GOOD MOURNING PASTOR
 
by Pastor Ira Hall

Recently, I found myself feeling a sense of unease and inner weariness. I felt “off.” As I took stock of this feeling, I realized it almost felt like sadness, but I didn’t think I was sad. A mental inventory of my current situation was reassuring. Church, such as it was, was going well. The Shepherding Team was functioning, plans for adjusted services, and special events were proceeding. There were no current outstanding crises or uproars. Things at home were going well with the kids and my wife both enjoying getting outdoors and pursuing various hobbies and projects. As I did a visual inspection of all the various parts of my life and ministry, little seemed overly negative or out of place. So why was I feeling sad and tired?

Perhaps you are already prepared with a chuckle as you point out that we are in the middle of a pandemic, with societal upheaval and economic downturns sweeping the country. These facts had not escaped me, but I and the church had adapted well to these challenges and new realities. We were making the best of a challenging situation, and surely, if that was going to bother me, it would have hit me ten weeks ago when we first went into ‘stay home mode.’

While I hadn’t put a finger on why I was sad, I knew what I needed to do.  Rest. Not simply getting a few good nights’ sleep, but inward rest of the mind. Having a bunch of junk wood that needed disposing of and an outside fireplace, I proceeded to start a fire and sit in front of it, enjoying watching the flames clear away brush and old wood. Over two or three days sitting in front of that fire, slowly clearing away unwanted wood and resting my heart and mind, the picture came into focus.

Mourning. 

Ministry has kept me busy my entire adult life, filling my days, weeks, and years with lots to do and both enjoyment and fulfillment in serving the Lord. When the shutdown hit, ministry work doubled, with even regular tasks like preaching taking more time and effort than they had before. The first two weeks were an adrenaline flume ride of production and performance. Considering what we were facing, things had gone well. I had managed to do what needed to be done, guiding a sudden transition into new ways of doing ministry, encouraging and guiding other pastors who needed help going online, and reassuring and communicating regularly with my own flock as they faced these same challenges. It had been exhausting but in a strangely exhilarating way.

Now things had settled down. There was still more work than the old days, and there was still a need for constant adaptation and adjustment as requirements and situations continued to shift, but the game was getting familiar and the territory more explored. New workflow routines were finally being settled into and, while things were far from normal, they were at least settled down more.

When someone dies, the days are not only full of sadness, but also of work. Arrangements must be made and carried out. The movements of mourning fill the week after the person has passed away and give focus and direction as you cope with the loss. It is the weeks after the funeral, when the ceremonies are over, the paperwork is mostly filed, and life returning to the new normal that the true absence of the person becomes most acute. This is what I was realizing. I had lost much and had never taken the time to mourn.

I miss “my people.” As of this writing, it has been close to one hundred days since we were last gathered together singing, laughing, sharing, and worshipping together. For over three months, I have talked into an unblinking, faceless camera which gave no feedback or reaction to my teaching.  The children whom I speak to each week during their part of the service now watched me on the screen, and I didn’t hear their voices or find myself detained from ending their message because several of the little ones needed to tell me something.

While I had not lost significant ministry opportunities and was not hurting for ministry work to do, I had indeed suffered much personal loss. I was mourning. Everyone is missing things in this time, and our church people are desperately missing the gathering together. Yet, as pastors, some of our losses are unique compared to the rest of the church. The personal loss of response and sense of connection that are part of the ebb and flow of our ministry hits us in specific and hard to define ways. If we are busy shepherding the flock through their losses, we may not have noticed just how much our own unique losses are draining away the reservoirs deep inside us. As we are leading people through these changes and their own mourning in response to the changes, we must take time to mourn for what we have lost.

Ministry should not, and cannot be about us and our needs. We cannot prioritize and center our ministry around meeting our own emotional needs. Jesus’ life is a picture of putting others ahead of Himself. However, Jesus did take time to care for Himself and to deal with His own human emotional responses to the ministry. If He, as the Son of God Himself, needed to do that, our need for the same is not less.

God is leading us through a time of massive change and transformation, and while we do not know what the church is going to look like as we get through this, we know that it will be different. Change always involves elements of loss, as old things pass away and new things come. We must be honest when things that we loved pass away, no matter how necessary that change may have been. Mourning is a critical part of processing in a healthy and healing way. 

Not taking time to mourn will hasten burnout and even resentment as the emotional toll inside is unaddressed and allowed to fester. If the sadness and loss are not processed, it remains a weight in the heart and soul of the pastor, slowly devouring passion and energy. Mourning allows us to come to grips with what we have lost, accept that loss, and retrench for the new direction and reality that we have to face. 

If you cannot come to grips with loss and process it, you will be far less apt to adapt to new realities and paradigms and much more likely to seek to regain and recreate the old way of doing things. The Bible is littered with stories of times when God tried to give His people something new, and they turned away from it out of a desire to return to the old and familiar. That tendency was so strong that they even found themselves longing for the slavery of Egypt, no longer confident in the changes God was making.

How do we mourn? As pastors, we know that we should be involved in prayer, worship, and personal time in the Word of God. Indeed, all of these practices are vital. While most of us no doubt struggle with keeping up with these things at times, we know they are a part of staying spiritually and emotionally healthy. Mourning is more than just doing those things. Mourning requires setting aside the practices and motions of ministry and facing your emotional response and reality. Doing so may lead you to prayer, worship, and reading the Word, but those activities will be responses to facing and embracing the sense of loss and resulting sorrow. Mourning is not about fixing something that is wrong or correcting weakness. It is just a need that must be met. 

As I sat in front of my fire for a few days, I began to face the fact that I missed so much and that I was not about to get back everything I had lost. The longer I sat quietly doing nothing but thinking, the more I began to come to grips with the fact that I was just sad. On the third day, my wife joined me, and as I began to put in words the fact that I was sad, the tears finally flowed. Mourning had not come quickly or easily, but there was relief and healing in it.

I now find myself talking to other pastors who are wearing out as well. It is not merely that they are overworked and overtired, although those things are often true too. As I speak with them, they are surprised that weariness is deeper and resistant to the normal habits of rest. As we talk, we explore a sense of loss and sorrow that is tucked down behind all the demands and needs. 

They need to mourn.

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