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Dealing with Denominational Grief

Loss—even denominational loss—brings grief.

The Baptist family has been caught up in theological and political skirmishes since 1979. The resulting denominational fragmentation is a form of loss that causes grief.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
Wayne Oates, a Baptist pastoral counselor, wrote about grief in the 1950s, outlining a progression of its stages: 

  • the shocking blow of the loss
  • the numbing effect of the shock
  • the struggle between fantasy and reality
  • a flood of grief
  • selected memory and stabbing pain
  • the acceptance of the loss and the affirmation of life

Colin Parkes, a British researcher, offered some wisdom for understanding loss. Understanding these stages can help Baptists deal with their grief over denominational strife and loss.
The first stage is numbness and denial (though denial exists in all stages).
The denomination’s unraveling boggles the mind. The heart of committed Baptists is broken by the damage done to God’s work in the world.
The second stage is yearning. It is felt as an intense, painful longing for the deceased (the lost Baptist family, in this case), with a preoccupation with thoughts of what has been lost.
Questions arise: “How can we go forward without this Baptist family? Why can’t we go back to that time when no conflict separated us?”
The third stage is disorganization and despair. Apathy and aimlessness are accompanied by the failure to see a positive future.
Energy spent in the battle prevents us from engaging our world with the good news of Christ. Church members grow disenchanted with any talk of cooperative missions. Stirring a new passion for cooperative projects is difficult. A new isolation emerges whereby churches “do their own thing” since partnerships are viewed skeptically.
Eventually, what follows is the possibility for reorganization. One stops devoting personal energy to that which has been lost and instead works for a hopeful future.
A future is emerging, and the work of faithful Baptists needs to move beyond this present conflict. In fact, the last stage of grief can be a commitment to finding new partners who wish to live free and faithfully to God.
The work of grief is uneven and sometimes incomplete. Some move forward with a new sense of hopefulness. Some remain stuck with their feelings of loss.
But God is the God of the present, reclaiming the past by healing its wounds, and always bringing forth the new.
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isa 43:18-19, NRSV)
Keith Herron is pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.