United Methodists may feel grief as the denomination experiences disaffiliations. The Rev. Linda Holbrook, a spiritual director and United Methodist minister, shares tips for healing while explaining compassion is needed during this fragile time.
Guest: Rev. Linda Holbrook
- Rev. Holbrook is president of the Fellowship of United Methodist Spiritual Directors and Retreat Leaders.
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This episode posted on March 17, 2023.
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Crystal Caviness, host: Disaffiliation. The word has the potential to trigger a variety of emotions. We may feel angry, sad or confused and the grief created by this fragile time within The United Methodist Church is real. Today, we discuss how to process our feelings, including how practicing compassion may be what we need most.
Crystal: Thank you, Linda, for being with us on “Get Your Spirit in Shape.”
Linda: I'm glad to be here.
Crystal: Linda, you are a pastor at Morgan Hill United Methodist Church. You are a spiritual director and you are the president of the Fellowship of United Methodist Spiritual Directors and Retreat Leaders. So I appreciate you bringing your wisdom and your expertise to this conversation today. And I thank you for being willing to talk with us on the podcast about what's a fragile time in our denomination’s story regarding the disaffiliation conversations that are occurring in some of our congregations.
Full disclosure, this is happening in my home church, a church that I was born into, baptized at, married at, had my children baptized there, and where I took those early first steps of my faith journey. But I know my experience isn't unique, and there are a lot of us in The United Methodist Church dealing with difficult emotions right now. So Linda, how would you characterize what's happening in the denomination from an emotional standpoint?
Linda: From an emotional standpoint, there's a lot of grieving going on. There's a lot of distrust going on. There's a lot of hurt, a lot of anger. There's a lot of emotions. The reason I mentioned grieving first is because we're losing something. We're losing people who decide that they can all no longer be in community with us, and they're taking a different path, but we're also losing our buildings. You know, as you said, this is the church you grew up in, and a church is more than a building. It's the people there. And so you feel like you're lost in community. And after all, Jesus calls us to be in community. So it's tough to lose so much when we see this going on in the church. I mentioned anger because there's some people who feel like a lot of the information going around isn't truthful. And when we hear disinformation or misinformation, and we think the people who are saying that, no, it's not true, it can make us angry. So there's just a ton of different emotions going on and it hits different people in different ways. Sometimes we want to deny that we're doing any, having any emotions over this, and that's not helpful because to deal with emotions, you have to admit that you have. That's kind of a long answer and kind of rambling a little bit, but does that help us get started on this?
Crystal: Absolutely. And I'm glad you mentioned the word grief. Some people might not recognize that what they're feeling is grief, but there is a loss happening. And, so you mentioned why we might be grieving, but let's look at that a little deeper. What does that, what's that going to look like for us? What could that look like? Knowing that we're all going to grieve in different ways?
Linda: So grief is an emotion that we have when we lose anything. We probably most associate it with the loss of a loved one or a good friend that we know, but we grieve when we lose anything. If we've ever had a simple example, if we've ever had a car that we really liked and we get rid of that car, is that as we see that car driving away, there's a little bit of loss because of all the memories that are in that car. So grief is a lot about the loss of memories that we have associated with whatever we're losing. In this case, we're grieving over the loss of friends. We're grieving over the loss of our community. We're grieving over the loss of trust in some people because we don't know who to trust anymore. We're grieving over all the memories that we have and the people that we encountered in these sacred buildings because they're not just a regular building.
This is where God is present. This is where we have sacred meetings, we have holy things that happen in these buildings, and we know that we won't feel the same when we go into those. So, so whenever there's grief, there's usually some kind of physical loss. Like in this case it might be the loss of the building, but the harder thing to deal with is the emotional loss. And, and we need to identify what that loss is. And it's the loss of not only present, but our plans for the future. You know, you said you had your children baptized there. Maybe you were thinking about having grandchildren that could be baptized there or weddings in the future. And so we lose not only present, we lose what's going on in the future as well, our dreams for the future.
Crystal: I've traveled and lived in other places throughout my adult life and I now live back in the community where I was raised. But even through all those times where I lived away, I mean for more than 30 years, it was when I came back in that church building that there was, that felt like home to me.
And so I don't know what we do with that void that I feel could be coming as our church faces a vote to disaffiliate, because I will be looking for a new United Methodist church congregation to be a part of. And, you know, that's a really tough space for me to be in and to even contemplate. How can I transition through that?
