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When You Lose A Confidant:
Working Through The Grief

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 52

Confidants. Without them, leaders cannot function to their full potential. Like everything else in our lives and ministry, these valued and irreplaceable relationships are subject to change.
 
Lyle Schaller was right. The church is like a parade which, though continuously moving down the parade route toward its destination, is characterized by a constant flow of people joining and leaving the parade. It is precisely this "parade-like" character of the church which is one of the most grief-wrenching parts of pastoral ministry.
Certainly every pastor can recall ministry relationships which played a critical role in ministry. Such relationships, whether with staff persons, trusted laity, other clergy, mentors, or others significant people, have a way of imbedding themselves in our lives in an almost unforgettable way.
 
Grieving Those Key People
 
As difficult as the grief of losing such trusted leaders is—whether by death, out-of-town transfer, or by our own moving to a new congregation—perhaps there is even greater grief when such trusted confidants so essential to our ministry suddenly reject us. Such rejection may be due, among other things, to distrust, unfounded rumors, strong differences of opinion on key issues, the fallout of church conflict, or personal issues beyond our control (e.g. ACOA/ACDF dynamics).
 
Whatever the reasons, such rejection and resulting losses may hit pastors hard—very hard—especially when the rejection appeared to be caused by reactions to things beyond our control. Pastoral mistakes and misjudgments, the confidant getting caught in a political maelstrom, an episode of mental illness by either pastor or confidant, uncontrolled rage, or a whole host of other things may suddenly cause the confidant to reject or forsake the pastor. The result is the painful experience of what one pastor--in tears--called, "the loss of my arms and legs."
 
Indeed, the loss of a confidant for whatever reasons is, short of a miracle, an irreplaceable and excruciatingly painful loss. As if the grief is not difficult enough, we often add our own "baggage" of perspectives and problems to add to the grief.
 

Five Problems Of Grief

Problem One: Our Expectations
 
Part of the problem of dealing with the grief is our expectations. Though relationships come and go, when we’re enjoying the support, camaraderie and friendship of a confidant, we expect those relationships which are an essential part of the ministry leadership team to build, grow and nurture the church and to edify each other "forever."
 
Unfortunately, there are no human relationships which last forever. Even marriage is not "forever." The marital covenant, from the outset, recognizes that even the marital relationship is subject to change. "Till death do us part" is the key recognition that someday the relationship will painful end. The temporary aspect of the marital relationship is also demonstrated by the rising tide of clergy divorces.
 
If the most permanent of human institutions, marriage, is subject to change and loss, it goes to say that other relationships will be even more vulnerable to transition. Truly the only eternal relationship which we, as Christians have, is our eternal relationship with God.
Problem Two: The Suddenness
 
Death, transfer, job change, attitude shifts, or betrayal can change these relationships with a frightening suddenness. As a church’s direction changes toward growth or decline, leadership obsolescence—a phenomena in which leaders effective in one phase of ministry are unable, unwilling, or ungifted to lead in another phase of ministry--can also cause sudden breakdown between the pastor and the "old guard."
 
Sometimes the shift in these relationship is so lightning-quick, it can put unparalleled pressure on a pastor’s personal coping mechanisms. When such lightning-quick changes are compounded by the loss of a multiple of key relationships in a relatively short period of time, personal coping mechanisms will likely weaken.
Problem Three: Coping Mechanism Failure
 
The level of grief over these losses may reach such a point as to bring on the virtual failure of those coping mechanisms, tragically resulting in various manifestations of mental illness—depression, obsessive and compulsive thoughts, addictions, etc. For this reason pastors need to direct their energies toward self-differentiation and nurture the five types of coping relationships as effectively as possible on a regular basis.
Problem Four: Overlooking/Ignoring The Signals
 
Though the breakdown of close ministry relationships may appear to be sudden, often they are not. More often than not, like the stormy patterns of the weather, before a relationship breaks totally apart there are signals of the weakening of the relationship.
 
Some general signals that may indicate the potential sudden shift in a relationship are that the person is from a dysfunctional family (they might "scare" easily), has had "falling outs" with other pastors, has a general disdain and distrust for other professionals (e.g. physicians, civil authorities, et al.), or has no "friends."
 
