Forming a Church-based Bereavement Group

A couple of days ago a reader, Kathy T., wrote to me asking for recommendations on starting a church bereavement program. After having reflected on Kathy’s request and her plan, I responded with the following counsel. I hope it’s helpful to those of you contemplating a response to such a calling or who are already involved in such a program. Please share your thoughts and insights on what I wrote.

Bereavement_Ministry

“A place to listen, yet be heard.”—”A place to cry, yet also laugh.”—”A place to find peace, yet never be over your loss.”—”A place to create lifelong friendships.” 

A bereavement ministry seeks to provide a safe place where the bereaved can gain an understanding of the grief process, have the opportunity to talk through their experiences, and explore their thoughts and feelings with others who are also grieving the loss of a loved one. Doing so will assist the bereaved in working through their grief on their journey to healing so that they, once again, will be able to enjoy a happy and productive life with memories of their loved one.


Good evening, Kathy:

Once again, thank you for your inquiry. It’s my pleasure to provide some assistance to you for your plan to create a bereavement ministry in your church community.

A church community is a very appropriate place to create such a ministry, and in most traditions it is a no-brainer to have one, at least in past generations. Today, it seems, even church communities avoid supporting the dying and the bereaved, and those that do continue that tradition have a very myopic view of how it is to be done.

Research done over the past 20 or so years has shed quite a bit of light on the real needs of the dying and of the bereaved, and healthcare research has shown hands down that a holistic approach is required when dealing effectively and sensitively with the dying person and his or her survivors. In fact, back in the 90s, Charles Corr published an eye-opening article (see details below) on a task-based approach to coping with dying, which was a very novel notion and gained quite a good deal of acceptance in the field of thanatology.

What-Does-our-Church-BelieveBut back to your plan for a church-based bereavement program. One point that is extremely important for anyone starting a bereavement ministry in any faith or belief community is that the persons practicing that ministry must be absolutely familiar with their faith or belief tradition’s teachings on life, dying, death, and any afterlife. While a bereavement ministry is not the place for evangelizing or catechizing, it is a place where the focus is on hope and hope, in contrast to wishing, is reality oriented. Far too many faith community bereavement groups focus too much on past sins, an afterlife, and a promised resurrection. While the past sins part is OK, the last thing a dying person needs is an 11th-hour guilt trip or an anxiety attack! As for the other two, well, they’re still to be proven. Faith goes a long way but it has to be administered with compassion and good sense.

bereavement support hopeIf a bereavement ministry is to companion the person actively dying that person even while dying is still a living person and not dead yet. As a living person, he or she still has meaning, purpose, a legacy, hope. And yes, the dying person is also a bereaved person, since she or he has lost a great deal that was once valued by him or her, and may also be grieving! The bereavement minister can help the dying person find her or his hope, meaning, and assist in a good death and that should, in my opinion, be your focus.

Then there are the survivors, who are bereaved because they are anticipating losing or have already lost a loved one. While it would be naïve to try to persuade you that everyone who dies is a “loved” one we have to frequently admit that not everyone who dies is especially loved, or if loved, perhaps not very liked. This happens and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a lot of unfinished business and you’ll have to deal with it effectively.

While I’m not trying to dissuade or discourage you from responding to a calling, I do want to impress upon you that dying, death, grief, bereavement, mourning can be very, very complicated and you’ll have to do a lot of work learning about the subject matter. Dying, death, grief and bereavement may be as old as humankind itself and one of the most natural things that there is but it’s incredibly complex. Because of the complexity it can be intimidating, which is why it’s so easy to avoid thinking or talking about and so easy to deny.

The saying, “The path to hell is paved with good intentions” applies very precisely to many persons, with the best intentions, embark on a course of action for which they are ill-prepared, and consequently do a lot of damage. This is no place for doing damage and all the good intentions in the world cannot substitute for an ounce of good planning. As a bereavement minister you’ll have to learn all about yourself and your intentions before you step up to the plate, and attempt to provide support to others in crisis. You need to give some thought to what is motivating you to provide bereavement support and if that motivation is really more for you or for your helpees. It’s not uncommon for people to think they are responding to an altruistic calling, when in fact they are the unconscious focus of their efforts. That’s not to say that they don’t do a hell of a lot of good work despite that fact, but some can really cause problems. That’s why it’s so important to be honest with yourself and seek a couple hours of counseling, psychological or competent pastoral counseling, avoiding any sectarian or denominational emphasis, to ensure that you can be authentic and not self-serving.

So, for starters, I’d recommend you get your hands on a very helpful book published by the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC), Handbook of Thanatology: The Essential Body of Knowledge for the Study of Death, Dying, and Bereavement (link: Handbook), by David K. Meagher (Editor), David E. Balk (Editor). The book is a superb overview of death, dying and bereavement and should be on every bereavement minister’s desk. It covers just about all the essentials and has an extensive bibliography. Once you dive into the Handbook, you’ll initially have a sense of being overwhelmed with the scope of bereavement and its myriad manifestations and complications but as you acquire some experience, you’ll find it’s all quite natural.

