Life in the Maelstrom

One of the things I’ve discovered over the years is the call to pastoring means spending a great deal of time in the maelstrom we call, “grief.” We are with people when they die, as they process changes in the world around them, and in the midst of heartache over broken relationships.

Grief, as a pastor, is where I live.

And one of my personal struggles I have with this part of my calling is how my psyche clicks in to “task mode” when I’m confronted with yet another one of grief’s storms. My emotions get delayed because someone else needs to know compassion in those moments, and my personal struggles are less important than helping someone know that they aren’t alone.

I’ve grown quite good at this. And because of it I deny myself the catharsis of explosive emotional outbursts so I can fulfill my call. I’ll vent these emotions off over time, the way steam is released from a pressure cooker. Sometimes I just let the temperature settle and let it bleed off naturally, and other times I need to hit the release valve and throw myself into some creative endeavor which allows me to process my emotions in as healthy way as I am able.

In my time as pastor I’ve been with families as loved ones slipped away, told young children a parent had died, informed parents their child had passed, and shepherded people through the initial steps of grief as best I could. And there are times where I’ve felt so calm in the maelstrom I’ve wondered if I’m able to feel at all. In some ways, on the rare occasions that I find myself skirting the edge of grief’s maelstrom, I am relieved when someone else’s sorrow brings tears to my eyes. It reminds me I am feeling these things, even if my calling requires me to vent them in quiet ways.

But since March of 2020 the once familiar maelstrom has kept itself churning into something unfamiliar. The repeated stress of the pandemic, the evolution of a cult of personality into a full-throated rejection of reality, and the ever shifting isolation barriers with which we live have transformed the familiar maelstrom into a monster. It’s grown more and more difficult to find the space which allows me to vent off grief-borne emotions because there isn’t any space. The monster has seized the harbors and destroyed the moorings, leaving me with unvented pressure.

And yet people still require care and compassion and shepherding. And so I offer these things as best as I can, that is my calling. But the pressure’s still building up, and room is running out.

I don’t write this to provoke a pity party of to seek special treatment, that isn’t my style. I write, rather, to help people understand. Every person I know involved in a calling which spends a good amount of time with grief is feeling the churn of this once-familiar monster. First responders are a weary, doctors and nurses are at a point of serious compassion fatigue, teachers are moving toward a place of bitter resentment, and clergy are bewildered about what to do 1. We’re stuck with our grief, and the normal ways we process it have been cut off from us. These folks, who have made so much room for others over these months, need space and rest.

Let’s give it to them, for all our sakes.

  1. Something that isn’t helped by the antics of toxic pastors. Antics which breed hatred and provoke a backlash about how much clergy suck. That’s a “thanks, everyone” moment.