The Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t the first instance of collective grief that congregations around the world have experienced together.
There are congregations in the U.S. that have mourned alongside each other when a domestic terrorist attack happened in their community.
And congregations in China that have grieved the constant persecution their underground church has faced.
Although most pastors have probably helped many individuals walk through grief, the pandemic may be one of the first times they’ve been called on to shepherd an entire congregation through a tough time.
For every congregation walking through grief together—from deaths in their church to challenges in their city—there’s a pastor doing their best to lead them through it.
Along with processing their own grief, pastors wrestle with several questions about how to lead with compassion and discretion.
How can I tactfully recognize a sad season in the life of our church?
What’s the best way to support people without overwhelming them or making things worse?
Should I put on a strong front or be honest about my own distress? How honest?
We have a few best practices and suggestions for how to lead a congregation in a time of grief.
#1 – Acknowledge the pain
When people are grieving, it’s natural to want to gloss over the pain. Acknowledging pain can be uncomfortable and awkward.
But it’s essential for every church and its leaders.
Take the time to establish your theology of pain and suffering before a time of hardship happens. When you’re solid in what you believe about grief, you’re prepared to comfort a mourning congregation in a way that aligns with it. You’ll be able to lead from a place of wisdom and you won’t have to come up with a different, rushed response each time (which can be harmful).
The Covid-19 pandemic reminded us that death isn’t the only type of grief that a congregation might have to go through together.
We saw upticks in job loss, separation from their church community, depression, and more. There were protests, scandals, and political scenarios that also caused grief for many.
Churches can acknowledge the many different types of grief and help people walk through them with hope, encouragement, and support.
As a leadership team, work through ways to acknowledge grief. How will you recognize losses in the life of your congregation? How will you handle times of grief that affect one part of your congregation but not others? What type of action will you take if tragedy strikes? What type of statement are you willing to make?
#2 – Provide support
With so many different kinds of grief, you’ll need to offer various types of support.
People have different needs when they’re grieving. While some may need spiritual encouragement or someone to talk with, others may also need tangible support.
Churches also have more knowledge than the average person about who in their congregation has gone through certain circumstances. Leaders can ask people who have experienced a similar kind of grief to reach out to someone who is currently experiencing it.
#3 – Be honest about your own grief
As a pastor, you may want to look put together and strong at all times. You may want to grieve every sad season of your life in private because you’re afraid that the congregation will view you as weak or unstable.
But you should also want the congregation to see that you’re human. In times of collective grief, it matters that the people in the audience on a Sunday morning know that the pastor leading them has grieved and will grieve with them.
That’s not to say that you have to make your entire personal life public and grieve everything in front of your congregation. But as the Holy Spirit leads, be open to sharing your own pain with your people. Let them comfort you. Let them see that you’ve been through hard times, too.
Being a leader who is honest about their personal grief will make all the difference when the congregation has to grieve together.
#4 – Conduct a survey
Surveying your congregation may seem like a brash way to handle grief, but it’s one of the most caring things you can do.
Don’t wait until a tragedy strikes to find out what your congregation would need in the time of one. When it comes to supporting a grieving congregation, it’s best not to assume what people need.
What do grieving people want you to know? What do people actually need in times of suffering? What was helpful for them in past times of grief and what wasn’t? How did they feel about your church’s response to a previous tough season for the congregation?
When you ask, you’ll find better ways to support your congregation when they’re grieving and your church will be better prepared to step in to help.
#5 – Plan individual and collective follow-up
Churches have various follow-up processes to make sure first-time guests and givers don't fall through the cracks. We want to make sure that people know they’re welcomed and we’re punctual about thanking people for supporting the church financially (or at least we should be).
But what about following up with people who are grieving? Do we circle back around to make sure that those who are grieving have the support they need? Do we take care to make sure that they don’t fall through the cracks?
It’s vital for churches to plan follow-up communication for people who are grieving. Following up ensures that the grieving people in your congregation don’t feel forgotten or alone.
When an individual or family is grieving, make sure that they don’t just get one phone call expressing sympathy. Be ready to offer resources for dealing with the death of a loved one, support for job loss and job searching, etc.
When the congregation is grieving together, one email acknowledging the situation isn’t the most helpful. Follow up with ways the church is offering practical support. For example, if a mass shooting occurs in your community, acknowledge it with prayer and lament and follow up with trauma service recommendations and a list of what people can do to serve the families affected by the tragedy.