Mar 24, 2021

ChurchPulse Weekly Conversations: Rick Warren on Leading Amidst Grief

In a year like no other, many leaders have wondered how the church should be responding to a world in crisis.

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Recently on ChurchPulse Weekly, hosts Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman sit down with Saddleback pastor and best-selling author, Rick Warren, to talk about his experience seeking truth in a polarized world, leading through COVID and understanding how to walk through grief both personally and alongside others.

Seeking Truth & Reconciliation in a Polarized Society
During Kinnaman and Nieuwhof’s conversation with Warren, Barna Group President Kinnaman shares that three out of four protestant leaders (73%) report being concerned about Christian nationalism in our nation right now. This statistic raises many questions about how leaders should consider discipling their churches amidst increasing political polarization and difficult conversations on race and racial injustice.

As a church leader, Warren has learned the power of sharing stories to build empathy across political and racial lines. In the decisions that Warren is making (whether that be about reopening Saddleback or how his ministry should engage in conversations about race), he is always considering how he as a pastor can best protect his congregation physically, emotionally and spiritually.

In addressing racial issues, Warren adds, “I believe the answer to racism is storytelling. When you hear people’s stories, it changes you.” After the killing of George Floyd, Warren created space for his staff and other church members to process together over Zoom, listening openly to stories of pain and discrimination that his congregants wanted to share.

This level of vulnerability would not have been possible had Warren not first cultivated a foundation of trust and deep pastoral with his team and his people. He says, “You can’t speak the truth until you have trust. Before you can give people the truth, you have to show them that you love them.” Warren sees this principle around truth as a key guide in his leadership, whether he’s engaging with the truth of what’s happening in people’s lives or the Truth of the gospel.

Pastoral Resilience Amidst COVID
During a recent pastor survey, three in 10 Protestant pastors (29%) report having seriously considered quitting full-time ministry within the last year. As ministry has continued to adapt over the past year of COVID, a new level of resiliency is being demanded of church leaders.

Warren serves as an example of the fruitfulness that can be found in the church, even as church services dealt with a variety of restrictions. As many Christians long to be physically together again, Warren cautions leaders against minimizing the church into just a space for communal worship. He shares, “Although the public worship was shut down, we’ve done more ministry, more discipleship, more fellowship (albeit online) and more evangelism [at Saddleback].”

Warren acknowledges that building resilience is a life-long effort, adding, “I can show anybody how to build a church to go through a crisis, but I can’t show them how to do it fast… It took me 40 years of loving them and sacrificing for them and being there. When you have integrity, it gets better every year. When you don’t, it gets worse every year.”

One of Warren’s biggest pieces of advice is to develop a routine in seasons of disruption and chaos. He says, “Routine develops resilience. Predictability creates stability. Structure creates steadiness. What you need to do is set an amount of work that’s reasonable for you. No pastor should think that he or she could operate at the same level they were a year and a half ago. They just can’t.”

Leading Amidst Grief
Amidst a year of tremendous trauma and hardship, Warren candidly shares some of the lessons he has learned about grief from the death of his own son. He reminds leaders that grief is something that is individually experienced, saying “Grief takes time. I like to say there’s no expiration date on grief. […] Grief is not something you get over; it’s something you get through.”

Warren reminds leaders that emotions and feelings are meant to be expressed. He shares, “The only reason we have emotions is because God is an emotional God, and we’re made in His image […] God is an emotional God, so every emotion is legitimate.”

When Warren and his wife lost their son, they worked to create space for one another to feel the pain without trying to cheer one another up, knowing that each of them would process pain in individual ways and at different times. He says, “In the years ahead, you will hear a song or smell something or taste something, and it’s going to trigger grief. It’s just going to trigger it. Please let that grief out. Pause and grieve. Don’t stuff it. Just go, ‘Yeah, I am sad. I’m sad.’ It’s okay to tear up. Tears are not a sign of weakness. They’re a sign of love.”

As leaders work to support others in their grief, Warren’s advice is, “The deeper the pain, the fewer words you use.” In these moments of hard loss when leaders may feel at a loss for words, Warren urges individuals to lean into the ministry of presence. He shares, “You show up and you shut up. There’s nothing you can say that will help. They don’t need your words; they need you.”

Warren closes by sharing, “The biggest mistake people make in grief is they think that if they had an explanation, it would make it less painful. Explanations never comfort. What they need is the presence of God.”

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About the Research
COVID-19 Pastor Survey data: Barna Group conducted this online survey among 412 Protestant Senior Pastors from January 22-27, 2021. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Church Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size. 

Featured image by Ben White on Unsplash.

About Barna
Barna 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, 2021

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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