How To Deal With The Unexpected Loss Of Your Pastor

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During my early years of my ministry, I had the privilege to serve at a large, thriving and growing church in the Southeast. The church was experiencing a season where ministry was fun and exciting and we were seeing God do some amazing life transformation in the church. During the height of seeing God work, we unexpectantly suffered the loss of two beloved pastors within a few months of each other. It was devastating to the church and to the local community we served. 

Now, I have the privilege of working with Vanderbloemen Search Group and serving churches during all seasons of transition. We are often called upon to help a church navigate the season of the loss of their pastor.

So what should you do if your church finds itself in a season of loss?

In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced the “five stages of grief” that she noticed while dealing with terminally-ill patients. Here are the ‘five stages’ that she recorded:

  1. Denial – “This can’t be happening to me.”
  2. Anger – “Why is this happening to me? Who is to blame?”
  3. Bargaining – “Make this not happen, and in return I will ______.”
  4. Depression – “I’m too sad to do anything.”
  5. Acceptance – “I’m at peace with what has happened.”

Although people in your church will grieve in different ways, people will often experience some of the same emotions that are mentioned in the “five stages of grief.” As we move through the season of loss, it will be helpful for the church family to allow space for the following steps to occur. These should help the church family to cope and deal with the stages of healing.

1. Grieve

While there is no one way for people to grieve, grieving for the loss of a pastor will help the congregation to take steps to cope and heal. Although there is no specific timeline for grief, the healing process cannot move forward without intentional time for the church to express their grief in some way.

Usually, a pastor is a person who has had a major impact in the life of the church and in the lives of a lot of people in the community. Sometimes a pastor in a smaller church may have been the person that has led them to Christ, baptized family, performed marriages, been at the birth of children, and even sometimes performed the funeral services of loved ones.

The church needs to recognize the loss of a pastor and allow space and time for grieving.Tweet: The church needs to recognize the loss of a pastor and allow space and time for grieving. via @VanderbloemenSG

Remember that people will grieve in different ways, so it is important to allow people to share their feelings and express what their pastor meant to them. Without a doubt, grieving is a painful process but it is essential to let grief run its course as the church begins its healing process.

2. Trust

Trust that God has a plan. I am grateful that God reminds us in scripture that Jesus is the Head of the church. During the time of loss, we can rest assured that God has not left or abandoned the church during this very difficult season. The pastor who taught you the Truths about God and the promises He has for us during times of testing are now living in the Presence of the One we can ultimately trust. Our God will walk you through this very difficult time in the life of the church.

3. Celebrate

It is vital that a church take the time to reflect on all that God has done in the past through the life of their pastor. Take the time as a church to celebrate the legacy that the pastor is leaving behind.

For example, a church that recently suffered the loss of their pastor planned a time for people to gather and share the special memories and stories that they had experienced during the time they had with their pastor. It was a special time of laughter, tears, and even encouragement to the pastor’s wife and children. Remember, take the time to celebrate the past, but also take some time to celebrate what God is going to do in the future, when appropriate.

4. Be in community

We are created for relationships and it is very important not to walk this part of your journey without other people. The stress that will come with the loss of a pastor will have a toll on the congregation emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Community allows you to walk together even through the unexpected struggles and difficulties that come in life. Community allows the congregation to bear each other's burdens, hold each other accountable, and spend time praying together for the future. 

5. Step up

When a church loses it’s pastor, the church is set for a time of growth. There will be opportunities for people to step up and fill in some of the gaps that will be left behind during the loss of the pastor. Work through the tensions of change and step into spaces that will be left open during the time of a loss.

6. Go forward

Moving forward doesn’t mean forgetting about your former pastor. It means moving forward into the new future God has in store for you and for your church. Even though this may be one of the most difficult times within your church family, it will also be a time to see God work and a time for your church to grow closer to God as well as each other. It may be very difficult to envision but truly God may be preparing you for some of your best days yet! 

The loss of a pastor is a very challenging experience for all of those involved. It is important to remember that it will be possible as a church family to move forward in the hope of a new and promised future.

Have you been involved in a situation like this in the past? How did you encourage your team in the midst of unexpected loss?