Ambiguous Grief

Not having the opportunity to say goodbye happens often in ministry. As Pastors’ wives, we see these situations often unfolding like this: One Sunday you notice that a faithful family isn’t in the worship service. You assume they are out of town, or possibly dealing with sickness. Then another Sunday (or two!) goes by and you realize you haven’t seen them in a few weeks. You send them a text to check on them. They may or may not respond. But if they do respond, it’s usually vague. So you make a phone call or follow up with an email. Once again you are met with no response or a very curt reply that goes something like, “It’s not personal, but…”, or “We feel God leading us to serve at such-and-such….”. And these words hit us like a punch in the gut.

You have loved this family. You have served alongside them for years. Prayed for them. Fought battles with and for them. Defended them. Loved their kids. Taught their kids. Led them to the Lord. Walked with them through the dark trials and storms. Nursed them through sickness. Grieved with them through death. Traveled with them on mission trips. Prayed them through medical treatment. Burped their babies. You rebuilt their homes after a flood. You were a part of their wedding. You threw them a baby shower. You prayed at the baptism of their child. You prayed for God to bless them with a child. You interceded when their marriage was in crisis. The list can go on and on. You have bonded with them and likely considered them a trusted friend. And then they were gone. Without a word.

Ambiguous grief. This may not be a familiar term, but this is what pastors and pastors’ wives face regularly. Ambiguous grief is defined as, “A profound sense of loss and sadness without a death.” In other words, it is the type of grief that occurs when there is no closure to a relationship. When “Goodbyes” aren’t granted.

In ministry, we deal with this time and time again. But we rarely realize the impact that it has on us. One of my fellow PWs coined the term “Pew PTSD”. Another phrase is “ghosting”. They just left without giving an explanation, without even saying goodbye. There is simply no closure. Goodbyes aren’t granted, and we are left reeling. And I was not prepared for this.

We faced this situation in our church during Covid. One family left after another. It was like a slow leak or a tire slowly losing air. It wasn’t a church split. But the 30-40-30 Covid church trend hypothesis hit us hard.

If you want to know more about this, the full article can be found here.

The 30-40-30 hypothesis is simply this: during Covid 30% of your congregation stopped attending your church, 40% of your congregation are only marginally committed (meaning they only attend once or twice per month), and 30% of your congregation stayed with you. In short, approximately 70% of our church was no longer there or fully committed. People that I loved and cherished were gone. And they didn’t even say goodbye.


A Different Perspective

As I struggled through this, it brought debilitating anxiety and I simply didn’t know where to turn. By the way, this is how God led me to Alongside. I reached out to four seasoned pastors’ wives, all with over 25 years of ministry experience. Of course they were sympathetic and prayed with me, but only one offered advice that I could possibly grasp. She said, “Karen, what are you so afraid of?”. I responded, “I don’t know who is leaving our church next!” Then she gently smiled and said, “Karen, they are not yours to hold onto. They belong to God.”

And this is what I clung to. The advice that soothed my soul. I was holding on tightly to something that wasn’t mine. It is not “my” church. It is not “my” ministry. They are not “my” people. It all belongs to God.

As I am healing from the hurt, I am slowly able to view these situations from a different perspective. After all, I was only seeing my side of the story. Our personal investments into these families made it hard to see other viewpoints. Are there unjustifiable reasons for a family leaving your church? Absolutely yes. But there were also reasons that a family might leave that we may not have considered. Here are a few we’ve run into that I need to keep in the back of my mind:

  • Conflict with another person/family in the church that they are unwilling to resolve
  • Marriage in crisis – shame, addiction, adultery
  • One spouse wants to attend at another church
  • Family in crisis – a rebellious teenager or prodigal child
  • Family desires a different style of worship music
  • Family desires a larger/smaller youth group
  • God leads them to serve in a new ministry opportunity
  • Personal convictions that differ from staff/leadership
  • Doctrinal convictions that differ from staff/leadership


Five Tips

So what have I learned from this? Here are five ways to effectively manage relationships for your good and for God’s glory:

  1. Hold the relationships that I have loosely. People come and go. It’s how life works.
  2. Enjoy them while they are with you. Celebrate the good times, be there in the bad.
  3. When they choose to leave, let them go freely. Release them. Focus on who is with you, not those who have left.
  4. Pray for them. If they have not allowed closure, then seek that closure through prayer.
  5. Respond with much grace. Do not speak negatively of them. When someone from your church asks, “Where is such and such family?”, simply respond with grace. Perhaps a reply such as, “I’m not sure, I haven’t heard from them. You might reach out to them. I”m sure they’d love to hear from you.”


Those in our church simply do not have the capacity or understanding to know how ambiguous grief impacts us. When goodbyes aren’t granted, acknowledge the hurt and release it to God. Pray blessings over them. Sometimes they come back. Make sure your goodbyes, even when they are unsaid, are so that there is much grace and hope for restoration. Ultimately, we are all on the same team. It is all for His glory.



Book Recommendations:

It’s (not) Personal: Surviving and Thriving on the Journey of Church Planting – Brian Bloye and Amy Bloye
The Emotionally Healthy Leader – Peter Scazzero
Leading on Empty: Refilling Your Tank – Wayne Cordeiro
How to Thrive as a Pastor’s Wife – Christine Hoover
Sacred Privilege – Kay Warren
Leading and Loving It: Encouragement for Pastor’s Wives and Women in Leadership – Lori Wilhite and Brandi Wilson