Chronic Low-Grade Grief in Congregational Life

(NOTE – See next week’s article for descriptions of new expressions of congregations in our Postmodern context)

Typically our articles are positive pieces, pointing to potential next steps in this Christ-following journey. Sometimes though, there’s an elephant in the room who’s blocking our way forward. Elephants are too large to move around, so we must interact with them directly. Most elephants, you may or may not know, shrink or move when addressed directly.

As we go about consulting congregations and coaching clergy these days, there is a low-grade, on-going grief present among them. Most churches are not dying, yet most churches are experiencing undeniable losses which contribute to their emotional mix.

What kinds of losses are present in our congregations?

Loss of place in community
Not too many years ago, congregations of various denominations, were sociologically (and geographically) located in the center of their communities. Just observe the town square or main street in cities or towns to literally see their presence in the center of community. They were given respect and status as legitimate community organizations; seen as vital and necessary contributors to vibrant and healthy community life. This “place” in community is no longer the same. Though church buildings are still at the center of community life, the esteem given them is less. Now their sociological location is more peripheral.

Loss of status for clergy
We’ve rarely paid clergy much, yet they were given status and esteem in our culture. When one became the pastor of an established congregation in the community, one received a certain amount of community status simply afforded by one’s office. Offering the invocation at community event, given access to the local schools, and inclusion in local service organizations or clubs…these were the marks of clergy status. Were. The status of clergy in our culture has declined.

Loss of members or participants
There was a time when most churches were numerically growing. Now most churches, regardless of denomination, are numerically declining. The result is that the current members can remember many people who are no longer with them. Typically these members leave quietly, not wanting to upset anyone, just fading away. It takes a while to recognize they are gone, and then there is no closure activity to say goodbye. This dynamic feeds a chronic, on-going grief among those who remain.

Loss of a familiar way of church life
When I was a child, our family’s patterns revolved around our church life. Even though my father was a pastor, many other families shared this way of life. We were at church a lot, marking the seasons of the year and the large events of life with special services or events…with our church. Church life was so intertwined and interwoven with our family and personal lives that it was difficult to see them as separate. This dynamic contributed to strong connection and community with our fellow church members. Now, this way of life is so different. Those who grew up this way often carry this low-grade sense of loss related to church life. For them (us) it seems that something important is missing.

Loss of a working model
By now most of us realize that religious expression is so intertwined with one’s culture that they are practically inseparable. By now most of us realize too that our culture has changed so much that our religious expression from the past can no longer be sustained as it once was. New forms of religious expression are emerging in congregations, yet there is a lingering wistfulness about what was before. Without acknowledgment and grieving, this dynamic flows just below the conscious awareness of most congregations, leaving many with chronic, low-grade grief.

Yes, for many congregations, that big grief elephant is sitting right there in the room, not moving unless addressed appropriately. Perhaps it’s time for congregations to exercise courage, name the losses, and grieve a time and culture past. So let’s gather our loins (to use a very old expression), trust God, and address the chronic, low-grade grief. Then I’m betting that gentle giant will shrink or move, opening the way forward for our congregations.

Mark Tidsworth, President, PLA