I’ve seen and heard signs of it so many times lately. Pastors share it with me when they lament that worship attendance and participation in other ministries still lags behind what it was pre-COVID. Friends and colleagues talk about their exhaustion and growing feelings of futility. And members of closing churches express it openly, with tearful regret, as they make the painful decision to conclude their ministries after decades and more of service.
It’s grief that I’m noticing, acute loss that many of us are feeling.
Some of it’s related to the pandemic, the impacts of that long season of isolation and unexpected change that linger with us. Some of it is our nation’s turmoil, the troubling violence and deepening divisions showing up in our communities, in our politics, and in our news. And some of it’s about what we’re experiencing as the Church, the vastly changing landscape of church that leaves us worried and wondering what the future holds.
Over 40 years ago, a leading family therapist at the University of Minnesota named Dr. Pauline Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss.” It was originally applied to individual and family situations where the loss of a loved one can’t be verified, or where there’s no closure, no certainty that the loved one will come back or return to the way they used to be. Examples of such situations are kidnappings, natural disasters, war, or immigration.
More recently, “ambiguous loss” has been increasingly used to describe what we’ve all experienced during the pandemic and amid other social realities. An article published by the Cleveland Clinic a few months ago stated:
“If you wish things could go back to the way they used to be before the pandemic, you’re not alone. ‘Humans crave consistency and predictability, so when things are unpredictable, such as the pandemic, we often feel anxious, depressed and isolated,’ [psychologist] Dr. Prewitt says. None of us got any closure on our old way of life before the pandemic forced us to transition into a stressful new one…It’s understandable to experience grief for everything we’ve lost.
It’s not just the pandemic, either. Researchers are also looking into how social and political conditions – like climate grief and the trauma of racial injustice – can lead to feelings of ambiguous loss, too.”
“Ambiguous loss” also has relevance for how many of us are experiencing the state of the Church these days. Many grieve the loss of the church the way it used to be, a time when we remember fewer worries about its sheer survival. We feel in the pit of our stomachs the deep uncertainty about the future of our congregations now. We know that what we’re doing often isn’t working for us anymore, but it’s not clear what the next best steps might be. We’re navigating this liminal, in-between space between what was and what will newly be, but it’s an uncomfortable space to be in. We feel overwhelmed, anxious, and lonely, and sometimes we lash out at each other as a result.
We are living in a time of profound and disruptive change in our world and in our churches, and it is often painful. I don’t have any magic solutions for how to address this ambiguous loss we’re experiencing in our beloved churches. I do know it’s important to name it for what it is, free of shame: we are grieving.
One more thing I know for certain: God is with us in our grieving.
Our faith narrative reminds us in countless ways that it is true. God has never forsaken God’s people, even when they thought God was absent. In times of famine and exile, in periods of desperate uncertainty and deep loss, God has always accompanied God’s people. God has a way of making a way out of no way, of transforming our scarcity into abundance, of wrestling hope from despair.
The Psalmist says that “the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18). May we trust in that promise while acknowledging the griefs we carry. And may God draw near to wipe every tear from our eyes and lend balm to every anxious heart.
With you on the journey,
Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister