Leadership during Times of Loss and Grief
Posted In Church Leadership
Recently, as I processed the experience of our global coronavirus pandemic and its sequels, I found myself responding angrily to a situation at work. After throwing a (mostly) private fit over a very small irritant, I took time to reflect on why I had overreacted. I realized instantly that my anger was a response to the sense of loss that I was feeling over the shutdown of the university I lead and the disappearance of the routine that I have loved for a long time. Realizing that I was grieving for a loss, I rethought everything in view of the Stages of Grief proposed by the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in the 1970s. Her theory offered a 5 stage model for processing grief, including periods of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. As I thought about this model, I realized that those stages can apply to institutions as well as individuals. Organizational leaders at any level should careful monitor their personal experience of grief and loss as well as institutional stages of loss as they exercise leadership.
The first stage of dealing with loss is denial. I was in Singapore in January when the first cases of COVID-19 began to emerge outside of China and the press began to report them. Like everyone else, I donned a mask and carried on with my travel, proceeding to Indonesia—where I got a terrible cold and chills that I thought might be the disease—until doctors and medical school professors assured me that I did not have COVID-19. While I was still in Indonesia, the first case was reported in Washington state, where I live. I worried that I might not be able to return home due to quarantining, but only the slightest precautions came into effect. As the disease progressed through February, it seemed that the government and everyone else—including me—had adopted a position of denial. I assumed that the government had chosen to let us all ride the disease out, let it take its course, and try to achieve what we now call “herd immunity.” But all the denial in the world didn’t change the facts. Government got serious in March and shut down the society, but even then, many church leaders refused to believe that the threat was real. Some pastors insisted that God would protect them and their congregations and insisted on convening their churches in physical presence, confident that God would protect them from the disease. Several of them wound up dying of COVID-19. What seemed like bold faith turned out to be denial and presumption. Even the most cursory reading of the Bible makes it clear that our faith doesn’t make us immune to suffering. Yet denial in grief can cloud our thinking and trump rationality. Once we realize we have succumbed to irrational thinking—the sooner we can gain perspective and assert the truth—the better we will deal with the inevitable stages that follow.
Eventually, the period of denial yields to anger. As organizational leaders, we must deal not only with our personal feelings of anger about the loss we have suffered, but also with the anger we see others expressing. As we deal with anger, we should:
1. Control our own expressions of anger, tempering our legitimate emotions with the reasoning that understands that this stage of grief will pass.
2. Recognize that when people display anger, they may be actually manifesting grief.
3. Don’t tell people not to be angry. Let them know that you understand and have felt the same anger yourself. Listen to their rant and credit their fears. Then mix reason and hope into their mental stew.
4. Don’t take their anger personally. While they may vent their anger on you, you are not really the reason for the anger. Summon the strength to absorb the shock, and share that strength in response. Leadership and weakness do not mix well. Vulnerability is essential, but complaining about your wounds will lead to no good place.
5. Don’t try to rush people into the next stage of bargaining. They will reach it on their own.
6. Do channel the energy of anger into productive work that moves your institution forward. Give angry people something to do that answers their concerns.
Whatever you do, don’t answer angry people with anger. As the Scriptures say, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 14:1). In your own anger, seek and find and occupy a place of peace. Leaders are not immune from the passions that other people experience, but failure to master passions will destroy the credibility and legitimacy of any leader. Leadership implies going first, so be the first one to overcome anger in your organization.
The next stage in the grieving process is bargaining. When people realize, however subconsciously, that anger will not improve their situation, they often turn to bargaining with God to try to avoid the consequences of what has happened or is happening. People may promise God that they will pray more, fast, read the Bible daily, start tithing or make a large offering. Some may hear an evangelistic appeal and yield their lives to God. All of these things have value in themselves, and Christian leaders will want to make the most out of people’s willingness to turn to God. But wise leaders will not foolishly exploit these decisions made in fear. Leading people to Christ remains our highest Gospel priority no matter what circumstances arise, but responsible leaders will seek to help people move from fear to faith rather than just seizing short-term gains. I recently wrote that faith is not a lever to get God to do our will, but rather an on-ramp for us to enter God’s will. Bargaining with God never succeeds until it becomes “I surrender all no matter what.” All legitimate human bargains with God involve our unconditional acceptance of God’s kingdom and Lordship.
Nevertheless, the bargaining stage usually turns into depression after we realize that it has not delivered us from the loss. Recently, I excused myself from my wife's birthday party a little early because I wasn't feeling well. The following night, I went upstairs early again, suffering the same symptoms. As I sat in front of the television, I realized that I was experiencing anxiety and depression. I think of myself as a positive person, and I keep a good sense of humor, but like most everyone else, I fight an occasional bout of anxiety and depression. It usually hits me the week after Christmas and can last a month, and it sometimes hits at other times of the year as well. I knew, however, that the depression I was fighting didn't come from the regular sources.