One or more of the following signals may also apply. This list is not exhaustive.
  1. Change in energy levels or the direction of energies away from the pastor;
  2. A significant ministry shift or the beginning of a new "chapter" of ministry;
  3. A significant change of personal circumstances of the confidant (e.g. new position or job, divorce, grandchildren, illness, spiritual crisis, etc.);
  4. Sudden resignations, usually attributed to reasons other than the real reason(s) (e.g. "I’m just tired…" "It’s time for someone else…" "I don’t feel effective anymore…" etc.);
  5. Unwillingness to commit as before (e.g. being too "busy");
  6. Incremental demonstrations of discontent;
  7. Repetitive and un-reconciled low-level disagreements;
  8. An unwillingness to be confronted or, when confronted, gives "cheap" forgiveness without really dealing with the issues;
  9. Irreconcilable differences;
  10. Withdrawal or distancing from the pastor;
  11. A significant change in the frequency of regular contacts, i.e. You find yourself having to make all the initiatives to contact the individual;
  12. Boredom and/or emotional distance;
  13. A less "jovial" atmosphere characterizes the relationship;
  14. Seeking greater credit or recognition for their efforts than before in response to their feeling "unappreciated;"
  15. A "passive-aggressive" attack on the pastor’s credibility or motives;
  16. A distancing from the pastor’s "allies" or working to distance other "allies" from the pastor;
  17. An increase in the level of discomfort when they are around. Such discomfort may be marked by a retractile reaction to things you or they have said. Some retractile responses may include shyness (or fear), a change in eye contact, or other physical changes (e.g. changed skin color, mannerisms, etc.); and, among other reasons,
  18. A general intuitive sense or "gut feeling" that something’s changed.
Problem Five: Overlooking The Real Purpose of These Relationships
Certainly there are many reasons God gives us these close relationships. Though we think they’re for support, safety, security, exchanging appropriate confidences, et al, the real reason for relationships in our lives—whether ministry related or personal—is for our personal development and for the development of our congregations.
Consciously or unconsciously, our attachments to various individuals occur in our lives at the times they do with the intensity and depth we experience because of the mutual developmental needs. It is when one party senses these developmental needs are met that the relationship may start to die. The relationship has gone through a life-cycle. A developmental cycle has been completed.
All relationships—whether personal or ministry-related—exist for only as long as God desires that these mutual developmental needs be met through these relationships. When the relationships have realized everything that God had intended, the relationship and accompanying attachments die.
The next developmental stage will incorporate new people and address different developmental needs. The next stage will bring joy; but it, too, will have a life cycle. Someday it, too, will die, just as everything else in this world.

The Emotional Process of Parting

Perhaps the most helpful book describing the emotional process of parting is the book, Coming Apart: Why Relationships End and How To Live Through The Ending Of Yours by Daphne Rose Kingma. (Fawcett Books). Though primarily directed to divorced persons experiencing grief, the applications certainly also apply to grief related to the loss of key ministry relationships.
  1. "I Can’t Believe This Is Happening To Me": an unbelievable, astonishing response of denial to the reality that whatever was good and beneficial about this relationship to the pastor personally and to the church is gone.
  2. "You Can’t Do This To Me!": When critical ministry relationships are suddenly pulled out from under us or turned against us, a wide variety of emotions may occur. Some may turn to anger or denial; others may find themselves unable to maintain normal "lifestyle" patterns such as eating, sleeping, etc. "You can’t do this to me" evokes a wide variety of emotions. But the most important lesson of this message is that the relationship doesn’t exist anymore; it’s only a one-person fantasy that a relationship exists.
  3. "I’ll Do Anything, Just Say It Isn’t So!": Marked, as other stages, by tears, this emotional stage is an expression of panic. The fantasy is that "if I just caved in or changed or wouldn’t have done…., everything would be back the way it way." The reality is that once a relationship has gotten to this point, there’s virtually no hope to bring the relationship back. Even reconciliation efforts will likely only bring about an uneasy sense of peace.
  4. "I Just Can’t Stop Crying": The unstoppable tears are an indication that you are becoming conscious of a great loss. The loss, as Kimka noted, is not just the loss of a person and a relationship, but a history, a way of being, a way of talking and relating, a sense of identity, an expectation of the future, and at the most basic level, a definition of yourself.

    The crying can be incessant. Unless indicative of mental illness, the crying is good. If there’s still pain, you’re not over it yet. Let the tears flow. The tears will facilitate the grief. Though certainly not a means of grace, the tears will open the remotest and most fragile parts of your innermost being to God. The tears are not simply important; they are essential. Not only are they the body’s way of telling us that the relationship is over; they're also the God-given mechanism to help us work through the grief.
  5. "It Really IS Over": When you finally realize that no level of bargaining or soul-selling will get the relationship back, the tears of grief become the painful recognition that you now know there is no turning back, no rescue, no return. The last hope for the relationship is dead.
  6. The Most Dangerous Stage: "It’s All My Fault!" Having recognized the reality that the relationship is dead, one typical response is to unfairly blame ourselves for the end of the relationship. This is the most dangerous stage because it’s an easy stage to get stuck in. If we get stuck at it, we will end up blaming everything on ourselves, our personality, our lack of abilities, our stupidity.
Deal With The Guilt
 
Certainly, there may be things we have done wrong and should feel guilty about. But such things do not indicate a necessary character flaw or character disorder. Unfortunately, many pastors may get stuck in self-pity at this stage. For some, they just can’t let go of the guilt…or, from their perspective, the guilt will not let go of them.
 
