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Disaffiliation: Grieving through transition

Disaffiliation. Simply reading the word may trigger an array of emotions, including grief.

Understanding why we grieve and how to grieve at this time in the denomination’s history when some congregations are voting to leave may be key to moving toward a hopeful season for The United Methodist Church and ourselves.

Permission to grieve

Loss always is at the core of grief and most often is associated with the death of a loved one. This narrow definition may hinder the necessary grieving process associated with disaffiliation, where losses include relationships, tradition, community and, even, a building.

“Because it’s an institution, I don’t think people feel like they have permission to grieve, to say, ‘I’m losing something here,’” points out Matthew Johnson, spiritual director and co-founder of The Neighboring Movement.

When congregations leave The United Methodist Church, those who want to stay United Methodist often find themselves searching for a new church community. Even leaving a physical building can result in a sense of profound loss.

“We always said the church is the people but the building is the symbol of where we have VBS, where we were married, had our children’s baptisms. It’s a special place and a sacred place,” explains the Rev. Linda Holbrook, spiritual director and pastor at Morgan Hill United Methodist Church. “Those spaces nurture our souls.”

How is it with your soul?

Recognizing that grief exists is a necessary first step to processing and healing.

“Grieving is hard work,” Holbrook acknowledges. “But the alternative to doing the work only leads to anger, frustration and grieving without admitting that you’re grieving.”

Don’t be afraid to talk about your grief, whether with God or with others.

Authentic storytelling and holy listening combined with a safe community are the keys to moving through grief in a healthy way, says Brenda Buckwell, a spiritual director and founder of Living Streams Flowing Water spiritual formation ministry.

“When we ask, ‘What’s going on with our souls?’ that’s pretty deep level storytelling,” Buckwell explains, adding that we connect through the shared stories. “What is most private is most universal,” she points out, “and our grief is most private.”

Shaking grief loose

In addition to intentionally talking about your hurt with other likeminded people or with professionals, such as a therapist or spiritual director, there are numerous practical tools.

Gardening, swimming, jogging, walking, dancing, or moving in any way can “assist in loosening the grips of grief so that we can move toward healing,” Buckwell shares.

Writing about the situation and how you feel about it is a familiar tool.

“Make a list of what you’ve lost, as well as a list of what you love,” Holbrook suggests. “Clarify if some of the things you love might be found in other places or in other ways.”

“Recall the gifts the community gave you, the importance they played in your life,” Johnson recommends, adding the exercise often accesses the feelings associated with the memories.

“You’re in that emotional space of being face to face with what you’re losing and how you feel about that loss,” Johnson explains.

Consider rituals, Holbrook suggests, perhaps taking 10 minutes a day to sit with your pain. “Set aside the time, then get back with your regular routines,” she says.

Pay attention to how you’re feeling, including if you are easily angered, more tired than normal or if your prayer routine or time you normally spend with God has changed.

“The biggest tool that people need right now is self-compassion,” Holbrook believes. “You can’t pretend none of this is happening and that you aren’t hurt by it. You have to accept where you are and self-compassion is having kindness for yourself, taking care of yourself.”

Acknowledging the heartache that disaffiliation causes and doing the work to process the pain may move us into a hopeful place.

“If we can grieve well and honor the feeling of loss or disappointment, it does in fact free up space and energy for the next good to emerge,” Johnson shares. “I hold on to the hope of what God can do through these losses and what can come next. And that gives me courage to engage in what good thing God has in store.”

Crystal Caviness works for at United Methodist Communications. Contact her by email.

This content was published March 17, 2023.

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