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What happens when pastors grieve?

What happens when pastors grieve?

Conference News

It was a picture-perfect weekday morning recently in Tampa when Magrey deVega’s cell phone began to fill with text messages, fast and furious. News was spreading about an out-of-control driver striking and killing a man walking along Bayshore Boulevard in South Tampa.

It was a tragedy that horrified the community. It also was deeply personal for the pastor of Hyde Park United Methodist Church.

The victim, retired financial advisor George Gage, was both a parishioner and a friend. He had just been at the church hours earlier for his men’s Bible study.

“A kind, good man who was so loved at our church, and will be greatly missed,” deVega said. “It was devastating, heartbreaking news.”

Among those texts were words of encouragement and offers of help from members of his clergy covenant group, which deVega joined three years ago. They understood the gravity of comforting a shocked congregation while personally grieving a sudden and violent loss of a friend.

Magrey deVega, pastor of Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa

“You really can’t do this alone,” deVega said. “You need your own support system to get through the rough times. And it’s not just the sudden tragedies. You also need it for regular clergy maintenance. Even a safe place to share your joy.”

The group meets twice a year for weekend retreats, and annually at state conference. The rest of the time, they stay in touch via phone, email or personal meetups.

The pastor also has another secret weapon that keeps him centered and on track: Monthly visits to his therapist.

“All of us have issues we have to deal with or confront. There’s been too much of a stigma wrapped around mental health, and that has to stop,” deVega said. “It’s not a do-it-yourself fix. As ministers, we may be equipped to handle spiritual counseling. But I’m going to turn to a professional for this part of my life.”

In an ideal world, all clergy would be as prepared as deVega when tragedy or a crisis intersects at both a church and private level, said Dr. Trudy Rankin, a licensed psychotherapist, and spiritual director. But she acknowledges that’s usually not the case.

That’s where the Florida Conference’s Shade and Fresh Water Ministry steps in.

“We want to be a preventative measure, a reminder of the importance of clergy taking care of themselves,” said Rankin, a consultant for the ministry. “We’re not intended to put out fires, but rather to avoid the fires.”

Shade and Fresh Water was launched 20 years ago out of a conversation Rankin had with Melba Whitaker, wife of former conference bishop Timothy Whitaker, who had become alarmed by the health of clergy and their families.

With no initial funding and no model to follow, the two women developed a program that provided a “transformative sanctuary for the restoration of body, mind, and spirit toward more abundant living.” That includes personal and covenant group retreats, helping with change in new church appointments and finding spiritual directors for ministers. 

Self-awareness about maintaining good physical and mental health habits have come a long way since then, Rankin said.

“We were back in the dark ages back then,” she notes. “Now, clergy are much more enlightened about diet and exercise, and the importance of taking time off.  We’re still not where we should be, but we’ve come a long, long way.” 

Without a doubt, Rankin said, clergy members who have to suddenly confront a crisis will struggle with the stress even more if they aren’t sleeping or eating well, don’t have a covenant group, have high blood pressure or aren’t diligent in taking time off. 

And if they aren’t properly prepared, they could have “transference” issues, which is when a situation involving a congregant triggers a personal grief of their own that was never settled. 

“It’s like pulling a scab off a wound,” Rankin said. “If they haven’t dealt with their own pain, it could rise to the surface at a time when they are most vulnerable.”

Katie Sirmons, pastor at Crystal Lake United Methodist Church in Lakeland, recently navigated a tragedy that few clergy will ever face.

On Christmas Eve, shortly after the service, Sirmons learned that longtime church member and nursery worker Racheal Ramsey and her friend Christopher Pine were shot and killed by Leighton Josephs, the father of her two children. Josephs then turned the gun on himself.

The murder-suicide took place at Ramsey’s house, where her two young daughters, along with Pine’s young son and daughter, were home. All were under the age of 10.

Katie Sirmons, pastor at Crystal Lake United Methodist Church in Lakeland

The crime sparked an avalanche of emotions for Sirmons, a part-time pastor who was five months pregnant with twin girls.

It happened on a holiday that was supposed to be joyous. Her toddler son was often in Ramsey’s nursery class. Not only did she have to wrestle with personal grief, but Sirmons also had to comfort the close-knit congregation of about 80 members, which included Ramsey’s family.

Though she didn’t have a covenant group, she did have a network of fellow students in her chaplaincy program who reached out to her. And she got a big boost from the very people she is charged with serving: Her congregation.

“They were grateful for my leadership, but they also allowed me to grieve, too,” said Sirmons, who broke down in the pulpit at the vigil and cried. “They really understood I was going through the same pain. You can’t put your clergy on a pedestal, because we’re human as well.” 

Sirmons is on leave now dealing with the premature birth of her twins, who remain hospitalized in the neonatal intensive care unit. When she returns, she knows she will find a Crystal Lake UMC forever transformed.

Like her church members, she also knows the healing process will take a long time and that the deaths of Ramsey and Pine may never make sense.

“I believe something good will come out of this, but it’s not on our time. It’s on God’s time,” she said. “This experience has taught me to have complete trust in the Holy Spirit because this is something you can’t handle emotionally and spiritually on your own.”

She also made it clear to congregants that God did not have a hand in this tragedy, but “He certainly will be present for the healing.”

When and if the congregation is ready, the conference will offer a healing discussion for the members, said Dr. Candace Lewis, superintendent of the Gulf Central District. Clergy are encouraged to reach out to their district superintendents and the Shade and Fresh Water ministry at any time they feel overwhelmed.

“There are so many questions at a time like this. Like how to respond to the loss suffered by the family and the entire congregation. How do you handle communication with the media? How do you handle continuing pastoral care?” Lewis said. “We can offer support and resources to get them through the worst of times.

“Unfortunately, grief isn’t something you can just learn about through coursework in a seminary. It is probably best learned through on-the-job training.”

Retired pastor Jim Harnish, who served 42 years in four churches, can attest to that. He’s been in the pulpit numerous times, delivering words of comfort and Scripture when his heart ached as well.

He led Hyde Park UMC for more than two decades. He knew George Gage well and worked with him on church initiatives. 

Hearing about Gage’s tragic death brought back memories of the first time he preached at a close friend’s funeral, who died of cancer at age 39.

Harnish was there when the machine that kept his friend alive in his final days was turned off and had to steel himself to pray with the family. When he got out to his car in the parking lot, he pounded on the steering wheel and shouted out his pain. 

“Pastors get in trouble when they cover up their grief, pain, and anger. You have to release it,” he said. “If you hold on to it, it will do more damage in the long run. It’s not a sign of weakness. These are healthy emotions that are part of the human condition.” 

At the funeral, he had to create a separation between his feelings and the role he played in the worship service. Still, he said he could not look people directly in the eyes, “or I would have lost it.”

Instead, he relied on God’s grace to give him the strength he so sorely needed. That allowed him also to recollect the joy and happy memories associated with his friend, drawing some laughs amid the sadness.

Harnish also credits the longtime association with his clergy covenant group for giving him solace and support in times of both personal struggles and congregational challenges. They’ve been together 34 years and continue into retirement.

And like deVega, he’s a big proponent of seeking help from a professional therapist.

“Life isn’t a journey meant to take alone,” he said. “We have to depend on God’s help and human help to get through.”

--Michelle Bearden is a freelance writer in Tampa.

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