After the loss of his wife, Jill, to brain cancer in October 2020, Barna president David Kinnaman has been on bereavement leave, making space to grieve and spend time with his three children.
In a personal conversation on this week’s episode of ChurchPulse Weekly, Carey Nieuwhof sits down with Kinnaman for the first time in 2021. The two catch up about Kinnaman’s past few months and, along the way, offer real-time lessons for leaders who are facing loss and walking through the healing process.
Making Space to Grieve
While loss has taken on a variety of forms for leaders this year, many have felt the reality of living out a “crisis within a crisis within a crisis.” In the midst of a difficult season, leaders are continuing to process the trauma of deep losses in their personal lives as well. Speaking for his own family, Kinnaman notes, “We’re all going through aspects of loss that are very difficult, and we’re trying to hold ourselves together, allowing the Lord to minister into us at the places where we’re the weakest.”
Looking back, he reflects, “Over these last four years, I have learned that I don’t really control as much as I imagine I do. I really only have my own heart, response and reaction, and even that is God’s grace.”
In considering how to grieve well, Kinnaman touches on the importance of “slowing down enough to acknowledge the things that we’re feeling.” For him, much of this time has been spent with his kids building Lego, playing with their dogs and cooking dinners together.
Leading Through Loss
One key decision that leaders have to make in times of crisis and grief is how private or public to be with their journey. Early after Jill’s diagnosis, the Kinnaman family decided to be very open with their journey, hoping their story could serve as an encouragement to others pursuing their faith amidst tragedy. Now, in this next season, Kinnaman has started carving out a more private space for the grief process. He notes, “I think it’s okay for us to have places where we are very private. The journey that the Lord has for me in my grief has been its own kind of very intimate, precious, difficult thing.”
Kinnaman notes the transformative nature of grief, while painful, is helping him grow as a leader. He reflects, “I actually think God uses suffering to help us as leaders—not just so we can be better and more effective, but he actually connects our heads and our hearts through suffering in ways that are so important. I’m so much more present to the suffering of other people. I feel like leading our company through COVID certainly wasn’t easy, but God was using the experience with Jill to help prepare me even for that.”
Supporting People as They Heal
Nieuwhof and Kinnaman close the conversation with a reflection on the ways that friends and family serve a key role in the healing process.
In advising others how to help those who are grieving, he suggests, “First, recognize that you can’t put words to grief, so just slow down and listen.” Expressing gratitude for the outpouring of support he and his family have received, he adds, “It’s almost never bad to say something, but I think the best way to enter someone’s grief is to think about what they might be feeling in that moment and actually going for it.”
“Figure out who could be real friends for you as you go through a crisis and lean on them as hard as you can.”
Barna research is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2020