Five Stages of Presbyterian Grief

October 18, 2011

It’s been quite a day, participating in a vigorous interchange over the events in the Presbytery of Coastal Carolina and my blog post about it yesterday. I try to allot about 1½ hours to this blogging activity daily, but yesterday’s tally far exceeded that. Absent any new developments in the Coastal Carolina situation, I would like to step back and appreciate some of the Presbyterian reactions to the news that someone could fail to affirm the statement “Jesus Christ died on the cross to save people from their sin”:

• Nah, it couldn’t have happened. It’s unthinkable!
• Are you kidding?! That’s outrageous!
• Can we talk? Let’s try to negotiate a settlement here.
• This is so sad.
• I left the PCUSA just in time, and you can, too.

The gamut runs remarkably close to the Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The feelings we are experiencing together are because the PCUSA as we have known it has undergone a serious change (experienced differently by liberals and conservatives). Some of us are not quite ready to admit anything has changed, and others are already out the door because they have accepted the outcome as final and removed themselves from its effect on them.

The Five Stages of Presbyterian Grief:

Denial—On the traditionalist side, there is denial that essential tenets have been breached, and, besides, such a breach can’t happen, because the Holy Spirit works through our governing bodies. Or: I can’t see what is so upsetting. This is the way Presbyterians have always handled their business. Or on the evangelical side: we have little aberrations from time to time, but overall, the PCUSA is loyal to its theological roots and I’m sticking with it. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord and pretend nothing is wrong out there.

Anger—Debate diatribes, ultimatums, demonstrations outside GA meetings are examples of anger responses to the Definitive Guidance of 1978, and then the installation of G-6.0106b (“fidelity and chastity”) in the Book of Order. With the passage of 10-A and the apparent GAPJC sanction of gay ordination, now it is conservatives who are angry and reactive. Liberals may feel that they have moved on from this stage as a result of their victory politic. But it seems to me, a lot of folks on both sides of the aisles are getting very cranky, all feeling that we’ve lost something important and we are frustrated about the changes it is eliciting to adapt to that loss.

Bargaining—Can’t we work something out so we don’t have to feel this pain of loss? We may very well be at this stage, trying to work out a deal so that everybody can feel the loss is actually redemptive. Evangelicals may attempt to work out a gracious dismissal policy with their presbyteries, or arrange new presbyteries with porous boundaries. If the old Presbyterian Church is a thing of the past, the question is going to be “what will replace it”? Whether one welcomes the change or not, this is a difficult stage to navigate.

Depression—Sadness, precipitating paralysis and withdrawal. Many sessions have been depressed for a long time, but the realization that what has been dreaded may actually have happened is a very hard situation to accept. For those who believe it is over, depression may be an expected reaction.

Acceptance—This is the way things are now; I shall deal with it. “This” of course is one thing to conservatives, and another thing to liberals.  And “dealing with it” may take us into two totally different directions. But at least we are moving on.

Where do you think your congregation is among the stages of grief? What is your congregation’s perceived loss? What would it take for your congregation to move on in the grieving process, and what would “acceptance” look like for you locally?

In Fuller President Richard Mouw’s great tradition of making his point with a hymn, I offer one of my favorites:

  1. Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish,
    Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
    Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
    Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.
  2. Joy of the desolate, light of the straying,
    Hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure!
    Here speaks the Comforter, tenderly saying,
    “Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot cure.”
  3. Here see the bread of life, see waters flowing
    Forth from the throne of God, pure from above.
    Come to the feast of love; come, ever knowing
    Earth has no sorrow but heav’n can remove.

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