It’s been ten weeks now since I last sat in my church’s sanctuary. For more than two months, we’ve streamed Sunday worship online, emailed encouraging weekday devotionals, and texted prayer requests. Our church has worked hard to keep our community connected, but we all feel a similar longing: We can’t wait to be together in person.
While I am genuinely excited for the return to gathered worship and face-to-face interactions at church, I am anxious, too. I know all too well how complicated a return to church can be. Like the thousands of churchgoers who will trickle back as sanctuary doors reopen, our family has endured the complicated task of returning to church with a new, unwelcome visitor named grief.
After my husband’s unexpected death, my children and I found, to our deep disappointment, that the familiar rhythms of our former life now felt strange. School and relationships—even with family and close friends—became awkward and unwieldy. And worst of all, church attendance and ministry, a core family commitment and mainstay of our week, grew sporadic and painful.
Though I had spent almost 20 years in lay ministry, our local congregation felt like the one place to which it was impossible to return. Death had deeply changed that dimension of our life. Our family was in danger of a regression, in the words of Miriam Neff, “from the front row of the church to the back, and then out the door ... from serving and singing in choir to solitude and silent sobbing.”
Many grieving people find church one of the hardest places to return to after loss. Some find uplifting worship services jarring in the face of their grief. Some feel uncomfortable circulating in large groups. Others discover their congregation ill-equipped to support their deep, ongoing needs of care. Changed forever by death, all struggle to navigate where they fit in a community that once knew them as someone else.
In the coming weeks and months, our churches will be met with a flood of grief, a unique and painful byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic. Grief ministry will become more important than ever before. While many churches have individual care ministries, the reopening of sanctuary doors will require a more comprehensive approach to grief care in congregations to meet the real, felt needs of those who are now bereaved or anxious about death and dying. Consider these five practical ways your church can prepare to care for those who will bring grief to church:
1. Integrate Lament in Worship
During quarantine, many churches have integrated lament beautifully into worship. This does not need to end when church doors open. We must continue to lament in worship, through song, Scripture, and testimony. Faith persists amid sorrow.
Lament offers space for those grieving to bring their sorrows before the God who hears our cries and binds up our wounds. Lament in corporate worship also reminds the larger body that there are those among us we must carry gently, who need our comfort and care. We remind the bereaved they are not forgotten; their tears matter to God and to us.
2. Develop Remembrance Rituals
Remembering a lost loved one is one of the simplest but most profound acts of care a congregation can offer. Make remembrance rituals part of the church culture and calendar.
Few churches keep graveyards on their property anymore, but this need not stop congregations from remembering the names of those who are now members of the church triumphant. Years ago, our family’s church in the Chicago suburbs hung a plaque at the back of the sanctuary where names of deceased members were engraved. Once a year, the names were read aloud in a service of remembrance. Special remembrance services for each season, listing names in the bulletin for six months after a death, or placing roses on the altar on anniversaries of death are all ways to corporately remember the body’s losses.
3. Train Ministry Leaders to Be Grief-Aware
When I served as director of children’s ministries for a church plant outside of Seattle, I always marveled at the thoughts and feelings children relayed during worship. Unlike adults who tend to filter intimate or personal conversation, children and youth often readily talk about the things that weigh on their hearts. As your church resumes ministry, prepare your leaders to be grief-sensitive and grief-aware. There are going to be adults and children who need to talk. Lay leaders need a basic understanding of grief and the anxiety that accompanies death and dying. Equip them to answer questions, provide comfort, and listen compassionately.
Grief is long-lasting, nonlinear, and not something to be fixed. It is the natural outflow of losing someone we love. Consider resources like Philip Kenyon’s excellent tips on caring for the bereaved, Neff’s guide for caring for widows or psychologist Sarah Rainer’s advice on navigating trauma and grief. Point children’s ministry leaders to nationally recognized children’s bereavement resources like those from The Dougy Center. Encourage ministry leaders to be quick to listen and slow to speak.
Bereavement is not a problem to fix, but an experience in which leaders can be companions. Once ministry leaders understand that a companion in grief need only be present in love, it can alleviate feelings of inadequacy.
4. Prepare to Offer Practical Care
For the bereaved, the isolation of grief will linger even after quarantine is over. Offering tangible care will provide comfort when those who grieve feel most alone, when it feels as though everyone else has moved on.
Add volunteers to the meals ministry, prayer shawl ministry, handyman’s ministry. Research a GriefShare or Stephen Ministries program in anticipation of providing long-term emotional support. Plan how you will assist families who have had to delay funerals and memorial services because of COVID-19. When doors reopen, your practical care for the bereaved is just beginning.
5. Consider Death
With the news of the pandemic filling our ears, we’ve heard enough talk of death to last a lifetime. After churches reopen, the last thing we’ll want to hear about is more. But for those who grieve, death will continue to play a central role. Coronavirus has called forth an acknowledgment of our own mortality. The church has a gospel for this.
As your church resumes regular programming, consider hosting a Sunday school class about grief or end-of-life issues. We’ve watched Christians wrestle with ethical questions amid coronavirus concerns; let these discussions prompt your church to ask these important questions in small groups and Bible studies. Offer a special workshop in partnership with your local hospice organization to help church members understand the grief process. Lead your congregation in thinking about what it means to die well.
Bringing Grief to Church
Making space for mourning will make our churches radically alternative cultures—places where bereaved will find deep understanding, empathy, and belonging, even beyond COVID-19. When grief ministry becomes core to our church’s mission, nursery workers will also know what to say to the mother who has miscarried and is grieving that her infant won’t be on the fall roster. The meals ministry will know how to care for the bereaved husband who’s lost his appetite. The church softball team will understand the difficulty of arranging childcare for a dad who now has to raise two young children alone. And in worship, the widow won’t be the only one who weeps.
A few months after my husband’s death, I slipped into the back row of a Sunday school class on Christian views of the body and soul. I’d only sporadically attended since his death; sitting in Sunday school with an empty seat beside me was just too hard. Unbeknownst to me, the topic that day was death and dying. For the next hour, I sat in my seat with a lump in my throat, my hands clasped in my lap to keep them from shaking.
After class, the teacher—a friend and professor at our local seminary—approached me. “I’m sorry. I should have warned you,” she apologized. Tears filled my eyes. I told her, no, the class had been exactly what I had needed. In church, where I often felt like I no longer fit in, I had found renewed life among those unafraid to talk about dying.
Clarissa Moll (MA, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is the young widow of author Rob Moll and the mother of their four children. After a career in fundraising and marketing for small nonprofits, she now supports those in grief through her writing. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.