There is a story about two young fish who are swimming along when an older fish swims by, nods at them, and asks, “How’s the water, youngsters?” The two young fish swim on and then one fish finally turns to the other fish and asks, “What the hell is water?”
The point is that we are often too close to our own context to see the reality that is all around us.
From 2000 until 2007, I worked as a bereavement coordinator for a hospice outfit and taught grief theory to potential foster parents. When I returned to pastoral ministry I suddenly became aware of how much organizational grief is the water we swim in in the church. It permeates almost everything we do.
Of course, it’s not the only reality of our ecclesiastical existence. We also swim in the currents of divine yearning, intimate connection, grace and gratitude, and a deep existential trust. But when I returned to pastoral ministry after years of working with clients experiencing grief I found that organizational grief showed up in most Session meetings, planning retreats, and parking lot conversations.
Grief is a normal process that a body or organization experiences in response to loss. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross first noticed and named stages of grief in her book “On Death and Dying.” The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While my experience is that grief rarely moves from one stage to another cleanly, the categories are helpful, nonetheless, as a guide for understanding how a person moves from paralyzing loss to a vital and rich life again.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) peaked in terms of membership in 1967. That means that for the last 54 years our experience of church has been within the context of ongoing loss. In other words, whether we acknowledge it or not, that is just the water that we swim in.
Eventually, with regard to loss, the goal is move through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining and depression to the glorious and life-giving stage of acceptance. But it is not easy. The temptation is always to try to return to the former glory days, whatever that might mean for you. We humans are unbelievably crafty and creative and we will go to nearly heroic lengths to avoid the fourth stage, depression, or “dark night of the soul.” I have seen dozens of churches near the point of acceptance only to retreat to “just one more attempt” to bargain their way out of loss.
Many years ago, I created an easy-to-use handout for church leaders to help them see where their churches might be on the stages of grief. Each of the quotes are typical things you might hear in a congregation as it contends with loss. This might be a good exercise for your church leadership to engage in. If you want deeper work in this area, let me know, and I will be glad to work with your leadership on seeing how grief may be keeping your congregation from stepping fully into gospel life again.
By Rev. Brian Heron
Denial (pretending the elephant isn’t in the room)
- “The lack of young families is not surprising. People tend to come back to church in their retirement years as they become more reflective about life.”
- “The Church goes through these cycles and always seems to bounce back.”
- “I don’t believe the statistics. I know some churches that are growing.”
Anger (blaming someone for letting the elephant into the room)
- “Young people just aren’t very responsible these days.”
- “We haven’t had very good pastors for quite some time.”
- “When did God take a back seat to soccer games and Sunday papers?”
- “I can’t believe the Presbytery hasn’t given us more resources.”
Bargaining (negotiating to get the elephant out of the room)
- “If we can get a young, good-looking pastor with a family we’ll start growing again.”
- “If we started doing more praise music like the mega-churches we would attract more people.”
- “If the pastor just visited more and preached better we would see pledges go up.”
Depression (realizing that the elephant is not going to move)
- “Things aren’t looking very good. We don’t know what to do.”
- “If things keep going like this we won’t be here in five years.”
- “I don’t know where the church went.”
Acceptance (setting a place at the table for the elephant)
- “We are going to remain faithful for as long as we are here.”
- “We may not survive, but we can at least leave a legacy in our community and in the presbytery.”
- “We need to rethink and re-imagine church.”
- “We need to pass the baton of our Christian mission to a new community of people.”
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades