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Grieving and Healing: A Pastor's Story
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The Pastor's Mother and the Usher (HUMOUR)

By Haydn Jensen

Pastors preach and pastors teach. As churchgoers, we look to our pastors for answers to difficult questions and help with our personal struggles. But, what about when the pastor has to deal with their own hard life circumstances? Do we expect him or her to breeze through their difficulties with ease because they are, after all, pastors?

Here's a look at one London pastor's struggle. For the past 19 years, Troy Dingwell has been pastoring at King Street Community Church, on King St. just a little east of Adelaide. Together with his wife Shirley they invested their lives in church ministry. When Shirley passed away on July 17, 2012, Pastor Dingwell's faith went into a very dark time--and he almost left ministry altogether. Here is a bit of his journey.

Pastor Troy has, for most of his Christian life, had a strong sense of God's power leading and prompting him. I asked Troy how God first got a hold of him and he shared this story. His friend Ronnie had made a habit of frequently coming over and talking with him about Jesus. During that time Troy was not interested in "Jesus-talk" and eventually said to Ronnie, "Look, if you don't stop telling me about Jesus, I'll kill you! Really, I will!"

Ronnie stopped coming by. After quite some time Troy later came to faith, and one night he felt the Lord's prompting to call Ronnie. During that phone call, Troy asked Ronnie to forgive him for the way he had treated his friend, and also told him that the seeds Ronnie had persistently planted had produced a lot of fruit. Silence. Then, Troy could hear his friend crying. Wondering how these words could bring on such strong emotion, Troy learned that at the exact time he phoned, Ronnie had been pleading with God about whether or not God had used him to lead anyone to faith in Jesus Christ. This was an agonizing question because Ronnie had just received a diagnosis of terminal cancer, with only a few months to live. The prognosis turned out to be accurate.

That phone call galvanized Troy's faith, convincing him that if a person senses God prompting to do something, they should do it! Years later and having trained for ministry, now Pastor Troy taught and encouraged his congregation to also trust God with the same strong faith he had. But, when Shirley, his wife of over 35 years passed away in 2012, Troy suddenly found himself angry with God and his once strong faith in crisis.

Shirley had been struggling with health issues for quite some time. The pain of fibromyalgia led to overmedication of painkillers, with further negative health effects. After a serious fall resulting in a broken leg and broken ankle from bone deterioration, Shirley ended up in the hospital. Her health declining rapidly, it soon became clear that Shirley was heading for palliative care. About a week later, she passed away. All Troy's years spent doing pastoral visits to care for families and dying patients could not adequately prepare him for his own wife's death. He found himself looking at the palliative care nurse, saying, "I can't do anything. What do I do?"

An autopsy described the areas where Shirley's body had failed, but also showed that she was in the second stage of Alzheimer's--a result which came as a shock to Troy. Depression, guilt, and anger set in. In response, he needed to get away from church responsibilities and retreated back to his Newfoundland home for a couple weeks. There, he expressed his anger with God for not healing Shirley as Troy fully believed He could do. Decided then to leave ministry, Troy argued, "How can I proclaim to the congregation that God heals when I cried out for him to heal my wife and he didn't do it? It's like standing up and lying."

After much wrestling, a key revelation came back from God: "You don't see the things I see or know the things I know."

Although this message could not make Troy happy by bringing his wife back, it was an important message to help him simply accept what had happened.

Troy reflects that, "As pastors, we can be pretty glib about preaching. But, people ask us to be honest."

So, Troy decided to "show his humanity" by confessing to his congregation his anger and frustration with God. In the face of it all, all the congregation could do was allow him space a freedom to work through the grief with God. Troy spoke highly of their love and care

In discussing how we can typically fail in our well-meaning attempts to care for those grieving, I appreciate Troy's candour. He reflected, partly from first-hand experience and partly as a pastor caring for others, that expressions like "We understand how you feel" do not resonate if we have not lost a spouse ourselves

Troy suggests that perhaps it's better to not say anything, or just offer a hug. Although grieving family members are difficult, the loss of a soul mate is particularly hard--Troy evaluates all the things he has struggled with in grieving, "Loneliness is probably the worst. I have lots of friends that would do anything for me, but at the end of the day you go home and it's just you."

As Troy wrestled with doubt, anger, and what to believe about God and healing, he spent time talking to doctors, psychiatrists and read many books. One thing eventually changed. He came to see healing differently from the generally understood sense. Most of us see healing as a sick body becoming a healthy body. When we understand God or Jesus as the Great Physician and read the many stories about miracle healings in the Bible, physical healing is what we expect. However, in Troy's words, "God's ultimate healing was taking my wife home."

While the loneliness of grief remains, Troy has grown in acceptance of what God has done. In his ministry, he knows and accepts that physical healing does sometimes happen.

As a closing reminder, Troy offers a perspective he shared with his congregation: "Your husband, wife, kids--none of these belong to you. You are stewards of these family members. Tell them you love them and don't take them for granted. Marriage an amazing gift from God and should always be cherished."/strong>

More about King Street Community Church:
49 King Street East, London, Ontario (519) 433-0401