Jaco Hamman has written a book “When Steeples Cry: Leading Congregations Through Loss and Change” (Pilgrim Presss, 2005) that has been useful to me in my research on church closure. Hamman’s primary concern is corporate grief in the church, which sometimes arises from decline, but can also occur when a church grows so fast the congregation has no time to grieve for the former character that is lost.
Hamman writes about grief as a feeling, and mourning as the working out of our grief. He describes ways groups respond to grief and various types of loss, such as material loss (of symbolic objects or places), relationship loss, intrapsychic loss (loss of a hoped for future) and systemic loss (loss of one’s role or position in the community or culture).
Hamman tells stories of how church leaders have helped congregations deal with these multiple losses, from meaningful conversations to liturgical planning and even writing our own laments.
Here’s a portion of a beautiful lament he includes, written by an unnamed pastor in a wealthy community:
…You built your Church and opened her doors, O Lord.
You blessed your church and gave her life. You gave her a voice.
Have you forgotten your Church O God,
have you left her to fend for herself?
Lord, hear us in our pain and fear.
We see young people walking the streets,
yet we do not see them in our churches.
We remember friends, who have left us.
We remember friends, who have forgotten us.
Now our churches sit empty,
Doors shut like a coffin,
our sorrow increases with each nail driven.
We have invited people to join us,
yet silence fills our ears, and emptiness surrounds us.
Why are we alone?
This and other insights about making room for the “taboo” of grief and mourning in the church make Hamman’s book useful to any leader guiding a congregation through significant change. I especially appreciate his reminder that, in order for leaders to make room for corporate grief, we must first confront our own private griefs honestly.
Hamman is Associate Professor of Religion, Psychology and Culture at Vanderbilt Divinity School and his primary background is in pastoral counseling. His book is a bit academic for the casual reader, but clergy will find guidance on the layers of grief our congregations may be reacting to, and creative ways to address their need to mourn for what has passed.