Chances are you’ve had it happen before – you completely navigate a difficult situation and your friends ask "how do you stay so calm and composed when everyone’s losing it?" You don’t really know the answer to that question, but you make something up and tell yourself you’re doing really well.
Then someone cuts into your lane on the drive home and you almost lose it. His action was a two out of ten, but your reaction was an eight. Or someone sends you a slightly critical email and you brood around the house dumping on the people you love and then can’t sleep for two nights because you’re so angry/upset/emotional about it. His slight was a three out of ten. You reacted with an eleven.
Sometimes the things we think don’t bother us really bother us. The emotions we never process don’t disappear, they just go underground and decide to bubble up in the most incovenient and inappropriate ways.
A mentor told me a few years ago that he’s convinced that one of the silent killers in ministry for church leaders is what he calls "ungrieved losses". I think he might be on to something.
The Jews have an elaborate mourning ritual when someone dies. Consider how Job’s friends responded to the tragedy that Job experienced. When was the last time you said nothing for seven days, tore your clothes and sat in silence when something catastrophic happened? Today, many of us process grief while talking on the phone with iTunes playing in the background while we’re trying to finish making breakfast so we can get the kids off to school.
My mentor friend’s theory is this: people in ministry suffer loss every day. Heck, life brings loss every day. Every time the grocery bill runs too high and the bank balance gets tight, it’s a loss. Every time someone leaves your ministry, it’s a loss. Every time someone steps back from your team, it’s a loss. Every time you give something only to find ungratitude, it’s a loss. Every time someone tells you’re great but you should really see the other guy who’s awesome, it’s a loss. Then add in death, illness and strained or lost relationships and, well, you get the picture.
And my friend’s theory is that so many people up and quit ministry or lose their effectiveness in life not because any one incident made them snap or quit – but rather because the loss that provoked their exit is tied to dozens or hundreds of ungrieved losses along the way. They might not even understand why they’re stepping back, shutting down or resigning. All they know is they just can’t take it anymore.
One of the practices I’ve adopted over the last few years, as strange as it still seems to me, is to try to grieve my losses as they happen. I try to take time daily and weekly to review what’s bothering me and simply pray about it. Sometimes I talk to others about it. I try to let myself stop and feel what I’ve experienced. And when I feel it, something surprising happens – the negative feeling pretty much disappears. If I do it promptly when a loss occurs, I can even respond to a four out of ten email or remark with a two out of ten reply – not a twelve. I can actually offer grace.
How about you? Do you find life full of losses? How do you grieve them? What have you found helpful?