In Clinical Pastoral Education we teach that the intentional ministry of presence is the essential activity of the bereavement minister. Just being present to hold a hand, give a hug, silent but there. That’s harder than you might think because most of us go through every phase of our lives making some sort of commotion, talking, not listening. But as a bereavement minister, silence, listening will be your greatest challenge.

Boundaries are something you need to explore and I can send you a good bibliography on boundaries in bereavement and crisis facilitation. One of the essential boundaries is that unless you have the credentials, you are not a therapist or a counselor, and as a bereavement minister you are not there to “fix” anything but rather to be an authentic and compassionate companion to the person doing the dying and the survivors.

Again, I’d refer you to ADEC’s professional Code of Ethics (link: Code of Ethics) for some idea of how to manage your conduct in various situations.

You are going to have to invest some time in taking some courses and one place I’d start is with the National Center for Death Education or NCDE (link: NCDE), which is located at Mt Ida College in Newton, MA. The NCDE offers a number of online courses, as well as a Certificate in Thanatology (death studies), which, if you do not have some sort of ministry or pastoral credential or qualifications in phychology, social work, counseling, etc., would almost be essential as a credential for your bereavement ministry. The NCDE also hosts an annual Summer Institute, which is a week-long event that brings in death specialists from practically all over the hemisphere, and features renowned experts in the field of dying, death, grief, and bereavement. You should contact Diane Moran, NCDE director, at dmoran@mountida.edu. You can mention my name when you contact her and let her know I recommended you. She’s a wonderful person and very, very helpful and knowledgeable. She’ll put you on the right path as far as initial credentials are concerned.

As I mentioned, the field is immense, and the learning is a challenge. Once you get the Handbook of Thanatology, you’ll understand what I mean. But please, don’t buy the book outright; it’s very expensive. Have your community library request it on interlibrary loan for you. Take it out for a couple of weeks and just peruse the chapters to get a feel for the field. It’s the kind of book that you can just pick a chapter and read it rather than one that you have to drag thru every chapter to have some continuity. Then, if it’s your cup of tea, purchase it as your desk reference.

In addition to Charles Corr’s article on A Task-based Approach to Coping with Dying (see below for details), I would recommend another of Corr’s articles articles, Dying and Its Interpreters (see below for details). I find the article is very informative and synopsizes much of the important work that has been done on dying over the past couple of decades. Pay close attention to the end of the article in the “Some Lessons to Draw from the Review”, which I find to be very helpful to students.

If you would find it useful, I can send you a short description of the Intentional Ministry of Presence, which describes being present to the dying and by extension to the survivors.

At this very early stage in your journey, it would be very difficult to provide anything more specific, since the field is incredibly wide and complex, and I’m not sure where you stand in terms of background, education, experience, etc. It all makes a difference.

You see, some faith or belief communities have very systematized doctrines on dying and death, while others treat it merely as a transition to something that follows temporal life. Christian and non-Christian traditions can have very complicated death practices, while others simplify the process to an embarrassing degree.


When life brings terrible storms our direction, we may react with anger, fear, depression, sadness, disappointment, and or disbelief. We may vacillate between these feelings until we come to terms with a solution or acceptance of our grief. The object of our grief maybe the loss of a love one, of a job, of a relationship or loss of security. Also, failure, crisis, divorce or any life changes may be substantial for grief. Remember this, healthy grief comes to a solution or acceptance, unhealthy grief is unresolved and may appear either as a psychological or physical illness.
“We walk in faith not by sight.” 2 Corinthians 5:7


I guess the best way to proceed is to have an open-door policy, that is, once you have a look at some of the material and look at some of the literature, you’ll be better able to articulate what you want to do. I can’t stress enough that you must also be very well read in your own faith or belief tradition to competently apply it to offering hope and meaning to your brothers and sisters in your church community. One caveat: the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are fine as guidelines but to take them literally may cause problems; they must be read and interpreted in the light of the times and in the context in which they are applied. At the risk of seeming areligious or insensitive, the deathbed, the vigil, the funeral, the memorial is no place to start Bible-thumping or pushing Jesus on the bereaved; what they are looking for is meaning and hope in their faith both for themselves and for the dead loved one. Once they are dead, everything else we do is for the living.

So there you have some ‘random’ thoughts to digest. Please feel free to contact me any time if you have any questions or need any information.

Prayer is good only if it is invited; we can always pray silently even when not requested to do so. So let’s now close with a little prayer of faith, hope and love:

Let me know be firm in my faith as my end draws ever nearer.  When my time comes, let me depart this life peacefully, and join my family and friends, waiting for me on the other side, now more of them gone than remaining here below.  The sands of my time are running out…I am yours, Lord, now and forever, in faith, in hope, in love!  Please, please, hold me ever in Your heart.  Let their souls rise blazingly bright once more, and please receive them Jesus into shining and eternal glory with You! All this I pray to You My good Redeemer, in hope and confidence and burning ardent love. Amen.

Peace and blessings!
Chaplain Harold

Resources:

  • Corr, C.A. (1991). “A task-based approach to coping with dying”. Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, 24,81-94.
  • Corr, C.A., Doka, K.J., & Kastenbaum, R. (1999). “Dying and its interpreters: A review of selected literature and some comments on the state of the filed”. Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying, 39, 239-259.
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