When the assurance of forgiveness is not enough, when grace seems shallow, and when one can’t shake off the obsessive guilt, one must seek professional assistance immediately. The great healing comes by effectively and efficiently working through this stage.
 
To work through this rage, distinguish the "real" guilt from the false guilt. Identify the real guilt, own it, give it to God, and let Him release it. Then, let Him take you to greater healing, acceptance, growth, and insight as He provides other significant supportive relationships for your ministry.
Some Suggestions
 
In addition to seeking professional guidance and support during those very difficult ministry experiences such as losing a trusted confidant or significant ministry leadership support—especially when you can’t let go—the following suggestions may also be helpful.
  1. Don’t blow up in anger at the person. Certainly you will be angry. However, the more distant one is from the pastor, the more they will judge you from your professional posture as "The Pastor" than from your personal pastoral humanness.
  2. When the break is sudden, try to approach the person for reconciliation. But remember, Matthew 18 doesn’t tell us how to handle every situation. Some people will resist efforts to reconcile…even when both parties know that the relationship is over. Of course, always seek a confidential, neutral place if possible.
  3. As far as possible, avoid writing letters to them. Letters will always come back to haunt you. However, if all else fails, a short letter with just one paragraphs simply stating that you'd like to meet with them--without blaming, showing emotion, or going into any specifics of the situation at all--may be your last resort. This letter is not a "dump on them" letter. Nor is it a letter for the release of your emotions (cf. below).

    If they do not respond at all, either 1) the timing isn't right, 2) the relationship is over, 3) there's something else operative that you are not aware of, 4) there may be some "secret" issues in that person's life (e.g. ACOA, etc.), 5) they may be scared, or 6) there may be some other reason that you may never discover (cf. Number 5 below).
  4. Find an opportunity to meet with the individual. When you have the opportunity to meet/confront the individual, don’t blame! . When speaking, use a gentler tone of voice using "I feel…" messages as opposed to "You dirty scumbug! How could you…!" bursts of anger. Be direct, be humble, but do so with as much gentle patience as you can muster. Be sure to offer a listening ear...even if they won't listen.
  5. Recognize that some people will "play possum" and will not want to discuss the issue. Whether due to disinterest, fear of conflict, insecurity in confrontation, or other causes, some people will not give you access to them. Though this may evoke dramatic anger and hostility, direct it elsewhere. In such cases, remember that the problem may not be all you; they may have significant personal issues which hinder them from dealing with any relationships at this level of interaction.
  6. Remember the reason the confidant's leaving hurts you so much is because that person meant so much to you and your ministry. They probably did many good things for you and the ministry. They made a positive difference. They helped you develop, learn and grow.

    As painful as their leaving might be, they may be unable and/or unwilling to work with you to the next level of development. At these times perhaps we can identify with Abram who, when God called him in Genesis 12:1 ff, had to leave his past behind and let God lead him to somewhere—out there—a place called the Promised Land.
  7. In cases where reconciliation is needed, seek out effective reconciliation tools. The Lombard Mennonite Peace Center (LMPC) has several good reconciliation models. Contact the LMPC for more information. Better yet, attend their weeklong Mediation Skills Training Workshop.
  8. Pray. When the relationship is truly over, sometimes the only option left is the hardest option: praying that God remove the person from your life until you--and they--get over the grief. Place this prayer into His will and trust that He will guide you as He desires. After all, if the relationship can be reconciled, only God can make it happen. And if the relationship is truly dead, only God can--and will--raise up another confidant for your ministry. Though it's hard even for ministers to let go, do it. Let go and and let God take over. Give the situation to Him with the fullest commitment of submission, trust, faith and confidence you can give.
  9. Be patient. Though the relationship is dead, God may give "surprise" opportunities to share important information with the former confidant that may not only give you relief, but give what you felt was essential information. Patience will also pay off in dividends as it gives the relationship time to normalize at it's new level.
Release The Grief:
A Powerful Tool
 
A very powerful suggestion to help overcome the grief is to write confidential letters—not to them—but to yourself. Daphne Kimka in her book, Coming Apart, suggested a series of letters for grief. Consider doing the same according to the following exercises adapted from Coming Apart
 
Warning: Do not--under any circumstances--mail any of these letters. They are intended only for you, for your healing and your growth. 
Letter One:
 
Write yourself a letter which lets you re-feel and re-live the relationship from beginning to end. Write the entire story, the good and bad, the challenges and successes, the fun times and difficult moments, the expectations and accomplishments, etc.
 
