Grieving is difficult for any of us at any time or season of life. It’s especially difficult for those of us serving in ministry. How do you offer words of hope to others when you’re not in a very hopeful place yourself? When you’re serving in such a public role in the congregation, what do you share about your grieving experience, and what do you keep private? How can you find space to grieve and to begin to heal?

I don’t claim to have the answers to any of these questions, because I recognize that the ways we minister and the ways we grieve look differently for each of us. However, after a significant experience of grief in my own life recently, I have discovered a few things that might be helpful to consider for those of us who find ourselves ministering during a season of grief.

Give yourself permission to grieve.
As a pastor, I often feel like I should be the one who “has it all together” – there’s no space (not to mention time) for me to be sad. And let’s face it – I’m stubborn, and I really don’t like admitting that I’m sad! You and I can do a lot of things to convince ourselves that we’re not sad. We can stuff our feelings of sadness, we can overwork and distract ourselves from them, or we can turn to other activities or addictions to help numb our sadness. However, the reality is that our sadness is always going to come out, one way or another. I’ve learned that these past few months, so I’ve tried to give myself permission to fully experience whatever it is I’m feeling and to allow that to be okay.

Be appropriately vulnerable with your congregation.
If I have committed to journeying with a faith community through the highs and lows of their lives, then it makes sense that I would also commit to sharing the highs and lows of my life with them. Ministry is a two-way street. That doesn’t mean that I break down in tears with a congregant who simply asks how I’m doing, or that I share unnecessary details about my life situation with someone who hasn’t earned the right to hear my story. However, there have been moments when I felt that I could share about my grief with the congregation, even in a recent sermon, and I found that they deeply appreciated and honored my willingness to be vulnerable with them. Ultimately, it led to an even deeper connection between us and more meaningful times of sharing with one another.

Allow your congregation to minister to you.
Near the end of a meeting a few months ago, a woman leaned over and said to me, “How are you really doing? We want the honest answer.” She and the others around the table held space for me to express my sadness, and then they gathered around me and prayed for me. Many people from church checked in on me over the past few months to offer their love, prayers, and support without expecting anything from me in return. This, my friends, is one of the biggest gifts of congregational ministry – when the congregations we seek to serve turn around and minister to us in such beautiful and unexpected ways.

Practice self-care whenever and wherever you can.
When so much of our emotional energy is being spent in other ways, it can feel as if we have nothing left to give. It’s during these seasons that we need to practice radical self-care. Over the past few months, I’ve joined a yoga studio. I’ve gone on walks several days a week. I’ve spent good time with close friends. I’ve also spent good time with God – writing and reflecting on my spiritual journey. I’ve allowed myself to sleep more than usual. I’ve seen my counselor regularly. I’ve traveled home to spend time with family. I’ve been compassionate to myself – just as I would be compassionate to someone in my congregation who is grieving. These times of self-care have breathed new life into my soul and have given me the energy to continue ministering to others, even during a difficult season.

When you’re ready, begin to write a new chapter.
I found myself in a pretty dark place during the season of Lent, but after some time, I realized that I was looking forward to Easter in a way I never had before. In my mind, I set Easter Sunday as the beginning of a new season – a reminder of the hope of new life. Of course, I knew that there would still be moments of sadness after Easter, but it was a helpful marker in my mind to encourage me to take a step forward from a place of grieving to a place of hoping. This Easter season is giving me the hope to begin writing my next chapter.

The reality is that grief will always be a part of all of our stories. Grief can cycle in and out of our lives, and often it hits us when we’re least expecting it. My journey in grieving is teaching me to be more generous to myself and to be more understanding of the great battles other people are facing that most of us will never know about. But though we will grieve, we do not have to grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). I’m grateful for that promise, and for a congregation who faithfully walks alongside a minister who is also grieving. Thanks be to God.