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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - When the Pastor's Life is Turned Upside Down

We who care for persons in times of crisis will at some point find ourselves aching and grieving.  This is the reality in which one of our RevGals found herself  - and she sent this message to the matriarchs a little over a week ago...

In the past few months my life has been turned a bit upside-down with a diagnosis of leukemia in my father, with whom I am very close. I am wondering if you could provide some insight into how to operate with my congregation during this time while he's undergoing treatment and spending a lot of time in the hospital. It's also possible that treatment will turn into hospice and it will be a waiting game to know how much longer we'll have him with us.

Here are a few details:
- the congregation I serve is thankfully very helpful, and I do not anticipate them using any absence of mine due to this situation as a way to critique me or try to fire me
- my father is a pastor as well, and he actually filled in for me in the congregation when my daughter was born at the end of the summer last year, so they know him in that way and also care for him
- I'm not looking so much for logistics as a more holistic way to approach this, including what in the world I'm supposed to do with myself if he actually dies. I think I will be basically non-functional if that happens
- to be frank, financially, I cannot afford to take a leave of absence if it would have to be unpaid

Thank you in advance for all your help!

Sarah, blogging at  Never Perfect Always Real
[Sarah indicated an openness to be identified and a desire to blog about her experience.]

We moved to address her questions immediately, in hope that we could be of timely help to her. However, after beginning our preparation for today's post, we received word that Sarah’s father’s had died.  Our deepest sympathies are with Sarah, and I know that you will join us in praying for Sarah and her family.

Terri, blogging at Seeking Authentic Voice was the first to respond:

I am so sorry to learn of the illness and subsequent death of your father. I am grateful to know that your congregation is caring for you and understanding. Grief is a powerful reflection on the depth and potency of love in our lives. Grief takes many forms, and just when you think you understand the way grief is manifesting for you, it will rise up in a new way: varying degrees of despair, crying, anger, loss of concentration, fatigue, are just a few ways grief appears. And moving through grief takes as long as it takes – one cannot rush through it. So, it is wise that you are seeking ways to care for yourself during this time.

I find it most helpful for me, when going through times such as this, to build a support system for myself. This support system includes the congregation in its ability to understand and be gentle with me, and to the degree in which I reveal small pieces of myself, as appropriate. Invite them to pray for you, let them bring you meals. My support system also includes people outside the congregation. People such as a therapist who will help me deal with my feelings and how they are manifesting. I also seek out a spiritual director, someone who can pray with me and help me see my grief through a faith and spiritual perspective. It also helps to have friends who are willing to hang in there with me – the on-line community has been invaluable for me. You may also find some solace in reading Robin’s blog.  Although her grief and loss was different than yours, her emotions and her struggle to move through grief reveal universal aspects. Also, reading may help. Sometimes reading/praying the Psalms every day is helpful as they speak so deeply into human emotion. Other books on loss and grief may help. Engaging in some form of expressive art – coloring mandalas, for example, may be centering and expressive, prayerful.

I hope you are able to take a little time off in the early days of this loss. In time you may find that work helps you. Sometimes engaging in the stuff we do every day enables us to move through grief with a little less of the thickness of despair.  Working reminds us that life goes on, engages us with others who are also suffering, and with those who have moved through to the other side. Sadly there will also be those who do not understand, who are incapable of empathy, lack experience with grief of this nature, and encounters with those people will cause frustration and pain, or perhaps you will just recognize their limitations…. Moving into work is like learning to exercise all over again – we have to remember to take it slow, build up our stamina, strength, and flexibility, until we can work at our old pace. So, when you begin work again, be gentle on yourself, stop when you are fatigued. Give yourself permission to take naps, rest, walk, or whatever is helpful. It’s helpful to remember that grief takes its own time.  I will hold you in prayer.

Muthah, who blogs at, writes:

I am so sorry you are having to deal with this, but it is one of the realities of our lives.  We are both pastors and daughters and we must balance it all.

Six weeks after I began my first parish (1984), my partner blew an aneurysm in the brain.  It was Saturday and I knew I wasn't going to be able to do Sunday services.  I called my board chair and apologized profusely.  He is a wise man and he said to me:  "Don't worry, we are all Christians here.  We can understand what family means."  It startled me.  And it dawned on me then that being a pastor isn't a job--it is being a part of a family.  It wasn't until much later that I found out that both my secretary and my board chair had lost spouses to aneurysms.  Folks can relate and can support you.

