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Ritzville church grieved deaths of many members

When church members began dying about one a month in her first four years as pastor at Zion-Philadelphia Congregational Church in Ritzville, Judith Rinehart-Nelson felt depressed and exhausted.

ritzville church

Judith Rinehart-Nelson, JoAnn Shockley, Janel Rieve, Suzi Chandler and Sophie Crapson

Realizing her whole congregation was also grieving, she offered a Lenten study this year on their grief as individuals and as a congregation.

“Grief is a multifaceted response to loss of life and change,” Judith said. “It may drive people to unconsciously not feel, to denial that causes mental, spiritual and physical dysfunction, and even to drive a wedge in the church.”

Grief includes feeling numb at first hearing of a death and only thinking of oneself, she said.  Then a person wakes up to realize it hurts.  Eventually, a new normal with a new perspective on life sets in.

What does grief look like? 

Zion Philadelphia found out when it lost half its worshiping congregation to death and moves, dropping from 60 attending on a good Sunday to 30 today.  Membership dropped from 120 to 81.

“We lost most of the oldest generation,” Judith said.  “We were a sad and weary congregation.  How does a church express that pain?  How has it affected us?  When we can grieve without blaming others for why we hurt, it becomes precious.”

Part of moving to a new normal involved bringing the church’s grief to a conscious level, to acknowledge the collective grief.

Judith, who graduated in 1976 with a degree in physical therapy Mount Hood Community College and in 1994 with a degree in human studies and a minor in geriatrics from Marylhurst University in near Portland, worked in elder care and physical therapy from 1976 to 1997, when she graduated with a master of divinity from Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. 

She then served several churches for 10 years in Missouri and then, after completing a residency in clinical pastoral education at St. Joseph’s in Tacoma, she worked as a hospice chaplain in Nevada before coming  to Ritzville.

When Judith started at Zion Philadelphia five years ago, she said it was a “walker church,” with many members needing to park their walkers as they entered.  It was predominantly elders in their 80s and older.

Some of the people couldn’t live on their own or were shut in and could not come.  Each week one or two cars go to Rose Garden Assisted Living to pick up residents.

Several members shared their experiences of participating in the Lenten study during a workshop at Annual Meeting.

Suzi Chandler said she would come on a Sunday, and find that the “beautiful faces of people I knew were not there.”

One Sunday they were there, and the next Sunday, they were not.  From December to March, there were four deaths and funerals,” she said.

Suzi said she felt guilt.

“I had to go to church, because someone I care about might not be there the next Sunday,” she said.  “So I would drive 45 miles from Moses Lake to come to church.  I did not want to receive a phone call on Monday and learn that someone died and I had not gone.

Sophia Crapson, her daughter, was going to school at Moses Lake and thinking about dropping going to church, so she wouldn’t see the empty pews and think of the missing faces.

JoAnn Shockley,  a long-time member who has been active in the Pacific Northwest Conference, said she lost several close family members.   She did not want to go to church and see the empty pews.  When she would start to sing, she would cry.  The class helped her make sense of her experience.

“The class gave my grief a name, so each of us didn’t just grieve on our own in separate ways.  When we were angry, we realized it was because a friend was gone. I was tempted to stay at home,” she said.

Janel Rieve grew up in the area but had lived many years in Wenatchee.  She had just been back for four years and didn’t have as deep a connection with those who died.  She didn’t think she was grieving, but she realized later she was jumping in and trying to take the load off others by helping in the kitchen and office.

“It was part of my own grieving process, but it began to wear me out.  I kept driving and doing it.  I needed to give grief a voice to understand what is happening, to understand that as a church, you can grieve and care,” she said.

Judith said it’s important to give voice to grief when a pastor leaves.  There’s usually a three month notice, a time to help grieve.

Now most members are in their 60s and early retirement ages.

“We no longer see ourselves as a dying church,” she said.  “We see ourselves as a church going through change and ready to try new things.”

Judith  plans to offer a retreat to introduce the curriculum, “The Grieving Church,” that she developed for the Lenten class. 

She and Mark Boyd, managing director at N-Sid-Sen, are planning to set a date next spring for a clergy retreat, so other churches might use it.

For information, call 509-659-1440 or email

Copyright June-July 2015 © Pacific Northwest Conference News



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