After Tragedy or Abuse

The Work of the “After Pastor”

After the trauma of tragedy or abuse a congregation needs to heal. Simply “giving people time” will not make the hurt go away. Terious ministry needs to occur to resolve the grief and, in the case of abuse, restore trust. This is the work of the Interim Minister known as an “After Pastor”. The “After Pastor” comes to bring a calm, healing presence to guide the Congregation through the processes of Grieving and the hard work of seeking Repentance, Forgiveness and Reconciliation.

Grieving the Loss We experience grief whenever we lose someone or something significant to us. It matters little whether the loss was “accidental” ( a car accident on an icy road), “natural” (a sudden illness), or caused by someone's action (the willfully evil actions of an abuser or the business decisions which close the community's major employer by a far- corporation). Such griefs can haunt a church and undermine both ministry and mutual love. Here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Grief is a perception, not an emotion People who grieve can experience and express the full range of emotions because of their grief: sadness, anger, fear and even joy – sometimes at the same time. Nor does grief follow an orderly pattern as “experts” once thought. If we look at the emotions of a grieving person, the we may become very confused.

    Behind these various emotions stand one perception: “My life will never be the same.” Whether we have lost someone we love, a job we thought we would retire from, or the innocent joy we had before we were abused, our lives have a gap in them. In serious grief that gap can never be filled in. No one can truly replace that loved one. A dreamed-of future may never return. Abuse leaves us forever wary. Truly perceiving that gap in our lives is what we call grief. Only as we find a way to live without those people and things we have lost, can we resolve our grief completely.

  • Grief does not always heal itself It is true that over time most of us find ways to “move on” with our lives. At the same time, the more significant the grief, the harder it will be to move on. Some people and churches have been trapped in grief for decades. Sometimes the grief does not seem apparent or even that tragic, yet the consequences for ministry are large. (Though not serious enough for the work of an “After Pastor”, some churches have grieved the retirement of of a “Beloved Former Pastor” so deeply as to sabotage several succeeding pastors. It was out of this sad fact that Interim Ministry first arose.)

    When grief remains unresolved it can lead to many bad behaviors. A woman with whom I began a grief recovery group first approached me with this statement. “Pastor, for the last seven years I have been a pain in the [backside] of this church and I have only just figured out why: I have been grieving my husband.” Multiply her one example throughout a church reeling from Tragedy and/or Abuse. If such grief is allowed to persist, a very unhappy church will result.

  • Grief does not heal quickly The widows in my grief recovery group noted that everyone always wanted them to be “over it” in six weeks. They seemed tired of hearing the stories that the widows would tell. Or at least they did not invite the widows to be open about their griefs. This left them feeling isolated and alone. The same is true across a congregation after Tragedy or Abuse. “Everyone” wants us to “move on” with our lives and ministries. We all want quick, easy ways to find that new balance. In doing to we can even heap new sorrows on each other as we isolate those who don't heal according to our timetable. And we can often ignore our own grief, believing that “if we were truly trusting God” or “if we were just stronger people” we would be over this.
  • Grief can be shortened When we work on grieving we heal quicker and end up stronger afterwards. Two activities assist people to grieve: telling stories and re-visioning the future.

    Telling stories of what we have lost and how we have lost it makes that loss real. Often the same stories must be told over and over again. As someone has said, the stories must be told until they are just stories; until they no longer pack the emotional punch we feel when we begin grieving. As we tell the stories and the pain of the loss lessens, the joy of what we received in the past becomes more evident. God's goodness through a particular person or circumstance draws into sharper focus.

    We can assist this process as we, ourselves, tell our stories of grief, drawing out our own insights of joy. At the same time we must always understand that our experience is not their experience. We cannot press our discovery of joy on someone else or expect them to feel what we feel or grieve at the speed we grieve. We will do well to reflect grace of God that walks with us as we grow into the image of Jesus, no matter how slowly we grow.

    Re-visioning the future entails more than simply revising it. We have to find a way for the future to reflect a joy similar to the past. If we simply revise the future we may make our grief a permanent fixture. We may enshrine the joy we lost when our lives changed as either an inevitable casualty of life or even as a necessary homage to the past. When we re-vision the future, we provide for new ways to live to give us a new fulfillment.

    When my Grandfather died, my Grandma had no re-vision of her future. She decided to return to her past, to go back to the family homestead in West Virginia. My mother dissuaded her. “Don't make any decisions about your future for a year.”, she advised Grandma. In that year, Grandma re-visioned her future. At the age of 58 she returned to school, became a nurse, and worked as a nurse-receptionist for a private practice doctor's office until well past “retirement age”. In the process she acquired a second family, coming to babysit the doctor’s children and becoming a second grandma to the family. Imagine the joy she would have missed if she hadn’t re-visioned her future.

If you wish to learn more about comforting those who grieve, you might consider looking into LIFTTT.

After Abuse or Negligence

Abuse and negligence demand more than simply grieving. The heart of those offended cries out for justice in these cases and only by addressing that cry can we truly bring healing. However, justice without mercy, while viscerally satisfying, can leave us hard and angry. I believe that the first sermons of Jesus hold the key to full healing in a church:

“ The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near.
Repent and believe the good news!”

(Mark 1:15)

Seeking repentance from the offender Jesus calls us all to repent. As offenders large and small, we need to turn our lives around. In the case of Abusers, their victims can be helped toward healing by seeing their repentance. Repentance by an Abuser is not necessary for the Victims to be healed. It can help. And in his own preaching Jesus calls us to call others to repent.

As Christian counselors Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas have noted, there are Five Languages of Apology. We need to express all five in order to express full repentance from the wrongs we have done.

  • Accepting Responsibility “I was wrong.” (Luke 1:11-32) We cannot repent of things for which we are not responsible (or at least think we are not). When we accept responsibility – “response ability” – that we had the ability to respond differently, then we can accept that we had the ability to respond differently.
  • Expressing Regret “I am sorry.” (Luke 19:37-40) Showing (not just mouthing) true sorrow for our wrongs lets those we have harmed see that we actually do empathize with their pain.
  • Making Restitution “What can I do to make it right?” (Luke 19:37-40) Regret becomes most concrete when we seek to undo the harm done.
  • Genuinely Repenting “I'll try not to do that again.” (Luke 19:37-40) Once we accept fully that what we have done is wrong, it becomes evident that we can to do it again without causing the same wrong. If we truly regret our past wrong we want to insure us and others we won't do it again.
  • Requesting Forgiveness “Will you please forgive me?” (Luke 19:37-40) Once we show through all the former acts that we have indeed repented we have laid the foundation for others to forgive us and for us to ask them to forgive us. We can then ask them to forgive us and we need to accept that it may take them time to achieve full forgiveness.

So, how do we approach an offender, an Abuser, to repent? We need to put a LOCKE on them.

Forgiving the offender Jesus proclaimed the Good News that the Kingdom of God was near. God had come to liberate the world from wrath and vengeance. Now we could be forgiven… forgive. Some forgiveness comes easy. Forgiving an abuser takes time and effort. Forgiveness is a process.

Reconciling all together This is a Journey to Peace. As Repentance and Forgiveness progress reconciliation becomes possible. Without both no reconciliation can happen. Reconciliation occurs when those who repent and those who forgive can regain a “normal” relations.

Can this happen with an abuser? I suppose that this depends on two realities: the severity of the abuse and the healing grace of God. No person can demand reconciliation. By repentance, forgiveness and the grace of God progress can be made.