Eric Brown on Pastoring the Bereaved During the Coronavirus

Eric M. Brown, PhD, is Program Director of the M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL.


Pastoring the bereaved requires wisdom and acute sensitivity during the best of times. Pastoring the bereaved during this epidemic and the call to “social distance” has particular challenges.

People are not able to sit at the death bed of those they love, physically embrace family members and friends, or attend funerals in person.

Not being able to participate in these rituals will likely result in prolonged grief for those who have lost loved ones during this time.

Grief is often a visceral response to the reality of a loved one being ripped from the fabric of our life. This relational loss is often consoled by the embodied presence of surviving family members and friends. The pastoral challenge of the moment is knowing how to provide the ministry of presence in an epidemic that has called for social distancing. Allow me to offer a few suggestions for this season.

In seminary, pastors are trained to trust in the Spirit’s work through the ministry of presence while ministering to those who grieve. Yet many pastors are feeling constrained in their work during this unique season.

As one college minister said to me recently, “I’m finding myself reflecting upon Paul’s ministry while he was in prison and not able to be with those he cared so deeply for.” So what can pastors do during this time of social restrictions? I’ll offer two suggestions that may be helpful.

Encourage Social Connection

Isolation is dangerous. The American Psychological Association has announced a significant and widespread increase of depression, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms as a result of this epidemic and restrictions to social life.

Research shows that even those of us who are introverted need meaningful relational connection in order to stay spiritually, psychologically, and physically healthy. This is especially true after the death of a loved one as one of the primary emotional characteristics of bereavement is isolation.

It is unfortunate that the phrase “social distancing” has been used when the CDC guidelines actually call for physical distancing. Language is important. As pastors, we can encourage physical distancing while encouraging social connection.

By doing so, we deploy one of the church’s greatest assets, the priesthood of all believers, to practice the ministry of presence to those who are grieving. In Romans 12, right after stating that all members have gifts according to the Spirit, Paul says grieve with those who grieve. This rare moment in history calls for unique ministries.

Many churches have a COVID-19 response team, we may also consider creating a bereavement ministry. Encourage creative discussions on how church members with gifts related to pastoral care can reach out to the bereaved before and after the funeral service.

We know that the bereaved often stop receiving visits and phone calls a few months after a death. Create a ministry team who will use a calendar to strategically plan how to care for the bereaved during at least the first two years after a death.

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Source: Christianity Today