Monday, November 8, 2021

Lynette Moran: A Theology of Mourning and Hope: Part I: Church Grief

Today’s post is by Rev. Lynette Moran. Rev. Moran is an ordained deacon in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference and a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. This is the first of a three-part series.

In my doctoral work, I study grief, first and foremost—what is common about grief, how we grieve social problems, what impacts our grief experience. The United Methodist Church is the primary field where I’ve dug into these questions.

I bring to this work contemporary perspectives on grief that stress relationship and narrative. Those two umbrellas often overlap. Concerning relationship, grief studies now recognize that grief is often ongoing because our connections to others don’t just go away, even after death or the end of a relationship. I would argue this applies to all types of significant loss.

The second umbrella centers around narrative—around meaning-making or constructive grief. We construct meaning as part of the grief process. We are always updating our narrative. We make meaning from our memories; we make meaning in new events; we make meaning in real time and over time.

With those framing approaches in mind, I’d like to turn to the UMC.

The UMC is a kaleidoscope of grief right now with multiple dynamics happening. I can note a few ways grief is manifested—most of which apply to both local church closures and potential denominational schism.

Right now, we mourn unmet expectations: what we thought the UMC was or was not, what we thought our local church was or was not.

We also mourn our relationships. We mourn the tension in our relationships as people take a stand for this or that. This manifests itself from seemingly silly arguments over the church furnace to darker, troublesome arguments about who really is or isn’t Methodist or Christian. Sometimes we take a stand out of moral principles. Sometimes we take a stand out of emotion, including grief.

We have anticipatory grief. What we see happening in the future—we’re already grieving that. We mourn what our future UMC and relationships will lose. If my friends stop coming to this church or I start going to that church, relationships will change. We mourn how our sense of community will shift.

I think we also feel almost suspended in time—whether you’re talking about church closures or denominational schism, it’s been years, if not decades, in the making. The anticipation weighs heavy on our shoulders.

There are also griefs we bear based on our position and place in society. We aren’t all grieving the same exact thing. The one I must underscore is the pain the UMC has caused many in the LGBTQ community. As people who “first do no harm,” much harm has been done. The LGBTQ community is the precarious frontline that endures while the UMC decides ‘what to do about them.’ Their grief is substantial and unique.

Having said that, many of us feel particular pains. We all have a context by which we experience loss. Provisional clergy or recently ordained clergy have invested years of education and money and effort into a system that is on the precipice of a significant shift in identity.

There are life-long United Methodists, people who feel forced to leave due to their beliefs, people who are angry that we can’t “all just get along,” people living in different geographic regions of the world.

And again, grief doesn’t happen in a bubble. Grief now attaches to pain in our past. Some of us have been injured by the church in the past and may still carry that. This is us constructing our narratives. In Pennsylvania I talk to people who still hold feelings from when the EUB church merged to help form the UMC. That experience and perspective folds past narrative and grief into the present.

Finally, grief related to the UMC ties into the pains of our daily lives. We are also coping with the pandemic, job loss, loss of loved ones, children passing through milestones like graduation, divorce, political tensions, and so on.

So many things impact how we experience grief in the moment and long-term and how we experience this grief as Methodists, both individually and collectively. The things I’ve mentioned get to the bulk of factors, but a full account of our denominational grief certainly can’t be contained to this post or this moment.

In my next post, I will suggest theological resources that can help us cultivate a sense of hope, even amid this multifaceted church-related grief we bear.

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