Your parish understands the need to be a daughter during this time.  Sit down with your leadership and work out what you HAVE to do, what can be done by others and what you can't do and will need to hire someone to do.  What you will be able to do is witness to them how to deal with severe illness and perhaps hospice.  It will be a part of your congregation's lives too.  If you have a judicatory presence, inform them too but after you have worked it out with your congregation. 

Dying is so much a part of our pastoral lives and people in our congregations often try to ignore it.  When you witness to assisting your father into that life we all wait for, you will be preaching much more than what you will say in the pulpit.  You may have to put some career things on hold but for the most part your people will honor and respect you for this witness.

My prayers will be with you as will be many from this RevGal group.  

And welcome to Crimson Rambler, our newest Matriarch!  She blogs here and writes:

Dear friend,

First of all, let me say how sorry I was to learn of the loss of your father, especially as I realize you were hoping for more time with him and more time to prepare for this change.

You’ve asked us for a “holistic way” to approach your loss, as a person in active ministry, and these are some of the thoughts that occurred to me.

First of all, it’s important to name what you’re experiencing as it happens; some of it to your congregation, although perhaps not all of it—some of it to a trusted confidante such as a spiritual director, possibly a churchwarden, a colleague, or even one of the congregational matriarchs.  In my experience it has been very helpful to arrange some such support in advance, if you can: “I’m going to get a most unwelcome phone call presently, are you at home? Is the kettle on?  Can I impose upon you for a little while after the call has come in?”

As to how we can operate and what we will “do with ourselves” when we are bereaved in the midst of our people – we try to operate as we encourage our congregants to operate through their own losses: attend mercifully to your needs for food, sleep, prayer, domestic routines.  Do as much of your regular work as you can, it can offer a welcome respite from grieving.  Appoint someone, or more than one, to take custody of your calendar, your mail, and your keys -- and whatever other life-support items you’re liable to mislay. 

Encourage your congregation to share their own memories of your father’s ministry and manner – share the grieving – laugh when you can and cry when you must. Avail yourself of the comfort they offer.  Recognize that their lives will return to a normal pattern more promptly than yours will – invite someone to walk with you in the week or two following the funeral, after forty days, on the first anniversary.

One of my colleagues, when his father died, said that at least it prevented him from becoming “inured” to the losses he ministered to in his congregation (large, lots of funerals).   I am not sure whether that thought is helpful, but I offer it.

Please know that you continue in our prayers and in our hearts through this sad time…

Almighty God, your love never fails, and you can turn the shadow of death into daybreak.  Help us to receive your word with believing hearts, so that, confident in your promises, we may have hope and be lifted out of sorrow into the joy and peace of your presence; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  Amen                                                                            Evangelical Lutheran Worship

In life and in the valley of the shadow of death, may we live trusting in God's amazing grace+



  1. I have been meaning to stop by and say thank you. I read the responses Thursday and was so touched by your kindness and your wisdom. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  2. I was in this position a year ago; my dad was dx'd with untreatable bladder cancer that February and he died in early May. He was a 5.5 hour drive away, so I was able to take a couple of long weekends and some weekdays to be with him; in particular, when my husband had gone up to see him and realized he was dying, I dropped everything and was able to be there for his last 4 days. I stayed a few days after he died, then came home for a few, then back up for his funeral. The week following I was in the office a little, but not much. During those months, I was fully functional much of the time, and periodically I was in a fog or felt like I just wasn't coping. Again and again, I had to push myself to tell people the truth, rather than try to cover up, because I just wasn't able to do that very successfully. What that created space for was their love and their care...they wanted to offer back to me what I have given to them. It was painful and challenging, but such a grace-filled time in many ways. I don't think I over-shared; I simply let down my guard enough to be seen as a normal struggling and grieving human...and I am inclined to think that was what I could offer them, because so much of our world suggests we ought to get on with things way too quickly, whether in struggling with illness or death.

    I thought things would get steadily better over the course of this past year. They have gotten better, but it hasnt been steady; there are lots of ups and downs. You can't really plan for that, but know that it may well be the case and be gentle with yourself.

    Oh, the other thing that really helped was a handful of close friends outside the church with whom I could entirely let loose, and sometimes for longer periods of time. Figure out who those people are too, and let them walk with you.

    My prayers for you, your dad, and your parish. May love surround you all.

  3. Another informative blog… Thank you for sharing it… Best of luck for further endeavor too.

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