As I called my experience by its name—an important part of beginning to feel better—I thought again about the stages of grief identified in the Kübler-Ross theory. Depression follows anger in the processing of loss. I've heard it said that depression comes from anger turned
inward, but it seems to involve all that and more. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens our health, lives, and enterprises. At first you deny it, then you get angry, and then you get depressed about it. While I feel like I have a good handle on the personal implications of this moment, I confess to feeling deeply the threat it raises against the people I lead.
Depression can challenge us badly enough at the merely personal level. But in times like these, it comes at us in a far more complex way, hitting the people we care about, live with, work with, and form a society with. Institutions can face depression too. When economic ruin hits a society, it is called a depression. The personal dimension of depression is psychological; the institutional dimension is sociological; the societal dimension is economic. We might define all three differently, but the symptoms feel crushingly similar—dark thinking, hopelessness, irrational behavior, crippling anxiety. So how should leaders work in a depression?
1. As they say on airplanes, put your own oxygen mask on first, then help the people around you. Leaders who do not take care of themselves will not have the resiliency for the long haul. Feeling depressed does not disqualify you from leadership, but it does require you to control it and not act it out. If you fail to take care of yourself, you won't succeed in helping others. I have always managed depression by talking to my closest friends. Others may need to seek professional or even medical help. Figuring out whether your depression is purely situational and temporary or physically rooted and longer-term will help you know how to deal with it. But do something about it now.
2. Lean into your faith. Although some may see faith as a power to avoid hard times, it actually serves its proper role in getting us through hard times. I wish praying, worshipping, and reading the Scriptures would always make depression go away, but it often does not. Pray anyway. Find in your faith the confidence to keep pushing forward despite your feelings. Base your behavior on God's truth and remain faithful to the direction God has pointed you in. Discipleship, according to the philosopher Dallas Willard, involves "a long obedience in the same direction." Keep moving yourself and your enterprise toward the fulfillment of God's mission and "empowered engagement with human need." Keep serving others as God has called you to do, and your own concerns will fall back into a secondary plane.
3. Be compassionate in dealing with the people around you who may also be suffering depression. Keeping people busy will help them focus on something besides their feelings, but overwhelming them with work may rob them of time for engaging in self-care. Try to find the right balance between the two. If you realize that fellow workers are suffering depression, make sure they have access to resources and services that will help them deal with it.
4. Stay rational and avoid dictatorial behavior. When anyone feels depressed, an unduly negative outlook can easily set in. Stay focused on the facts, and test your perception of the facts with other people. The more you consult with others, the more they will help you see reality or potential futures. Let your colleagues help you decide what to do. If you see that someone's thinking has run off course, you should gently help them back onto the track. In the same way, let your colleagues help you keep your own thoughts and feelings in check.
5. Realize your personal and institutional health will contribute to the greater good. As mentioned above, an economic depression differs from personal depression, but it takes large-scale depressed thinking in a society to turn an economic recession into a long-term
depression. The healthier we keep ourselves and our institutions—whether in civil society, business, or government—the more we will contribute to society as a whole. We can play a key role in ensuring that this time of massive disruption, destruction, and depression does not turn into a decade-long depression like my grandparents lived through in the 1930s.
Don't feel embarrassed if you have experienced depression. In a crisis like this one, it certifies you as a normal human being. By overcoming depression personally, you will put yourself in prime position to lead your institutions (family, work, etc.) toward the better day that will inexorably come. (One foundational truth of Christian faith is that our future is better than our past and present.)
Acceptance follows depression in the Kübler-Ross model, and it is only in the acceptance stage that we can finally establish a “new normal.” Once we have fully accepted the reality of our loss, thoroughly grieved it and overcome the inadequate thinking of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, that we can truly chart a new course for our lives and for the organizations we lead. The fact that these stages involve periods of deep emotion and inadequate thinking does not mean they are bad—indeed they seem to be necessary for us to properly process grief and loss. Our goal as leaders should not be to skip any of the phases, whether personally or organizationally, but rather to go through them wisely, calling them out by name, not making foolish decisions based on feelings, but rather leaning on rationality and faith and a genuine relationship with God to get us through the time of grief and into the season of work and struggle and victory that lies ahead.
Joseph Castleberry, Ed.D., is president of Northwest University, an Assemblies of God university in Kirkland, Washington. With his wife Kathleen, he served as a missionary to Latin America for twenty years.