The church as a public companion in grief

A few months ago, a group hosted by Church Innovations, gathered in Yellowstone for a little fly fishing and theology. Well, a lot of fly fishing and some theology. In the evenings, we would turn our attention to the past two years and ask, “What if anything is God calling us to be or to do?” We learned a lot.

The big thing we learned is that we were angry. Very angry. And this surprised me. Of course we were disappointed and had suffered real losses and would be impacted by all of that. But we were more than sad or disappointed. We were angry. We were angry about George Floyd, we were angry about about Jan 6, we were angry about masks and vaccines. We were just plain angry. This struck me because I always thought of the other side as the angry ones. I wasn’t angry, they were angry. I was thoughtful and reasonable, not reactionary and ill-tempered. But here we all were, both sides on all of these issues, angry.

And while anger can be fuel for some short term gains, anger only serves to make the lines that divide us sharper and clearer. It deepens the “us and them.” And I think some of that work might be necessary, to make the stakes clear, but ultimately there’s no way forward around anger. 

But is also became clear to me that we were angry around what we’d lost, and that others were also angry about what they were experiencing as loss. And loss is the occasion for grief.

Grief is hard work. We’d rather try to win back what we’ve lost than grieve the loss. And we’re conditioned to deny death, to minimize our losses and pretend everything is ok. Grief makes us face reality, to name our pain and even admit things will never be again what they once were.

But grief also allows things that anger can’t. Anger puffs us up, makes us big, pretends to invulnerability. Grief brings us low and makes us vulnerable to others, and subsequently to a new future. Anger pits us against things or others, it divides us. Grief, in contrast, is a leveler. We’re all on the same side of loss, even if those losses are different or experienced differently. Grief marks our common humanity in a way that anger doesn’t or can’t. Anger and grief are obviously not mutually exclusive. Anger is a part of grief. But grief is larger than anger. And grief allows the possibility of vulnerability and mutual understanding in ways that anger doesn’t.

Through our discussions at Yellowstone, it also became obvious to me that we don’t grieve well publicly. There is no room in our shared political life to grieve, and fundraising in politics is dependent on keeping the base angry. Politicians have an incentive to stoke our sense of grievance. We do have people who can help us grieve our private losses, but we have little capacity for public grief. We lack spaces in which that work can occur.

And so we were wondering whether or not this might be something Church Innovations can help churches with. To discover as part of their missional vocation providing space for us to grieve collectively. I’m currently working with a church who is pursuing that very question,

Here’s the reason we need help. We’re not generally speaking good at this. We no how to praise, but not lament. We don’t provide much space for listening and storytelling. We lack some of the key capacities we would need to take up this work. For years, the church has imagined her work as supporting the private aspirations of members, and anything as public as grief for things like George Floyd or the Jan 6 assault on the capitol are deemed too controversial for church work. As a result we have little experience and have developed few practices or habits that would enable public grief.

But we can learn these practices and habits. The primary skill necessary for leaders is creating safe spaces in which persons can express their loss. Heifetz and Linski, in Leadership on the Line, refer to this as creating holding spaces which allow people to take up painful or conflicted work without flying apart. Holding spaces are created by things like naming our shared values, creating guidelines for discussion, strengthening “lateral bonds of affection,” to name just a few.

Church Innovations often hosts “timeline” events in which persons can post sticky notes to a congregational timeline that names members’ experience of joy, pain, and hope. This is “public” work in the sense that everyone’s experience is considered. But it is also anonymous work in that no one’s name is attached to a memory. “Narration events” like these help us express things, name our grief publicly in the presence of others, and give us a picture of where we are as a group.

I am convinced that during the pandemic too many lives have gone unobserved, making our losses largely unnoticed. I am also observing that many churches are rushing back to business as usual without marking the depth of congregational loss, without listening, and without asking the question anew, “What might God be calling us to do or to be?”

The truly difficult thing here will be the capacity of a congregation to hear all experiences of grief. Some churches are angry about their perceived loss of religious liberty, their sense of an America built on personal responsibility and not on systemic injustice. Others, clearly are angry about what they deem as systemic racial violence, or the lack of concern to take measures that would mitigate the impact of the pandemic. These are not neutral issues, things about which we can simply hold private opinions. And part of being a public companion will require that the church speak to matters of justice and Christian commitments within a shared public life. These are matters of legitimate conflict about which the church should not be neutral.

I am convinced, however, that churches can create spaces that allow for both assertion and dissent, spaces in which all voices are respected and heard. I am also convinced that within these spaces the goal of mutual understanding will narrow the gap between groups and will change persons more than yelling at each other will. And given the increasing polarization within our shared public life, the church may have no more public vocation than being companions in grief.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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1 Response to The church as a public companion in grief

  1. Patti says:

    Thank you very much, Mark, for calling us to communal grief work, to the healing & mobilizing power of lament.

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