experience of grief. Because church leaders are wired to put their congregation first, they should be reminded that they have permission to focus on their personal grief process. 
  • Examine and evaluate what it is you’re grieving and what losses you’re experiencing. This will allow you to give yourself time and be honest about what you’re feeling as you identify each of the things you may be grieving. Breaking your grief into elements also helps you identify where you can ask God to provide replacement opportunities and fill gaps.
  • Grieving is a complex process, so provide yourself a lot of grace. It’s common to experience waves of emotions throughout the day so take things one step at a time, knowing you’re not alone in this volatile time.
  • With grief, we have to come to terms with what it was we loss, and then be able to ask, “who am I without that thing? Am I still intact as a human being and am I still in communion with God?” If so, then you’ll be in a place where you are able to examine what life looks like without that missing thing and what God might be saying to you in this trying time. 
  • The complexity that’s present right now is because there’s still much uncertainty due to COVID-19. So the question that arises is, “have I really lost this thing, or is it just postponed?” – Seek God’s voice as you ask this question to remember the one who is good in his giving and taking away. Remember that he provides all that we need as you work through your grief.

Determine Who to Communicate With During the Grief Process

  • Sean shared that he has partnered with friends from seminary and they intentionally spend time praying through this together.
  • Church leaders oftentimes only have a small group of people who they can trust with the reality of their interior world. They often feel the burden of holding it together for the sake of those they lead.
  • Surround yourself with people who you can deeply trust that aren’t swayed by the decisions you have to make as a leader but are deeply invested in you.
  • Acknowledge those in your church community who are willing and ready to pray for you. As a leader, it’s vital to take the first step in being honest and vulnerable with trusted people in your community. This cultivates an environment and culture of care, love, and prayer.  
  • Know that it’s okay to discern the topics you discuss with people. You can talk to specific people about specific things . Rather than feeling overwhelmed by discussing everything, you can choose a topic for different individuals, share your concerns, and ask for their thoughts. This will help you avoid feeling like a burden to sharing too much with any one person.
  • Pastors can be reminded that this is the time to be authentic. Share what you’re worried about, be honest with yourself about what you hope for and what you fear. Then, take time to hear from those who care for you and also listen to God.
  • Sharing these ups and downs at  a high-level with your congregation either now or when your grief subsides will provide an opportunity of openness and connection with them in a unique way.

If you’re struggling to navigate the changes and challenges of our current season, you’re not alone. Eleven 28 ministries and Vanderbloemen have a heart for serving the church, especially those who lead the church. Visit their resources below or contact us if we can assist you in any way.

Eleven28 Ministries Resources & Services

  • For pastors experiencing grief due to COVID-19 and ways to connect with God in the middle of grief, the e-book Eleven28 published can be purchased here.
  • Find Eleven 28’s full resource page for COVID-19 spirituality- related topics here.
  • Sign up to receive regular updates on soul care needs during the pandemic here: https://bit.ly/church-staff-enewsletter  
  • Church Staff Soul Care guidance can be found here
  • Individual Soul Care guidance can be found here
  • Inquire about Group Soul Care here: rhesa@eleven28ministries.org
  • Sean Palmer is available to help church leaders and talk them through things through one-on-one sessions. Contact Sean here.