Processing Losses in Ministry
How to recognize loss and find support
Father Michael Ackerman Comments Off on Processing Losses in Ministry
Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:24-25).
These words of Jesus are challenging for any disciple, but they certainly are true for priests. Ministry brings its share of joys but also hardships. Sometimes, due to the hectic nature of ministry, there is a very limited opportunity to process these losses, and this can and does have a profound effect on our work. As we prepare for a new liturgical year, perhaps a reflection on how to manage loss in ministry will offer us a fresh perspective and a deeper spiritual connection to Christ.
Loss can become so routine in our lives that we may become anesthetized to it or even choose not to reflect on it since it is painful. Many priests experience loss due to illness, a new assignment in ministry, a move into retirement, the death of family and friends, a loss of friendship, and physical and mental decline as we age. While some transitions and changes can be a blessing, others bring much turmoil and pondering.
How to Confront Suffering
Pope Francis, in a 2019 letter to priests on St. John Vianney’s feast day noted, “One good way of testing our hearts as pastors is to ask how we confront suffering.”
He went on to say: “We can often act like the Levite or priest … ignoring the injured man (cf. Lk 10:31-32) … or [view] situations in the abstract and … yield to an uneasy fatalism. Or else we can draw near with a kind of aloofness that brings only isolation and exclusion.”
None of these results is what is desired, but I would imagine that we know or have known someone who has succumbed to one of these traps. To avoid these pitfalls, a few remedies are worth mentioning.
First of all, prayer is essential in maintaining our relationship with Christ. We also need a deep life of prayer to find hope and meaning amid chaos and loss. Father Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap., wrote on this topic in a 2001 article titled “Does God Suffer?”
Father Weinandy writes: “Human suffering can rightly be interpreted only within the light of Christ as head of his body, and so within an ecclesial context. Those who come to faith and are baptized into the risen Lord Jesus are united to him and so are confident, through the spirit that dwells within them, that they in the midst of their suffering, already share in his resurrection.”
It is only in prayer that we can experience deep love and solace from Christ and know that we are cared for in our vulnerability. We can feel free to express sorrow, anger, disappointment or even regrets in prayer with Our Lord, and have great confidence that he cares for us and listens to us attentively and with compassion.
However, prayer also helps stave off another subtle enemy that distorts our perspective on life and ministry — sadness. Pope Francis alludes to this again in his letter to priests on the anniversary of the Curé of Ars: “Disappointment with life, with the Church or with ourselves can tempt us to latch onto a sweet sorrow or sadness that the Eastern Fathers called acedia.”
Acedia always seeks to turn us inward into ourselves, not outward to Christ and others. Such an attitude usually begins gradually but escalates quickly, which is why it is so stealthy and deadly. When we encounter loss and do not process it in prayer with Christ, then we can become jaded, bitter, sarcastic and ultimately agents of despair.
This can occur when we feel unjustly treated by our bishop, misunderstood by brother priests, unwelcomed by the community in which we minister, or even when we are unwilling to accept our losses and surrender them to God’s providence. These situations can even foster hopelessness and create an environment of anger with a reluctance or refusal to grant and accept forgiveness and healing.
Henri Nouwen, in his posthumous work “Spiritual Direction” (Harper Collins, $24.99), offered th following reflection on the need for forgiveness rooted in prayer: “Many people are so angry. They cannot forgive people for offering only limited expressions of an unlimited love. … Any relationship you enter into — communion, friendship, marriage, community or church — will always be riddled with frustration and disappointment. So forgiveness becomes the word for divine love in the human context.”
Without a strong friendship with Christ, we are doomed to wallow in self-pity, a recipe for flailing in ministry.
Sadness can quickly bleed into another problem — isolationism. I would surmise that many of us have encountered the lone ranger priest who desires simply to do his own thing without regard for anyone else. This could be because it is more expedient to operate on his own, or it could be rooted in a deeper hurt from a loss that has penetrated the heart.
In situations like this, although it is tempting to withdraw, the tendency must be combatted. Pope Francis, in his letter to priests, again diagnoses this condition: “Do not withdraw from your people, your presbyterates, and your communities, much less seek refuge in closed and elitist groups. Ultimately, this stifles and poisons the soul. A minister whose ‘heart is encouraged’ is a minister always on the move.”
I remember attending a retreat once where the retreat master reflected upon the words from Acts 1:25 that “Judas turned away to go to his own place.” This turning, he said, is never what you want. Once you turn from community and break unity with Christ, sin lags not far behind. How sad it is when we feel that our losses are too great for anyone to understand.
