For those called into the ministry, we have been given an amazing opportunity to love God’s people and encourage them towards growth. However, we are also on our own spiritual journey and must be open and honest about our own spiritual health.
The COVID-19 pandemic has steered all of us into uncharted territory. While at first this might seem scary, in a very unique way it can build unity in our congregations. Therefore, it is vitally important that we remain aware of our own emotional health, as well as the health of our families and our congregations (1 Peter 5:1-4; 2 Timothy 4:2).
Have you noticed any changes personally or in your family? What about your congregation? It might surprise you to learn that grief is playing a major role in the formation of our congregants during this time. Grief isn’t limited to loss. It also includes feeling afflicted and distressed. We see this in the Psalms with David (Psalm 143). David felt both loss and affliction and grieved them deeply. Even though David was king over all of Israel he was not exempt from pain and sorrow, and neither are those of us in ministry.
It might seem strange to consider grief during this time, but for many of us this pandemic has brought a sense of loss to intimate community, economic stability, and even daily routines. Consider the children in your city, for many of them school was the safest place they could be. On some level everyone is experiencing loss. If we are to lead well during this time we must humbly admit that God is working on us as much as those in our congregations.
Signs of Grief
As a counselor, I would encourage you to consider several signs that may indicate the presence of grief. Signs to look for are: trouble focusing, changes in sleep (too much or too little), increased alcohol or substance use, retail therapy (in the form of Amazon Prime!), denial or avoidance, anger or depression. Grief generally has five stages: anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It’s important to note that this is not a linear process and one stage may be experienced on a deeper level than another, or one stage isn’t experienced at all.
This process will look different for each person. It’s important to be patient and have compassion for others–especially our families. Be on the lookout for these in yourself, your family, and your congregation. It might help to set aside some time and examine your own heart to see if you have been walking through the stages of grief. We cannot address these issues unless we identify them first.
It’s important to remember that none of us are immune to experience grief. Even if you are not personally experiencing a deep sense of grief think of a time when you did and use that to find commonality with those who are. Grief is a normal reaction to the societal and personal changes that all of us are experiencing. Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time to mourn, which affirms that mourning is a good and a normal response to the emotions that have been provoked by our experience of loss.
Allow yourself space to process these emotions and know that it is okay to feel sadness, hurt, and maybe even anger. One way we can reflect the love of God is to remember we are broken and He feels compassion towards our frailty (Psalm 103:14).
However, there can be times when our emotions take an unhealthy turn. Grief can become unhealthy if you’re stuck in the past and fixated on what life used to be. This type of fixation on the past can lead you into despair or leave you feeling depressed. On the other hand, if you’re fixated on the future, be aware that you might find yourself overcome by anxiety and worry concerning all the possibilities of what might happen in days to come.
An unhealthy fixation on the past or future will lead you to feel out of balance, wandering in your daze filled thoughts about possibilities. One way to enter into a healthy place to process of grief is to “SNAP” out of it!
See what’s around you. Is it sunny or cloudy? What noises can you hear?
Name three things you’re thankful for.
Accept what is. We can control certain things (like staying home, sanitizing, etc.) but we can’t control all things.
Pray. Phil. 4:6 tells us to do this with thanksgiving. David wasn’t afraid to express his raw emotions to God and neither should we-He knows them anyway! He may not remove it but He will comfort us through it.
Most importantly, remind yourself and others of the purpose and meaning God has assigned to our lives. Theologically, we all understand that God doesn’t always deliver us out of our difficulties. God has promised that He will never leave us or forsake us. Tim Keller has said, “You don’t realize God is all you need until God is all you have.” What other promises and propositions can we cling to in these difficult moments? Fighting to focus on biblical perspective in the midst of difficult times provides the benefit of seeing the bigger picture, rather than having a myopic focus on the current situation.
If you’re realizing that your family or church members, in addition to yourself, are experiencing a form a grief, it can feel overwhelming to have that weight resting on your shoulders. Don’t ignore it. You can care for yourself and your family well in addition to your congregation, but you may not be able to do it alone. The beautiful thing about God’s body of believers is that the Holy Spirit has equipped His church to work together (Ephesians 4:11-12).
Edification of the Body
One of my pastor’s strengths is the ability to see how God has gifted others, and he then encourages growth in those gifts and utilizes them for the edification of the body. Who in your church has God equipped to be able to walk with others who need additional support? All leaders need friends and others to help guard their own soul and help them minister to the body. Maybe you’re not a very compassionate person naturally–find someone who is. Maybe you tend to view life as a glass half empty. Do you have a friend that generally has a positive outlook on life? If so, it would be good to have them speak into your life and use them to help others.
If your church doesn’t have a counseling ministry, are there other local churches that do? Perhaps you’re a pastor of a small church and may not have as many resources. There are several resources online that could help you assess your own heart and help others. For example, BradHambrick.com is an invaluable source of information for pastors who need resources for counseling or need to make a referral for counseling.
Remember, God loves you dearly as his child. He has led you to a unique position to love and care for His children–but not at the expense of your own heart or your family. Fight against the lie that as a leader you must have it all figured out. God didn’t intend for His church to be a “one-man-band.” God desires to be precious to you and to be your first love. Use this as an opportunity to press into God in a way you may never have before. Courageously love your family and congregation when it’s most demanding. Mirror the heart of our Savior (Phil. 2).
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