Grief for Growth: An Overlooked Component of Healing for Those in Ministry

We live in a grief avoidant culture. And for the those in ministry the pressure not to grieve can be even greater. Everyone wants the pastor or missionary to be strong. While for one Sunday many will appreciate the authenticity and brokenness expressed by a Christian leader in grief, many by the next Sunday want them to have a victory story and move on. The patience of those being led by a Christian leader can be short even if the loss is a socially acceptable one such as the death of a spouse or other family member. But if the grief is for something lost that is unseen, it can be even harder for the Christian leader to accept or enter into that grief and for others to accept it. Yet, sometimes grieve is exactly what the Christian leader needs to do to grow.

Matthew 5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn for they will comforted.”

In this passage Jesus is following the statement made in 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In Matthew 5:3 Jesus is saying blessed are you who realize your spiritual poverty and your need for God, for God you will find. In Matthew 5:4 Jesus is continuing by saying, “Blessed are those who are grieved by their poor spiritual state for they will be comforted.”

Typically when we think of grief we think of when we have lost a loved one to death, sometimes we think of when we have lost something else valuable to us such as an asset or an ability or position. Rarely do we think of grief when it comes to our spiritual state but according to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount it is a part of our spiritual growth. And often grief is a part of any growth as the old grief adage alludes to “With every change there is a loss and with every loss there is grief.” When we grow we change and with change comes loss, even if that loss is of something that was detrimental to us.

Here is an example of a pastor working through change in his marriage and more specifically change in himself and the accompanying grief which leads to change in his marriage. At Marble Retreat we have an 8 day program and include group counseling and regularly see a similar pattern. There is a weekend in the middle of the eight days for rest, reflection, and recreation.

Step 1: Husband – “We are here to work on our marriage. We are both at fault. I know I have made my fair share of mistakes. I have no problem admitting that I am not the perfect husband.”

Step 2: Husband – “Let me tell you about my wife. Nothing makes her happy. Her expectations are way too high. She also is not very supportive. Why is it that everyone at church has great things to say about me, but she never has anything good to say about me. She should be my biggest cheerleader.”

Step 3: Husband, after being challenged by the group once the group has got to know him, “No, I am not controlling and obsessed with my work. The problem is her expectations. They are unrealistic, and she is the one not being supportive. Why are you making this about me?”

Step 4: (after weekend): “God has been working on me and I am beginning to see how I am controlling and the position that I put my wife in. I admit that I am overly attached to my work. I need help. Where do I start?”

Step 5: To wife: “I am so sorry for how you have not felt like a priority in my life and how critical I have been. I am sorry for how I have made you feel like you were on the outside at the church when I should have been standing by your side and had you standing by mine. Will you forgive me?”

Step 6: “I am so thankful to God for helping me see these things, thankful to my wife for standing by my side and giving us another chance, and I am thankful for my brothers and sisters in Christ who held up a mirror and helped me see myself. I really had no idea that I was part of the problem.”

The example words above from a husband who is a pastor represent the process of change that we see in intensive counseling. This example does not imply the wife does not also play a part in the problems in the marriage, it is highlighting the process for the husband. This process has a lot of overlap with Prochaska’s theory of change where clients go from pre-contemplation to contemplation to preparation to action and then to maintenance.  But, also mixed in there are the stages of grief: shock and denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance. As we all know, these stages are fluid. If grief is a part of the process of change then what is the person grieving? In the above example, the obvious answer would be that they are grieving the state of their marriage and all the losses that entails. While this is true, at a level that is often more disturbing to the person, is that they are grieving a loss of themselves or at least their ideal self and they are grieving the loss of a fantasy.

Grieving the loss of their ideal self – While most of us will give lip service to the fact that we are not perfect and nearly every Christian leader who comes to work on their marriage will say something to the fact of, “I know I am not a perfect husband,” it is interesting when asked for specifics of how we are falling short as a husband of how often we cannot come up with anything except for a generic and uncommitted response like, “I guess I work too much.” Not only do those of us in ministry have the normal struggles to see ourselves honestly and accurately as everyone else struggles to see themselves, but we also have worn “the mask” or played the role for so long that there can be a lot of fear and anxiety wrapped up in getting real about our issues. The fear and anxiety often have to do with letting someone down if we admit our faults – God, the church, our spouse, and ourselves. And for many, the fear of letting someone down is tied to a deeper fear of rejection. Because of these fears we have created an image of ourselves that is not accurate, where we do not see ourselves warts and all. This does not necessarily mean we see ourselves in some grandiose way because often shame is at play which also keeps us hiding from ourselves.

