Lessons in Leadership: Grief

Susan Moudry



Eastertide is here. We celebrate the resurrected Lord. Hallelujah! Yet in many ways it feels a bit like the classic Dr. Seuss book reimagined for another holiday season:  “It came without candies. It came without tags. It came without baskets, bunnies or bags.” Sure, most of us know Eastertide is about so much more, but I can’t help notice the disorienting fog in the air. For some reason, even as we bear witness to the resurrection, we find ourselves in disbelief.
There is grief in the air. It’s thick, real and collective. No one seems able to escape it. Schools have closed for the year, graduations and major events are being cancelled or postponed, people are losing jobs, some are sick, others are dying. The church has our own set of losses as well; community ministries struggling to meet increased demand, distanced pastoral care, postponed General Conference and even a new location and time for our Annual Conference. Our grief is ever present.
Why acknowledge this and spend time harping on grief after just celebrating the hope of Easter? Because naming our losses, and in this case experiencing collective grief, is a necessary part of leadership. In order to lead through this crisis, leaders must be able to navigate the psychological transitions that are happening in themselves and in others.
Leadership experts speak about the difference between change and transition. Change is external. Transition is internal and it takes more time than the basic fact of change. In his classic leadership text, Managing Transitions, William Bridges identifies three stages of transition:  endings, neutral zone and new beginnings. Bridges observes that the first stage of transition involves acknowledging what is being lost, which means grief happens.
There is no way around the endings stage. Even with the vision of Easter before us, we must acknowledge what’s been lost. What’s more, as leaders it is our job to provide a place to recognize those losses openly and then to expect we will receive all the hallmarks of grief in return (anger, denial, bargaining). So I’d invite you to consider how you’ve been doing that as a leader:

  • Are you openly sharing your own sense of loss?
  • Are you ensuring others—staff, volunteers, laity, community members—can do the same?
These are not easy tasks, but they are necessary.
Once the endings have been acknowledged the wilderness time comes, the neutral zone. The neutral zone is full of uncertainty; it can be confusing and disorienting because often we cannot yet see the new thing. The task as leaders then is to remind the people that there is no “there” to go back to because things have changed.

Here in this post-Easter, Covid-19, wilderness we have space for discernment about what will come next. Transformation can come. So keep on going, but do not ever be afraid to acknowledge how hard it has been, or to show your hand by admitting that you don’t have all the answers. That is part of the journey.
We are Easter people. Easter people who perhaps like the disciples are still a little confused and disoriented. We aren’t there yet; hope and joy fill the air alongside our grief. This week as you continue to lead remember that endings and wilderness wanderings are part of the story too.


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