In 2007, Jon Anderson’s one-year-old son, Knox, was in a drowning accident at his house. After 10 days on life support, Knox died on April 23.
On March 22, 2015, Jason Tippetts’ wife, Kara, died after a battle with metastatic breast cancer.
On March 2, 2016, Marc Miller learned from his wife, Natalie, that their daughter, Hannah, had died — three weeks before Natalie’s due date. The baby had trisomy 13, a rare genetic disorder that meant she might not live until birth, but the Millers had hoped her life would not end so soon.
These three men, and many others, of course, experienced losses that were shattering in their own ways. But the common thread linking Anderson, Tippetts and Miller is that they are all pastors who had to journey through grief while also shepherding God’s people.
Living in a fallen world, pastors, like all people, will inevitably experience tragedies that shake their families and ripple through their congregations. But pastors, as they grieve, are still responsible for the spiritual nurture of their congregations. And this prompts a question: How can God’s people love their pastor and his family on such a dark, difficult road?
Grieving in Public
Caring for a pastor in mourning begins by acknowledging that grief is a little different for him than it is for others in the church.
Often people want to stay away from large gatherings after a loved one dies. Grief is exhausting, crowds can feel emotionally draining and tears are always a heartbeat away. But pastors can’t always duck out of church when emotion overtakes them.
While a pastor might get extra time off work — Anderson, Miller and Tippetts all said their sessions were very generous in giving them extra leave — he will be different when he returns to the job. Part of that job is proclaiming the truths of Scripture — truths he might be privately wrestling with as he grieves. Believers need to understand that death shakes a pastor, no matter how strong his faith.
“I felt like a hypocrite when I was up there preaching — talking about God’s sovereignty and goodness — but on the inside struggling to believe [these things] were true,” Anderson said. He believes these internal battles were not a sign he was rejecting God or the gospel, but just a natural part of the grief process. Anderson is the associate pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Bryan, Texas.
Another aspect of pastoral ministry that’s made more complicated by grief is counseling. People sometimes feel reluctant to be honest with a pastor who is suffering. They compare their own problems with the pastor’s and decide against opening up to him.
Anderson noticed that after Knox’s death members stopped coming to him with problems, and he realized his loss made people sheepish about sharing their own concerns that they felt seemed petty compared to his.
Some Ways to Show Love to a Grieving Pastor:
– Avoid quoting Scriptures like Romans 8:28 to him. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,[a] for those who are called according to his purpose.” Grieving pastors know that verses like this are true, but hearing them does not help to ease the pain.
– Offer specific ways to help the family, rather than saying, “Let me know if I can help.”
– Be patient with your pastor, as grief makes it more difficult for him to cope with his responsibilities.
– Do not be afraid to talk about the deceased. Your pastor has not stopped thinking about his loved one, and he will probably be encouraged to know you are thinking of him/her too.
– If you don’t know what to say, keep it simple. “I’m so sorry. I cannot imagine how hard this must be. I am praying for you.”
For Further Reading:
“What Grieving People Want You to Know About What Helps (And What Hurts)” by Nancy Guthrie
“It was hard because my heart wanted to minister to people,” he said. “We’re not comparing struggles or situations. I had to take the leadership to tell people it’s okay to bring your problems to me.”
For Tippetts, Kara’s illness began shortly after he started planting Westside Church in Colorado Springs, so the suffering of the Tippetts family was well known in the church community. But the Tippettses worked hard to make sure the church was not built on the hardship of the pastor’s family.
“It was hard to communicate to people that their suffering matters, too. Kara and I did a lot of work to lower the barrier and be approachable and extend compassion when possible,” he said.
Simple Gestures with a Strong Impact
Tippetts’ loss is widely known in Colorado Springs and beyond because Kara was a blogger who wrote several books about suffering and relationships. But as time passes, new members join a church and do not always know what a pastor has lost.
Anderson has appreciated that his congregation has taken ownership of Knox’s story, and members are purposeful about explaining the congregation’s loss with newcomers who might not understand what’s behind the emotion in Anderson’s voice, especially at the Lord’s table.
Miller, pastor of West Erie Presbyterian Church in Erie, Pennsylvania, gave his congregation permission to talk about Hannah. He told his congregation that his family thinks about Hannah every day, and they want to talk about her. There is no need to pretend that her death did not happen.
A ruling elder at Miller’s church added Hannah to the congregation’s official roll, telling Miller that Hannah belonged to the church. “Small things like that let me know the church is thinking of me,” he said.
After a death, pastors’ families need the same help that everyone needs, and congregations can bless their pastor by tending to his physical, logistical and financial needs.
Meals, fuel cards, gift cards, child care, funeral expenses, medical expenses, housework — families need help with everything. What might seem like a small thing for a church member might be a huge blessing for a grieving family, Miller said.
And rather than saying, “Let me know if there is anything I can do to help,” it’s always more beneficial to offer small, specific ways of helping. Tippetts said a friend from church helps by ironing his clothes every few weeks. For Anderson, an attorney from church donated his time to help the family navigate the legal investigations triggered by a fatal accident at their home.
These gestures of love demonstrate to a pastor that his congregation cares. “To you, it might just be a meal, but to the grieving family it is the thing that gets you through the day,” Miller said.
Leading While Limping
While pastors experience unique challenges in mourning a loved one, they also process grief very much like the rest of us. Grief is grief — horrible, painful, miserable. There is no way to rush the process, and the scar of what has been lost will never fully heal.
Miller explained to his congregation that the loss of Hannah had left him with emotional wounds that they could not see, but were real.
“When you go through a loss like this, it is like having a concussion. If the pastor looks spaced out, he is. Please be patient with your pastor. [Grief] affects your brain and the way you function. Just doing the bare minimum takes all he can do, and then there’s a family and all the other responsibilities on top of that,” he said.
A pastor doesn’t muster extra spiritual power to muscle through the heartache. But when the congregation embraces a grieving pastor and walks with him — even shedding tears with him — it creates a community where the suffering know they are not alone.
And a grieving pastor has a unique opportunity to bless the church, too. He can empower the church to become a safe place where everyone’s loss is met with compassion. Loss is messy, and people work through grief with differing emotions — sometimes sadness, sometimes anger. As believers, we need to make sure those who are grieving know we are glad to have them with us.
Because of the timing of Kara’s diagnosis, Westside Church organically became a community where suffering was a daily reality. “I was suffering, and I was put in a place to teach people about how to suffer — not in an academic sense, but in a real-life sense,” Tippetts said.
Grief makes the hope of heaven shine all the more brightly. Anderson said his church sings “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” frequently because it is a hopeful reminder that while the immediate circumstances might be stormy, “we are bound for a place where there won’t be any more grief.”
In his book “How Long, O Lord?” D.A. Carson urges believers to develop a theology of suffering before they are blindsided by tragedy. In the same way, congregations can think through how they will love their pastor before they find themselves standing in the receiving line at a funeral home. The experiences of Anderson, Tippetts and Miller are unique to them, but there are countless pastors experiencing their own versions of these same stories.
While grief is different for a pastor in certain respects, ultimately, congregations can love their pastors through times of loss with simple words — “I am sorry for your loss. I am praying for you. I care.” These statements acknowledge that nothing can ease the loss of a loved one. But they create spaces for people to grieve and look to Jesus to be their Healer and their hope.