Grief is a God-given process to heal the heart, soul, and mind. Grief is an emotional expression of accepting that “it is what it is.” It is interesting when one finally grieves their own brokenness and sinfulness and see themselves honestly that there is a sense of relief and great opportunity for growth.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Matthew 5:4. What most experience from God, their spouse, and others when they do repent and grieve their own shortcomings is the exact opposite of rejection – it is acceptance, comfort, and encouragement.

Grieve the fantasy. The fantasy can have several pieces wrapped up in it. The fantasy can be that this is not my fault, or the fantasy that if the other person changes I will feel good about myself and our relationship (people know this isn’t true but act as if it is), or the fantasy that change will be easy. When realization happens that we are at fault, we are responsible, and that change will mean hard work then often there is a moment of grief. Sometimes, the fantasy is that I can have my cake and eat it too. Meaning, I can put in seventy to eighty hours at the church each week and also have a happy marriage and family if my wife would just adjust her expectations and be more supportive.

When people are resistant to change sometimes we look for the secondary gains that they are not wanting to lose. For example, a pastor comes in stating that his priority is his marriage and his main goal for counseling is to work on his marriage but when it becomes clear that he will need to make some changes to his schedule and give up some aspects of his ministry to make his marriage a priority he becomes resistant. Why? There can be many reasons but often it is such things as fear of failure, enjoying the atta boys he gets on the job, and even something as basic as being able to avoid the tension and feelings of insecurity at home by being overcommitted elsewhere. When it becomes painfully clear that the secondary gains or sacred cow will need to be sacrificed, there is grief. But again, this grief sets the stage for growth. In Prochaska’s terms it helps take people from contemplation to preparation to action. In theological terms, the grief helps people move into conviction and repentance or you could say it is Godly sorrow. “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” 2 Corinthians 7:10.

To be truly and fully open to the change that God has in store for us we must grieve the loss of self that “needs” things to be the way that they were and we must grieve and let go of our fantasies that there is another way to growth besides looking honestly at ourselves and taking responsibility for who we are and who we need to be.

A couple of years back a pastor and his wife came for counseling and when I met with each of them they individually said to me, “I am here to learn how to be a better spouse, how to better love my husband/wife.” I actually doubted to believe them as I have rarely worked with a couple who actually meant this and didn’t default to blaming the other for their marital issues. This couple, due to their spiritual and emotional maturity because of the journey God had them on, had already accepted their own brokenness and had already grieved the ways they had let and were letting down their spouse. They were now ready to move forward. Over the eight days we worked with them they never “looked back” and made great strides in the growth of their marriage.

It would do all of us well to try and live by Matthew 7:3-4 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye (spouse’s eye for the married) and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” For those of us married in ministry it would also do us well to see ourselves more accurately and honestly and our spouses less critically (Of course if there is abuse or addiction involved this changes things).

To see ourselves more honestly it often takes someone holding up a mirror to us. It is great when we can allow our spouse to do this and we receive it because they know us the best. But sometimes in marriage we do not give this influence to our spouse for various reasons. If we are not in a place in our marriage to do this then we should give this influence to a friend.

Recently, I was concerned about how a friend of mine was treating his wife and family. He was making some unwise decisions that impacted their stability and I could see how it was affecting them. I decided to speak to him about this. After he quickly got over his hurt and annoyance with me, his response was, “I guess I do have one real friend, one who cares enough to say something to me.” He was convicted and grieved how he had impacted his family and now that he was aware he went on to correct his actions.

We all should have at least one friend who will speak honestly to us and from whom we will receive it. Then, when we see ourselves clearly and how our fallenness has negatively impacted others, it will grieve us. Express that grief, be comforted, and see where God wants you to grow and change.