Thursday, May 15, 2008

Congregational mourning

Recently, a teen in our youth group passed away. It's been incredibly difficult for the church and youth to cope with the loss, but that's not what I'm blogging about. I try not to blog about stuff that's too personal or too specific to my church, because (1) I don't want to bore you with my private life, (2) I don't want to compromise the privacy of my church or it's members, and (3) I don't want to post anything in the midst of an emotional situation that I may regret later. However, I mentioned it because it does relate to what I am posting about, and because it's so huge to me right now that I just didn't want to leave it unmentioned. Mostly the latter. I don't want to blog about it, but I would appreciate your prayers.

What I am posting about is that I've realized that we're lucky that the grieving process is relatively well laid-out in our culture. You hold a viewing and funeral, you visit with and bring food to the family, you donate money to help with unexpected expenses, you talk to each other and to pastors and teachers and group leaders and counselors about your memories and your feelings, and you create memorials - tombstones, scrapbooks, journal entries, photo collages.

I realized this yesterday when I was at our local ministerial association meeting. One of the pastors there had just taken a position as the interim pastor at a church that has recently lost about half of its congregation to a church split. What got me thinking was when he said that when a church goes through a loss like that, often there's an experience of mourning. That made sense, but what I realized was that I don't have the first idea of how a congregation could effectively mourn the loss of people who are still alive.

Holding special services to "celebrate" the time you had with the absent people would be absurd in our culture. So would holding meetings to share our memories about the way things were before they left. So would establishing any kind of monument to the people and the effect they had on a church while they were there. To focus any attention on the time before the loss would seem to us to be dwelling unwisely on the past rather than looking constructively to the future.

It seems like the only kind of "mourning" that we accept in that kind of situation is expressions of anger. Often we villainize the people who left, and talk about what terrible things they did and/or how glad we are to be rid of them. Sometimes we bolster our self-esteem by declaring that we are the faithful ones, and we will carry on regardless of who betrays us or abandons the cause. The leavers may truly be villains in some cases, but surely a healthy response to church loss should involve more than just anger and/or gratitude that they left. How do we acknowledge the good things they did while they were here? How do we acknowledge the good times and good relationships that were had, and the goodnes (whatever there was) in the people we've lost? It seems that if it's worth doing in the case of a death, it should be worth doing in the case of a split. Even in the case of someone who chose to die, we look for the good in that person. Shouldn't we do something similar in the case of one who chose to leave? But what could be done that wouldn't seem absurd?

So I really have no answers for this one. But I hope that someday we figure it out and find a good path for churches to walk when they need to acknowledge the grief of a church split or group exit.

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