Linda: So grief is a process, and you don't go through grief in 10 minutes. It could take months. Grief could take years. When you grieve, what you do is you tell your story and telling your story helps you deal with the grief that you're experiencing. I used to lead some grief programs to help people know what grief feels like, and grief can have physical symptoms associated with it. You know, like sometimes you don't sleep at all. You're sleeplessness. Sometimes you sleep too long. You might be not hungry at all. You know, there's physical symptoms to grief, but there's also emotional symptoms. You might feel really sad. You might feel hurt, you might feel angry. There's all sorts of things going on with grief, but it is a process and you have to walk through that process.
Eventually you come to a new normal. And so as you're grieving the loss of something, the new normal helps you look forward to something that's different. It can never go back to what it was. So you have to say, what is good about the new place I'm going? What is good about the opportunity I have? And that helps deal with the grief, since you can't go back to what it was. Grief never leaves us, but it gets less painful over time and it gets less hurtful to us over time. But it takes time to deal with grief.
Crystal: You've mentioned this earlier, I'm, you know, there's definitely a lot of sadness, but there's definitely there's some anger and there's some relationships that may look different for us as we travel through that.
Linda: Yeah. It's new for a lot of us. Because I wasn't really an adult when the merger happened in 1968, so I don't remember before that merger. And so this is the first time in my lifetime that I'm experiencing the church that I love, go through a place where people can't even talk to each other about an issue. Where this church that I love is going through what it feels like to say I can no longer associate with you. And so it's not like maybe some relationships will change; lots of relationships are have already changed and are changing even more. And so again, we grieve the loss of those relationships.
Crystal: Grief, we know, is not linear and it's so personal for everybody. How might we anticipate the next few weeks, months, even years? What might think we're at a new place and then it comes back. What might that look like for us just as we navigate the grief?
Linda: We have a physical change and we have an emotional change, and our emotions have to catch up with the physical change because emotions are not something that we can put on a timeline. I think a lot of it will be really about our relationships, because that's what our priority in life is. That's what our community is about, is about the relationships we build. And so if our emotions are about the relationships, it'll depend on how many of those get broken through this disaffiliation and how many of them can stay intact? And do we have a safe place to talk about all of this?
That's a really big thing. You don't go through the process of grief without talking about it. When I was doing my grief program, it was six weeks long and each person that came would tell the story of the person they lost every single week, because telling that story really helps you internalize it. It helps you make it real, because sometimes it's not real until we say it out loud. We can kind of imagine that it hasn't happened, but when we say it out loud, it becomes real.
Crystal: I am really blessed that I do have some safe spaces where I can talk about this and I can talk about my hurt and my pain. But there are people who either don't have those spaces or they don't want to talk about it. What can those people do? Where can they go and find a place that's safe?
Linda: Well, as a spiritual director, one of the places that's always safe is with a spiritual director. I think even better than a single one-on-one conversation is a conversation with a small group. And the reason I say that is because when you're in a small group, like six or eight, not probably more than 10, when you tell your story, you hear other people's stories and you go, oh, I'm not alone in this. You know, one of the things that happens to us when we grieve is we think I'm the only one that's ever gone through this. We intellectually know that's not true, but our feeling is nobody can feel what I'm feeling. Nobody's ever done this before. And so if you're in a small group, you know, and a lot of spiritual directors do group spiritual direction. So go to a place, find a group. Some of the churches that are disaffiliating or some of the churches that are deciding to stay, I would hope that some of them would form groups where people could have a safe space to talk about what they're losing, how they're grieving. Because you mentioned a lot of people are kind of like denying that there's a lot of change going on. They want to just, if I close my eyes and pretend this isn't happening, it won't happen, not to my church. But the reality is it is happening. And, I just saw a statistic that like over 2000 churches have decided to disaffiliate. And while that's not a huge percentage, it, it's personal if it's your church that’s disaffiliating.
Crystal: Yes, there are certainly full conferences where the churches are not having disaffiliation conversations. They're going on with church as normal, doing the work of the church in their communities. You know, full parts, full sections of the world where this isn't a conversation. But where it is happening, it is so personal, it is so painful. And, you mentioned this small group concept, but are there some other tools that we can use to manage our grief?
Linda: There are other tools for grieving. Some people do things like put together a scrapbook or a notebook of what they're losing. Because a lot of times when we grieve, we worry, especially if it's a person we've lost, one of the reasons we grieve is because we're afraid that their memory will fade and we don't want that memory to fade. They were so important to us that we want to keep them alive in our memory. And so some people do something like put together a scrapbook of memories that might be pictures or articles, or they might wipe a poem, put in the scrapbook so that you have your memories on paper and visible. And people can see that. Another thing that I encourage people to do is to sit down and actually make a list of everything you're grieving, both the physical things you're grieving and the emotional things you're grieving.