We seek refuge often, in these instances, in hobbies, sports, possessions or unhealthy habits. Once we no longer relate to others honestly and openly, we are doomed to indifference, callousness or brooding over injuries that stoke our egos.
How can we counter this? Priestly support groups, Jesu Caritas groups or forming intentional priestly living communities, such as the Companions of Christ, can serve as a great salve for woundedness. In these environments, we can feel encouraged and safe to work through our losses and receive genuine, constructive feedback.
Sister Maria Boulding, an English Carmelite nun, once wrote in “The Coming of God” (Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd, $23.99): “I need other people to proclaim the Good News to me by the way they pray and read and live. There is a communication of faith as we listen together to God.”
If we can truly share as priests what struggles we have in our lives without fear of ridicule and rejection, then we know that we are not alone and can rely upon our fraternity to sustain us. As Psalm 133:1 says, “How good and pleasant it is, / when brothers dwell together as one!”
Spiritual direction is also an indispensable tool for priests to help process loss in ministry. Spiritual direction due to its confidentiality as well as the use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation can yield great healing and comfort in troubled times. Additionally, the spiritual director can become a constant guide accompanying the priest dealing with loss until they are ready to reveal their deeper woundedness.
In “Spiritual Direction: A Guide for Sharing the Father’s Love” (Emmaus Road Publishing, $27.95), Father Thomas Acklin and Father Boniface Hicks reflect on the importance of a competent spiritual director. They write: “In the one-on-one context of spiritual direction, the director becomes a loving face and a listening ear that represents God’s unconditional love for each person. The director becomes the loving voice of God that calls out to the hidden and exiled parts of the directee, reassuring him that he is loved and that God is with him and helps him to come out of hiding.”
Allowing our wounds to be known in the context of direction allows them to be exposed to the healing touch of God’s love. While this often does not eliminate the loss, it does allow us to know that our experience is still contained within the loving care of our Father. We can feel free to be candid without incurring judgment or rejection. This alone can help to reaffirm our dignity and remind us that we are cared for in our losses. The reflection on our losses also allows us to use them as a means to connect more deeply to Christ.
Finally, while spiritual resources are imperative for dealing with loss, there are other areas that merit use. Counseling can be a great assistance for a priest who is dealing with past traumas or family history that needs to be revisited. There are even some excellent Catholic counselors and institutions that can assist in incorporating faith into counseling and allow for more holistic healing.
In addition, there are programs such as Unbound that can be extremely beneficial in dealing with deep-seated fears, anxieties and lies that have been incorporated into our losses and our lives. Utilizing these avenues is truly a blessing to help us process through the setbacks and pains of ministry and relationships. We may even discover truths about our character that previously were not known, which aid in ministry.
While loss and suffering are never desirable in and of themselves, there is an added fruit when we recall that God can use our suffering positively.
St. Pio of Pietrelcina once said: “By suffering we are able to give something to God. The gift of pain, of suffering, is a big thing and cannot be accomplished in paradise.”
This certainly does not mean simply grin and bear suffering without reflecting on it, but it does remind us that our loss can be united to the suffering of Christ. This can lead to great purification and sanctification, allowing us to truly emulate Our Lord deeply.
We may even find joy in our troubles as we shoulder the burden of loss with Christ who promised us that he would always be with us: “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (Jn 16:33).
FATHER MICHAEL ACKERMAN is the parochial vicar at Resurrection Parish, Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, and chaplain at Seton LaSalle Catholic High School in Pittsburgh.
Five Common Types of Loss
In an article titled “Adapting to Transitions” (The Priest, July 2017) Father David Songy describes the five common types of loss for priests. They are:
Ministry change: An assignment might be for a specific time frame or because of a transfer or parish closure or merger.
Financial change: Some parish assignments offer better financial perks. Retirement pension policies vary, and sometimes non-rectory housing is difficult to afford in retirement.
Relationship loss: Death, conflict, physical distance, new demands created by a change in ministry or neglect can result in lost relationships.
Personal change: Physical illness, mobility and memory problems associated with aging affect priests at various stages of life.
Inner change: Our spiritual life has ebbs and flows. A busy young priest may feel he has less time to pray, while middle-aged priests may discover that they no longer know how to engage in contemplative prayer. Different moments involving spiritual awakenings or deepening social awareness change how we look at the world.