In this letter also include those things which hinted that the relationship might end. These "Clues of Failure" may have been words, an action (or series of actions), or an initially unnoticed and unrecognized "feeling" of something "strange." Write about it and reflect on it and how you recognized those clues.
Letter Two:
 
Write a second letter which tells the "real" story. Write down where you were at the beginning of the relationship—your strengths, weaknesses, wants, needs, aspirations, and the areas in which you needed development (i.e. "developmental tasks").
 
Identify, in this letter, any emotional needs the individual helped fulfill (some of these may be related to childhood needs). Record what "gifts" you gave to that person…and what they gave to you. Then state how the "Clue of Failure" ultimately manifested itself and signaled the end of the relationship.
 
Last, but not least, give the story a name as if it were a movie, soap-opera or novel. An example might be, "Who Was That Masked Man?" "When The Church World Stopped Turning," etc.
 
Letter Three:
 
Write a third letter to deal with the painful feelings. This should include the "moment of realization" at which the relationship snapped and a complete "sour grapes" inventory of why the relationship wouldn’t have worked anyway.
 
For venting extreme anger, a "poison pen" letter may be the only way to finally realize the depth and reality of your hurt. Sometimes, in spite of our Christian faith, the pain is so great, so deep, that we just can’t really forgive unless we actually admit—in writing—the depth of our grief.
 
Finally, describe in this letter all the feelings of failure you experienced as well as the failures you committed in the relationship. Don’t be defensive. After all, no one else is going to see this letter. More importantly, the grief will probably not let go until you release the denial and admit your failures.
Letter Four:
 
Write a letter of confession. Express the depth of your sorrow and begin to experience—in yet another way—the spiritual renewal and healing which only comes through Christian confession and absolution.
 
After recording your full confession, write a letter to God asking for His forgiveness of everything—that is, everything—that may have happened during and after the termination of the relationship. Tell yourself how stupid, short-sighted, selfish, etc. you were. Go ahead…admit it…to yourself and God!
 
Next, search the Scriptures to find what God said about forgiveness. Then take these scriptures and write what God might say to you to give and re-assure you of His total, unconditional forgiveness. In this part of the letter, let God be God—in His fullest, most loving, fatherly forgiving way.
 
Finally, let yourself know in no uncertain terms that you forgive yourself as God does. Take time to read and study various Scriptures dealing with God's gracious and total forgiveness. Then include some of these key Scriptures dealing with forgiveness in your letter just to re-affirm to yourself that God is "faithful and just" and will cleanse us from all iniquity (I John 1:8-10).
 
Letter Five:
 
Write a thank you letter to the person for the help, support and gifts they gave you. Recognize how they were essential, critical and helpful in your ministry and to you. Share how you will always treasure those gifts and carry them with you as part of your spiritual, personal, and ministry development.
 
An important thing to do in this letter is to redefine the person in your mind. If they were a confidant, redefine them as a "consultant." If they helped through a crisis as a friend, redefine them as a "fireman" who put out the fire and then went back to the firehouse. In this portion of the exercise you will also have to redefine yourself in terms of a purely professional pastor with re-established and tightened relational boundaries.
 
Conclude this letter with a recognition and statement of how their support, gifts and friendship has led to new ministry opportunities, directions and recognition of growth areas for your ministry.
God Will Heal
 
Time heals, experience heals better, but ultimately only God can heal the hurt, ease the pain and turn off the tears. As the grief concludes, other grief experiences such as searching behaviors, dreams, tears. etc. will also gradually subside.
 
During this time of grief, reflect and meditate on God's plan and possibilities for your ministry. Get back to old habits, visit a few old friends, make new friends, get back into some of those old habits, get into some new ones, strike up different ministry interests.
 
Whatever you do to get over the loss, the most important thing is to let God do the healing…in His time. Grief is a difficult transition. It is hard work. As the loss of critical ministry support signals the closing of one chapter in your life and ministry, the loss also signals—for better or for worse—the beginning a new chapter of ministry.
 
Work through the grief and, as you do, let God work powerfully to strengthen you in this period of great weakness. He is faithful; He will do it!
 
Thomas F. Fischer

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:03:58 PM