And so, one of the emotional things you're grieving that I mentioned earlier is your dreams for the future. You know, maybe you thought that this person or people that you've been in a small group with through Bible study and some kind of activity at the church, maybe you thought you were going to be with them for another 20 years, and all of a sudden, it's gone. That's a grief because of your future is affected. And so when you make a list, it, once again, it gets it out of your mind and out of your heart and onto paper. The other thing I encourage people to do a lot of times is, is when they're grieving so much, they feel like every moment of every day is dedicated to grieving. And so what I encourage people to do is set a time every day to sit down and say, okay, I'm going to grieve for the next 15 minutes. I'm going to grieve for the next 30 minutes or hour or however long you feel like you need, that you're going to grieve specifically for that, so that you can go about the rest of your day without having to worry that, oh, I'm not grieving and I should be grieving every minute.
Crystal: Those are such great suggestions and helpful, Linda. I love just how practical they are. Thank you for sharing that. You know, as you were talking, I was thinking too that one of the pieces of The United Methodist Church that I love the most is our connectional. And I know that if our congregation votes to disaffiliate that I will be looking for another church home in The United Methodist Church. So I did want to mention that United Methodist Communications has created resources on its website, which is UMC.org. And there's information there to encourage each other, really facts about what's happening in the church. And, so there's information there and I would definitely want our audience to know. You can get to it by UMC.org/committed and we'll also link to it on this podcast episode page. But I think that's an important message to understand, too, that even though I might feel like I'm going through this alone, I'm not.
Linda: And you know, for me, the biggest promise that God makes is to love us and to always be with us. And even if we don't feel God's presence, God is with us and Jesus is with us. And so, we are never totally alone. But the practicality is we sometimes don't feel God's presence. And what we need to feel is a person, another human being's presence. And so when we are in community with people, God is acting through us to be with somebody else who walks this path. And, and so I love the fact that you have resources. I'm part of the Fellowship of United Methodist Spiritual Directors and Retreat Leaders. And even if you're not a member of that, you can go on our website and use a public directory to find a spiritual director close to you. So that's another resource that people have.
Crystal: Thank you for mentioning that. We'll definitely link to that on our episode page as well. As we finish up this today, Linda, is there anything else that you wanted to share about this time? And even if our church isn't disaffiliating, we're all walking through it because it is affecting our denomination. Is there anything else you'd like to share?
Linda: Yes. I think the biggest tool that we could all use right now is called compassion. And compassion is making sure that we see the suffering that somebody else is doing and wanting to help lower that suffering or get rid of that suffering and that compassion applies to ourselves as well. And sometimes we are kinder to our friends than we are to ourselves. And this moment in time says to us, take a deep breath and know that you are loved by God and by other people. And feel that compassion for others and feel that compassion for yourself. You're not perfect. We're all human beings. We all make mistakes. Be kind to yourself as you go through this. It's a process. It's going to take a while. We're not going to finish it in a month or two months. It's going to take a longer time. And so just have patience and be compassionate.
Crystal: I love that. Thank you.
Linda, as a guest on "Get Your Spirit in Shape," there is one question we ask all our guests. And part of what you do in your ministry is you help other people get their spirits in shape, but how do you keep your own spirit in shape?
Linda: I have several regular practices that I do. I do a morning short devotion. I do meditation toward the end of the day so that I can kind of reflect on what it's doing and I have moments of prayer, sometimes long, sometimes short, throughout the whole day. Those are the three main things that I do to keep my spirit in shape. Before I have a conversation with anyone, I say a short prayer like, God help me know the words that I need to say with this person, that I can speak to them in language that they can hear. So that's how I keep myself in shape as good a shape as I'm in <laugh>.
Crystal: I thank you so much for being with us today and having this conversation with us and being a guest on “Get Your Spirit in Shape.”
Linda: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
That was the Rev. Linda Holbrook discussing the grief that United Methodists may be feeling as the denomination experiences disaffiliations across the connection. To learn more about the topic, as well as discover the tips that Rev. Holbrook shared to process the grief, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode, where you will find helpful links and a transcript of our conversation. You’ll also find a link to UMC.org/committed, a page offering resources for United Methodists whose churches are having disaffiliation conversations. If you have questions or comments, feel free to email me at a special email address just for “Get Your Spirit in Shape” listeners, [email protected].
If you found today’s episode helpful, we invite you to share the link with others and to leave a review on the podcast platform where you listen. I’m Crystal Caviness and I look forward to the next time that we are together.