Growing Your Leadership Through Grief and Loss

Loss is an unwelcome, inevitable, and disorienting part of ministry. While we regularly accompany others through times of sorrow, at some point we will face our own leadership losses. A congregant abruptly moves away, giving unexpectedly declines, a staff member betrays our trust — these disruptions to our ministry hopes can bring profound grief as we mourn the loss of our plans and our sense of control. 

And yet, in this vulnerable, painful place God does some of his best work to align our character with His. If we are willing to open ourselves to God in our grief, there is growth on the other side of mourning. To get there, we first need to: name our losses before God, wait in the messy middle with others, and watch for resurrection power.

If we are willing to open ourselves to God in our grief, there is growth on the other side of mourning.

Naming Our Losses Before God

C.S. Lewis aptly noted, “In grief, nothing ‘stays put.’” Our sense of direction, identity, and safety can all come into question as we navigate the unexpected. Loss has a way of rerouting our life, and while we may not be able to see where we are going, we can work to name the path that was lost. 

Throughout scripture we observe God’s people call out to him and recount in very specific ways the losses they have suffered. David wrote poetry after the death of Saul and Jonathan that detailed his pain, and he commanded his army to sing a lament to God (2 Samuel 1:17-27). Jesus wept over Lazarus and grieved aloud over Jerusalem (John 11:35 and Luke 13:34). 

In her book, Hopeful Lament, spiritual director Terra McDaniel describes how lament is surprisingly hopeful. “It’s an act of trust both that we can face pain and survive, and that God cares about our anger, confusion, doubt, grief, and fear. Lament refuses to bury pain or, just as dangerous, to give in to despair.”

Naming our losses before God, is not only an act of resistance and hope, but also an act of protection for those we serve. Grief not taken to God will inevitably be taken out on others or ourselves. We can try to push it down, but it will resurface – and sometimes fly out sideways like a beachball refusing to be submerged. Suppressing grief is not safe or truthful, and God is the one who can appropriately contain our sorrow. 

Waiting in the Messy Middle in Others

Death and resurrection are central themes in the Christian faith, forming the very rhythms of our lives. In his book, Praying the Psalms, Walter Brueggerman describes how the Psalmists reveal for us a pattern of life that is marked by orientation, disorientation, and ultimately, reorientation. In grief, leaders watch for God’s redemptive power, choosing to wait and trust God in the disorientation phase, where uncertainty and sorrow prevail, and anticipate a coming reorientation that reveals a new path or sense of purpose.

Leaders can find it challenging to seek support during times of waiting in disorientation, fearing they may burden those they lead. Which is why it is essential to find community among peers and mentors in the faith who can walk alongside us in sorrow before those seasons arrive. 

While honesty with those we lead is important, sharing our deepest pain is best reserved for those outside our ministry context, such as counselors, spiritual directors, and coaches/mentors. Therapists help us to look back at how our present pain is connected to our past; spiritual directors help us attend to the voice of the Spirit present with us now, comforting us in our pain; and coaches/mentors help us look forward and ask how this loss is reframing our future. 

Regardless of whom we process grief with, it is important to have a compassionate witness as we move through the tasks of grief: 

  • To accept the reality of the loss
  • To process the pain of the loss
  • To adjust to a world without what was lost
  • To find an enduring connection with the past amidst a new life

Building a supportive network outside our domain of leadership ensures that we can continue to meet our responsibilities as fathers and mothers in the faith, while also receiving the care we need and deserve.

Watching for Resurrection Power

In his book A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss, author Jerry Sittser describes how in the wake of catastrophic loss, his pain did not shrink, but his capacity to hold suffering expanded. He states: “I did not get over the loss of my loved ones; rather, I absorbed the loss into my life, like soil receives decaying matter, until it became a part of who I am. Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”

As we follow the cruciform way of Christ, our losses can bring new life and power, increasing our capacity to lead in a way that is compassionate, gentle, and lowly. When we choose hopeful lament over despair, we discover that grieving our losses, while painful, holds the potential for profound personal and leadership growth.

Dr. Tamara Powell is Assistant Professor of Clinical Teaching in Communication at the University of Colorado Denver and serves on the Lead Team of Journey Point Church.

Additional Resource

Darrin Crow, pastor of HEART of Junction Church, has used his M.A. in Counseling Psychology throughout his ministerial career, and continues to counsel with individuals and couples as a key part of his pastoral duties. Darrin recently authored his second book, Understanding Biblical Mental and Emotional Health 101: A starting place for finding peace by thinking biblically, available online through multiple book sellers.



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